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August 20, 2007

Big East looking to end long Heisman drought

Conference breakdown | Preseason All-Big East First Team | Preseason All-Big East Second Team

The Big East opened its preseason Media Day session by proudly displaying trophies from bowl games it won last season.

Big East officials could add a more prestigious trophy to the collection this season.

Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm, Rutgers running back Ray Rice and West Virginia teammates Steve Slaton and Pat White give the conference four legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.

"That's unheard of in the history of our league," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "We've been playing football since 1991and we've had a lot of great players, but I think it's an unusual year."

How unusual?

Consider that the eight Big East programs are trying to end a Heisman drought that has spanned three decades.

No player from a current Big East school has won the Heisman since Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett earned the prize on his way to leading the Panthers to the 1976 national title. The only other player from a current Big East program to win the Heisman was Syracuse running back Ernie Davis in 1961.

Only three players from current Big East schools have even finished in the top five in the Heisman voting since 1990. Brohm, Rice, Slaton and White all could place in the top five this year.

Slaton finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year while rushing for 1,744 yards as one of the nation's top breakaway threats. Arkansas running back and 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up Darren McFadden is the only returning player who finished higher in last year's balloting.

"It's definitely an honor because the Heisman to me is showing who the best college player in America is," Slaton said. "That's something I work for, to be the best college player."

Slaton's biggest competition for the Heisman could come from his own backfield.

White has built his own Heisman credentials by establishing himself as the nation's top dual-threat quarterback. White rushed for 1,219 yards and 18 touchdowns last season while also throwing for 1,655 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Slaton doesn't expect the presence of two Heisman trophy contenders on the same team to hurt either player's candidacy. He also said the distractions of the Heisman hype shouldn't hinder the Mountaineers' quest for a national title.

Heisman Drought
None of the Big East's current eight member football programs has produced a Heisman Trophy winner since Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett claimed the prize in 1976. Here's a look at top-five finishers in the balloting from current Big East schools since Dorsett's award-winning season.
Year Player Finish
1980 Hugh Green, Pitt 2nd
1981 Dan Marino, Pitt 4th
1987 Don McPherson, Syracuse 2nd
1987 Craig Heyward, Pitt 5th
1988 Major Harris, West Virginia 2nd
1989 Major Harris, West Virginia 2nd
1998 Donovan McNabb, Syracuse 5th
2003 Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt 2nd
2006 Steve Slaton, West Virginia 4th

"I don't believe it will be a problem," Slaton said. "If one of us wins a Heisman and we win a national championship, that's a good goal. It doesn't matter who gets (the Heisman), as long as we win the championship."

White has tried to downplay his Heisman candidacy by pointing out that winning the prize doesn't necessarily guarantee future success.

"It's a great accolade, but Troy Smith won the Heisman last year and went in the fifth round,'' White said. "I think a national championship is where you want to be."

Then again, the Heisman Trophy lately has turned into an automatic ticket to the national title game.

The last four Heisman Trophy winners Oklahoma quarterback Jason White in 2003, Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart in 2004, Southern California running back Reggie Bush in 2005 and Smith last year all went on to play in a national championship game later that season.

No wonder at least one Big East Heisman candidate considers keeping a team in national championship a virtual prerequisite for the award.

"You have to be on a team that's contending for the national title," Brohm said, "or you have to be extremely head and shoulders above everyone else."

Brohm was promoted as a Heisman contender last season, but his chances of winning the award vanished when he sprained his right thumb in September. Brohm missed two games and played the rest of the regular season with a brace on his thumb, though he still threw for 3,049 yards and led Louisville to the Big East title.

The senior quarterback enters this season as a more realistic Heisman candidate.

Brohm polished his resume last year by helping Louisville win the Orange Bowl. Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia give him one of the nation's top receiving tandems. Louisville's offseason coaching change also gives Brohm a chance to prove he's more than a product of former coach Bobby Petrino's system.

He also seems well equipped to deal with the Heisman hoopla. As a Louisville native and former four-star prospect, Brohm received plenty of media attention from the moment he signed with his hometown school.

"I just try to stay focused on the task at hand," Brohm said. "I think I've been able to do that well in the past. As my career's gone on, all the attention has gradually gotten higher and higher. I just see this as another gradual step."

Rice could end up receiving the most attention of any Big East Heisman candidate.

The junior running back ranked third in the nation and set a Big East single-season record with 1,794 rushing yards last season. Rice finished seventh in last year's Heisman balloting and finally gave the New York-New Jersey media market a reason to pay attention to college football.

Rice should get every opportunity to build his Heisman credentials. He led the nation with 335 carries last year and could match that total this year while running behind the Big East's best offensive line.

"He's one of those backs who gets bigger and stronger as the game goes on," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "He trains like a maniac to be able to do that. He's got the gift. He's blessed."

With more legitimate Heisman contenders in one season than it's ever had before, the Big East also should consider itself blessed.

Conference breakdown | Preseason All-Big East First Team | Preseason All-Big East Second Team

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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