Five games into the college football season, the nation’s best players are building their cases for the sport’s biggest award.
The race for the Heisman Trophy, given annually to the most outstanding player in college football, is watched almost as closely as the battle for the national title.
Preseason Heisman favorites like Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones have solidified their candidacies with strong starts.
Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson have put their names into the mix with eye-popping statistics.
Here in Los Angeles, Robert Woods leads the country in receptions (55) and receiving yards (747), while his six touchdown catches are second best in the nation.
Despite his early season success, the sophomore wide receiver is not considered a serious Heisman contender. Sports Illustrated and ESPN release weekly Heisman watch lists, ranking the top 10 candidates for the award after each slate of games. Woods has yet to appear on either list.
It begs the question: What more does Woods have to do to put himself into the national conversation about the most outstanding player in college football?
He’s already broken USC’s record for most catches in a game, 17 against Minnesota, and came only five yards short of the school’s all-time single game high of 260 receiving yards against Arizona last weekend.
The Carson, Calif., native is on pace for 132 catches and 1,792 yards in 2011, totals that would be good for seventh and eighth place, respectively, in the NCAA record books.
Woods’ situation is the perfect case study of what the Heisman Trophy has become. Instead of honoring the nation’s best player regardless of position or team success, Heisman voters nearly always choose the quarterback or running back of one of the nation’s best teams.
For one, Woods’ position on the field doesn’t lend itself to Heisman campaigns. Only two wide receivers have ever won the award: Tim Brown of Notre Dame in 1987 and Desmond Howard of Michigan in 1991.
Since the turn of the new millennium, nine of the 11 winners have been quarterbacks. The other two — USC’s Reggie Bush and Alabama’s Mark Ingram — were running backs.
Voters usually give extra weight to quarterback play because of the importance of the position: They touch the ball on every play and direct the offense.
Players like Woods, however, can transcend the traditional position description and force defenses to account for them on every single play.
USC coach Lane Kiffin has dubbed this phenomenon “the Robert factor,” referring to the way defenses send two or three defenders toward Woods on a regular basis, creating opportunities for other players to get open.
During one play in USC’s road loss to Arizona State, Woods lined up in the backfield, causing frantic pointing and shouting from the Sun Devil defense about whom should account for him. As the ball was snapped, Woods ran to his right, drawing all of Arizona State’s attention as Marc Tyler ran the opposite way, gliding 10 yards untouched into the end zone.
More and more in recent years, award voters have made team success one of the primary qualifications for individual accolades.
Nine of the past 11 Heisman winners played in that year’s national championship game, including the last three. All six of the top-ranked teams in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll have nationally recognized Heisman candidates.
Griffin, who quarterbacks the No. 25 Baylor Bears, had to complete 82 percent of his passes and throw 18 touchdowns to only one interception this season to get noticed.
Though USC will always earn more than its fair share of media attention no matter its record, the Trojans no longer have the nation’s respect like they did five or six years ago.
Currently unranked and unable to play in a bowl game, USC would have to put together an extraordinary second half of the season to even sniff a top-10 spot in the Associated Press Poll, hindering Woods’ Heisman case.
If that weren’t enough for Woods to overcome, the Trojans’ NCAA sanctions and postseason ban provide a whole different set of challenges.
The Heisman Trophy is no stranger to USC’s Heritage Hall. Six trophies are proudly displayed on campus.
It’s the most recent winner, however, who gave Trojan athletes another hurdle to deal with, one unique to their situation.
The fact that Woods plays for the only program to ever give back the Heisman following NCAA sanctions won’t help his case with some of the voters.
It’s safe to say that short of rewriting the entire receiving portion of the NCAA record books, Woods won’t win the Heisman this year.
Then again, as opposing coaches have been telling their defenses all season, you better you keep your eye out for No. 2 in cardinal and gold. He’s likely to surprise you.
“Sellin’ the Sizzle” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.