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Russell Wilson's Heisman case

9/13/2011
Russell Wilson is off to a strong start in his first year with the Badgers. Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

On Monday, I walked into the offices of ESPNU ready to do a segment on "Palmer & Pollack" about my current ESPN The Magazine profile of Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel.

"Who's he remind you of?" Jesse Palmer asked. "Cam?"

"Nope."

"Denard?"

"Nope."

"Robert Griffin?"

"Nope."

"Well then, who?"

"Easy," I said. "Russell Wilson. Except Wilson looks like Manuel should look a year from now."

In the past three years, I have seen Wilson up close more than any other top-shelf college quarterback. I've seen him five times in the past year alone: three times behind center for NC State and twice as a middle infielder for the Asheville Tourists, Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

As good as he was for the Wolfpack -- in three seasons, he threw for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns and ran for 1,089 yards and 17 TDs -- he still flew below the radar nationally. Because of that, no one in the Midwest was entirely sure what to expect from the fifth-year senior who transferred to play for the Wisconsin Badgers.

Well, the Badger is out of the bag. Wilson ranks in second place on Ryan McCrystal's Heisman Predictor rankings this week, and -- with a national stage that Raleigh just couldn't provide -- Mr. Wilson is garnering "Is he this year's out-of-nowhere Cam Newton?" type buzz. Spending your first two games going 27-of-33 for six touchdowns and an otherworldly passing efficiency rating of 244.8 will do that for a man.

So, is college football's most recognizable transfer a legit contender to visit the Downtown Athletic Club this December? Let's take a look.

Why he'll win

First things first: Don't be fooled by Wilson's smooth style. His career numbers are on par with plenty of guys who already have a big bronze statue on their mantel. In particular, he compares favorably to another cross-sport star from another ACC school.

As a four-year starter, Wilson has played in more than twice as many games as Ward. But at the height of their careers -- 1993 for Ward and last year for Wilson -- their numbers are similar. The most telling numbers are their per-play stats, which are very similar throwing the ball but decidedly in Ward's favor when it comes to running.

The biggest difference between the two? Ward broke off more long, spectacular plays, particularly with his feet. He also a had a much larger national stage on which to showcase his talents.

Last week, we told you that Robert Griffin III's biggest problem was going to be the team he plays for. Baylor will not be a BCS title contender. It won't even be a Big 12 title contender. In the past decade, Heisman voters have looked almost exclusively at players who not only are great as individuals but also are part of a team that remains relevant on a national stage deep into the season. They don't have to play in or win the national title game, as was the case for Newton last season, Mark Ingram the year before and Matt Leinart in 2004. But they do have to be on a BCS conference champion, or at least a top-10 team at or past Thanksgiving weekend. In other words, contenders have to be on a squad that spends all season in the "A" block of "SportsCenter" on Saturday nights.

Wilson was never going to have that at NC State. In Wisconsin, he's been gifted a near-perfect Big Ten big-stage scenario.

The Badgers are in the midst of a four-week stat-padding pre-conference run against UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois (this Saturday at Soldier Field) and South Dakota. Then comes nothing less than Nebraska's inaugural Big Ten game. That's followed by a week off, then what is a relatively fortuitous conference schedule -- Indiana, at Michigan State, at Ohio State, Purdue, at Minnesota, at Illinois and Penn State at home. No Iowa, no Northwestern, no Michigan.

Don't forget, this is a team that came within two points of winning the Rose Bowl just nine months ago. Its past five bowls have included three New Year's Day games. When the Badgers played in the 2008 and 2009 Champs Sports Bowls, it was considered a huge letdown.

Staying in the national spotlight will be easy, win or lose. But if Wilson has a big game against Nebraska on Oct.1, that spotlight will be solely focused on No. 16.

Why he won't

Problem No. 1: He wasn't even the first Heisman candidate in his own backfield. Before the season, tailback Montee Ball was the recipient of the Badgers' Heisman attention. He has backed that hype by equaling Wilson's passing TD total with five rushing scores of his own. And at the end of the day, this is still Wisconsin football, the people who brought you Ron Dayne, and the Badgers will always be run-first.

Problem No. 2: Wilson is relatively late to the Heisman party, especially among quarterbacks. Last week, we also pointed out that Griffin had started the year ranked 11th in StiffArmTrophy.com's preseason Heisman voters poll. Wilson was 12th.

Problem No. 3: Slow and steady does not win the Heisman. Every winner has a signature play or game. The kind of moment electric players such as Griffin or Denard Robinson were made for. That's not Wilson's game. He's multifaceted but plays it safe. His early-season numbers are classic Wilson, high efficiency over a relatively smaller number of attempts (look for more 200-yard passing outings from him this season than 300-yarders). And although he has the ability to run all over the place a la Denard and Cam, he pulls that weapon out of the holster only when he needs it. (See: last year's win over Florida State.)

Intangibles

It's impossible to find anyone who doesn't love Wilson, not even among the Wolfpack fan base. Initially, the folks in Raleigh were frustrated by Wilson's insistence on playing baseball even though it caused him to miss some practices. And this past spring, when it was announced that NC State coach Tom O'Brien was letting Wilson go, there was more than a little venom thrown the quarterback's way. But it took only a few days for that anger to fade. And now there are more than a few Wisconsin jerseys and T-shirts on the NC State campus.

"He's the kind of kid that you don't want to see leave, but you also wish him well. Unless he's playing against one of our schools, then I am pulling for him. If you've ever met him, then it's impossible not to root for him."

That's a quote from John Swofford, commissioner of the ACC.

Wilson is also playing the underdog role, garnering national attention for what, outside of North Carolina, looks like a player who was run off from his school. And the only thing Heisman voters love more than a BCS contender is a BCS contender who comes out of nowhere.

Odds of Wilson winning: 15-1

To put that number in perspective, right now, I would have Landry Jones and Andrew Luck in the neighborhood of 5-1 or a little better. To put it in even more perspective, before the season, I would have had Wilson at 300-1 if I had even bothered to give him odds at all.

The current number could get slashed in half or could quadruple in size in the coming weeks. Whichever happens, it will go down on Oct. 1 when the Huskers roll into Madison.