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December 28, 2009

Bowls end season, begin Heisman campaigns

Consistently excellent performances during the 2006 season netted Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith the Heisman Trophy.

But his Heisman candidacy actually began in the final game of the '05 season.

Smith, who didn't finish in the top 10 of the '05 Heisman balloting, passed for 342 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for another 66 yards while leading the Buckeyes to a 34-20 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. That performance helped establish him as a strong preseason Heisman candidate for '06.

Similarly, players such as Miami quarterback Jacory Harris, Wisconsin running back John Clay, Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis, Oregon running back LaMichael James, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, among others, can position themselves as 2010 preseason Heisman contenders with strong performances in their bowl games. (Lewis rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown in the Panthers' 19-17 victory over North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Saturday.)

"[The bowl is] just something to get us going for spring," said Harris, who has passed for 3,164 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. "It's the last game of 2009 setting us up for next year."

He meant it could help set up the Hurricanes as national title contenders. But even though bowls annually signal the end of the season, they can signal the start of a Heisman campaign, too. Bowl games can mean greater national exposure against respectable to strong opponents.

For example, Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen got the country's attention last season by passing for 401 yards and five touchdowns in a Hawaii Bowl victory over Hawaii on Christmas Eve. Three days later, California running back Jahvid Best raised his national profile by rushing for 186 yards and two touchdowns in an Emerald Bowl victory over Miami.

Both entered this season as Heisman candidates and at one point were considered front-runners, though their candidacies eventually flamed out.

Of course, bowl performances don't guarantee anything. Alabama's Mark Ingram rushed for just 26 yards on eight carries in the Crimson Tide's 31-17 Sugar Bowl loss to Utah last season, but he won the Heisman this season.

Still, being identified as a candidate is the first step to winning the Heisman. The sooner that step is made the better. Not that anyone is consciously trying to take that step.

Johnson, Texas A&M's junior quarterback, is focused on trying to beat Georgia in the Independence Bowl. A win over an SEC opponent would do wonders to boost A&M's fading national reputation.

"It's important for several reasons," he said. "I came in with these seniors, and if I hadn't redshirted, I would be going out with them. I'd like to send them out on top.

"More so than that, a win can jump-start us for next year and give us some national exposure. We haven't performed well under the lights. People are overlooking us at times, so it's important to go out and win."

Johnson has thrown for 3,217 yards and 28 touchdowns this season. That includes a Thanksgiving Day performance against Texas when he threw for 342 yards and four scores.

"One of my goals is to be one of the best players in the country," Johnson said. "You have to execute on the field. A lot of the Heisman talk is about winning football games. With me playing quarterback, I should be OK if we're winning games. I feel I can be one of the best football players in the country."

If Johnson has a great game against Georgia, Heisman voters across the country may start to agree with him.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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