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Barkley and Woods: air and a prayer

10/6/2011 - USC Trojans

First things first: There's no reason to deny Matt Barkley or Robert Woods the Heisman Trophy simply because the program for which they play is not bowl-eligible.

"As long as the individual is in compliance with the NCAA, yes, he can win," said Tim Henning, coordinator of the Heisman Trophy Trust.

There is, then, no official reason to hold USC's problems against its star quarterback or his favorite target.

Unofficially?

"Probably it'll be held against [them]," USC athletic director Pat Haden said. "But it's so early to be talking about that."

Maybe, but this much is clear:

Through two games Woods has grabbed an NCAA-leading 25 catches, including a school record 17 in the opener against Minnesota, for 277 yards and three touchdowns. Barkley has been rock solid, as well, throwing for more yards and at a higher rate of success than Stanford's Andrew Luck (though with more attempts and fewer scoring passes).

At worst, neither has done anything to disqualify himself in the running for football's top individual award.

Still, you'd have to call them both long shots.

When it comes to Heisman hopes, Woods would have been behind the 8-ball even if the Trojans had been promised a ticket to the BCS Championship before the season's first snap. That's not because the Trojans are on probation, but because, since it all started in 1935, Heisman voters have awarded the trophy to only three more receivers -- Larry Kelley (1936), Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991) -- than punters (none). Since 1996, only Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald (runner up, 2003) has cracked the top three -- and just four times has a wideout been in the top five, equaling the number of times the top 10 has lacked a receiver entirely.

Positionally speaking, Barkley has a better chance. Nine of the past 10 winners have been quarterbacks. Unfortunately, he has his own handicaps to overcome.

"People talk about the Heisman and should this guy be in it. … Except a lot of those awards are out of an individual player's control," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "A quarterback can't control his defense," for example, he said. Or the quality of his team, or how it is perceived, for that matter.

Barkley's problem, relative to Heisman chatter, is that the Trojans simply aren't seen as a dominant team, with or without the sanctions. After starting the season ranked No. 25, USC dropped off the ladder following its sluggish win over the Gophers. For Barkley to have a realistic shot, the team must start chewing up rungs, and fast. The Heisman is essentially an MVP award and, just as it is in pro sports, the best player/best team argument holds serious sway.

Since 1980, the average end-of-season rank of the Heisman winner's team is fifth. All but four winners played for teams ranked in the top 10 of the final November AP poll, and 10 represented teams occupying the top spot.

As talented as Kiffin's group may be, the college football landscape isn't exactly littered with people expecting the Trojans to finish among the nation's elite as a one- or two-loss team. Not with upcoming road dates against No. 22 Arizona State, Notre Dame and No. 12 Oregon, as well as a visit from No. 6 Stanford left on the schedule. And not given their inconsistencies against Minnesota and Utah.

But say USC does manage to run up a gaudy record, will pollsters push it up the rankings even though the season has a brick wall at the end of it? If Barkley is pushing up against a sort of voter's bias; it could very well be more connected to his team than to his individual play.

It's the wrong approach, Kiffin said.

"From a player's perspective, whatever they do they should get more credit than what that actual record is," he said, "because they're going against something and dealing with issues that no one else is dealing with."

Every player that comes to SC has aspirations of "going to Rose Bowls and playing in big games and competing for championships, and that's been taken away," Kiffin said.

Bottom line, if Woods and Barkley are still in the Heisman conversation deep into the fall, a great deal will have gone right for the Trojans. They'll have, as Kiffin put it, "pretty gaudy stats." More important, the Trojans will have won, a lot.

"You have to win it on the field," Haden said. "It would be a wonderful, wonderful thing to talk about."

But at least as it pertains to Barkley -- widely expected to enter the NFL draft after this season -- Haden wonders if we're all having the wrong conversation.

"I think we ought ... to be talking about Matt coming next year and winning the Heisman trophy. That's what I'd like to see."