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No conspiracy in Heisman House balloting

ESPN Removes Navy Quarterback From Heisman Voting Because He Was Doing Too Well,” read a headline on Mediaite on Dec. 2. The site offered a short piece that provided no proof of the nefarious motive suggested in its headline, but Mediaite was not alone in thinking something was odd about the removal of Keenan Reynolds from the Heisman ballot.

It did appear suspicious, as Reynolds had been leading the public voting on ESPN’s Nissan Heisman House feature on Dec. 1, and was completely off the ballot by Dec. 2. But the explanation for Reynolds’ disappearance was actually quite simple, though readers surely can be excused for not understanding the removal without an explanation.

The Heisman House page was part of an ad-sponsored deal between ESPN and Nissan. The nominees listed on that page were automatically pulled from ESPN.com’s Heisman Watch page, which each week during the season features experts’ choices for top Heisman Trophy candidates. So, if a player received any votes from ESPN experts in a given week, he was listed on the Heisman House ballot that week. Other players could get write-in votes, but were not officially listed.

On Nov. 17 -- for the first time all season -- Navy’s Reynolds picked up a vote from an ESPN expert: one fifth-place vote. That made him an official nominee, and the Navy community made the most of it, promoting his presence on the ballot and creating a nice groundswell of public support.

On Nov. 21, Reynolds completed 2 of 3 passes for 55 yards, and rushed 19 times for 81 yards and scored two touchdowns in Navy’s 44-21 win over Tulsa. When the next experts’ poll was released on Nov. 24, Reynolds’ support spiked to a fourth-place vote and three fifth-place votes. And the public support kept rolling in, pushing Reynolds to the top of the poll heading into December.

But, on Nov. 27, Navy was routed by Houston 52-31. Though Reynolds had a big game, completing 13 of 16 passes for 312 yards and one touchdown and rushing for 84 yards and another score, the one-sided game apparently hurt him in the minds of ESPN’s experts. When the next experts’ poll was released Dec. 1, Reynolds received no votes.

Once the new ESPN experts’ vote was pushed live, Reynolds' name no longer appeared on the Nissan Heisman House voting page (again -- that page was populated directly from the ESPN experts’ picks). He was actually one of four players to fall off the experts’ list that day, along with Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Baylor’s Corey Coleman and Washington State’s Luke Falk.

But it was Reynolds’ disappearance from the ballot that led to angst in Annapolis and among loyal Midshipmen.

Hey, no one’s going to blame an athletic department for trying to make some noise about one of its players, but the multiple media claims that he was removed for doing too well were misinformed/incorrect.

“The Heisman House voting page lived on a third-party site, as it was an ad-sponsored contest,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president and editorial director for digital and print media. “While the Navy QB had made the Heisman Watch list as chosen by our writers in previous weeks, he didn’t that week -- so therefore his name did not show on the Heisman House voting page.

“Users could still select him, and his overall results were available, but this had no connection to his having received too many votes or his leading the year-long voting. It was merely tied to independent balloting choices from our ESPN writers, solely based on their own opinions.”

Like most conspiracy theories, this one was lacking one key element: motive. Why would ESPN want Reynolds off the ballot? Navy has been a great story all season, and Reynolds has been one of the key reasons. Plus, this was a fan vote, with no meaningful bearing on the actual Heisman Trophy vote. It was a fun poll, put together as part of a deal with an advertiser. In the end, this controversy falls under the loose interpretation of Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

Epilogue: Reynolds would have been back on the ballot this week, as he received four fifth-place votes on ESPN’s Dec. 8 experts’ poll. But the Heisman House fan voting closed on Dec. 5 to coincide with the end of the actual Heisman Trophy voting. Reynolds' fans, however, can be cheered by checking the final vote tally: The Navy quarterback finished on top, at 40 percent.

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