Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Matt Barkley makes voters take notice
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
Three weeks ago USC's Matt Barkley was known nationally as the other good quarterback in the Pacific-12 Conference and locally as the guy throwing all those touchdowns to Robert Woods.
Even Lane Kiffin, his coach, gushed about the other guy when he called Stanford's Andrew Luck "pretty much perfect" before the teams played Oct. 29.
Matt Barkley played the best game of his college career in USC's 38-35 upset of the fourth-ranked Ducks with the entire country watching.
Barkley was great too, just maybe not perfect -- a player NFL scouts and opposing coaches watched closely, but one most Heisman voters could largely ignore without feeling bad.
Then Oregon happened.
Or rather, Matt Barkley played the best game of his college career in USC's 38-35 upset of the fourth-ranked Ducks with the entire country watching. Oregon coach Chip Kelly called him "the best quarterback we've played all year." And a new group of people were left thinking, "Matt Barkley, huh?"
Sometime between Saturday night and Monday morning the USC sports information department whipped up a highlight video to promote Barkley's candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, making a compelling statistical case for the junior signal-caller to voters around the country who only remember him from the final drive he led at Ohio State in 2009.
Among the best nuggets: After 11 games Barkley has as many touchdown passes (33) as USC's last two Heisman-winning quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, had in 13 games. His completion percentage (.676) is better than Leinart's .653 in 2004 and Palmer's .632 in 2002.
As with most statistics compiled by sports information departments, it all sounds great -- plenty of reason to write Barkley's name on a ballot. The question is whether he is too late to the conversation.
The Heisman race is a little like running for president. It takes years of maneuvering, organizing, fundraising and marketing to have even a chance of getting on the ballot. Timing matters almost as much as talent. Dark horses don't really exist.
It is possible to Zenyatta your way to the front of the pack with a late surge, as Baylor'sRobert Griffin III just might have done with a brilliant performance in his team's upset of Oklahoma on Saturday night. But Griffin also had a brilliant performance in a nationally televised game against TCU at the beginning of the season.
Barkley wasn't in the conversation even a week ago. In the Nov. 15 poll of ESPN's college football experts, Barkley wasn't among 14 players who received at least one vote.
In the Nov. 15 straw poll of 13 Heisman voters who regularly submit their votes to Heismanpundit.com, Barkley wasn't among the eight players mentioned.
Now the landscape is entirely different. Heismanpundit.com predicts Barkley will finish sixth behind Luck, Griffin, Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Houston quarterback Case Keenum and Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden.
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The reason for the sudden change is pretty easy to grasp: Barkley's got buzz now.
"It's really the last couple weeks that you really started thinking of Matt Barkley in that light," said Seattle Times reporter Bob Condotta, who has a Heisman ballot. "I've always thought he was really super talented so maybe the expectations for him were almost too high. It seemed like for a while he was underachieving based on really high expectations.
"Early in the season both he and the team weren't playing to that level so you really didn't put him towards the top of the Heisman list at all. Part of that is that in the Pac-12 alone you had two other guys right above that in Andrew Luck and LaMichael James. Realistically, how many serious Heisman candidates can you have in one conference?"
Condotta said he doubted that Barkley has any shot at winning the Heisman. It's simply too late and there are too many other good candidates. But he said Barkley could be one of the top five vote-getters and earn a trip to the ceremony in New York.
"He definitely deserves to be on a list of the top 10 guys. He should be on there," Condotta said. "But like it or not, fair or unfair, you do take it into consideration what you lead a team to, especially as a quarterback. They can't legitimately win titles, so I'm sure that will influence some people.
"The other unfortunate reality is that he's going to be off the radar in the week of all the conference title games."
It's about this point in the conversation when people in the back of the room start mumbling about Luck maybe not playing up to the award that has been his to win since he announced he'd forgo the NFL draft after last season and return for one more year on the Farm.
Luck was/is/will be the No. 1 pick in this spring's NFL draft so long as he doesn't decide to return for his senior season, which he probably won't. He's also still the kind of player who makes coaches like Kiffin say things like this: "I don't know how you could find a more efficient quarterback that's ever played college football."
The problem is, he didn't win the game Stanford had to win, and he hasn't had the kind of signature game Barkley or Griffin have had.
While that might rile up people in chat rooms, Condotta says those issues are probably overstated among voters.
"I still think Andrew Luck has got to be right there," he said. "I know some people have cooled on him a little bit because they lost and because of the way they play, he doesn't put up crazy numbers. But I also think he's part of the way they play that way, the way he runs that offense."
There's also been some time for a revision of Luck's performance against Oregon.
"The question is: Did Andrew Luck do anything to actually lose it?" said San Francisco-based columnist Ray Ratto. "In the Oregon game I didn't think he played well that day, but that was more because their receivers never were able to get open. That's not a game where Luck played poorly, that's a game where he was badly served by the players around him."
Ratto said he ranked USC seventh in this week's Associated Press poll. He ranked Oregon fifth and Stanford sixth. The Trojans are ranked 10th nationally, behind teams like Virginia Tech, which Ratto has 11th this week.
"I ranked them in terms of the point differential when they won," Ratto said. "Oregon beat Stanford by 23, Stanford beat SC by eight and SC beat Oregon by three. & I couldn't see any other way to do it -- they basically played to a three-way tie."
In the end, he's exactly right. There is no other way to do it. For better or for worse, college football is still a subjective sport. Its highest awards go to those who have the best stories on the best teams at the best times. Its rankings are educated guesses.
Barkley has had a great season, but he likely won't win the Heisman this year. On another team, in another year, without the specter of NCAA sanctions hanging over his school, or maybe just if he'd played his way into the Heisman conversation a little earlier, that might not be the case.
But it's something, an honor to be mentioned, a distinction to be remembered. And at least he's not just known as the other good quarterback in the Pac-12 anymore.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.