<
>

If Illinois had its own Heisman ...

No player from Illinois, Northwestern or Northern Illinois has ever won a Heisman Trophy.

There's no shame in that. There are plenty of schools -- even places like Tennessee -- that can't boast a Heisman winner.

Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois again will not have a player's name called this year, when the 77th annual Heisman Memorial Trophy Presentation is staged Dec. 10 in New York. It doesn't mean they aren't without their own stars. All three teams are likely bowl bound and each has standouts leading the way.

If we were to award an ESPNChicago.com Heisman Trophy winner to an in-state player, these would be the candidates:

The front-runners

Northwestern sophomore quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter

Few players have been able to affect a game in so many ways like Colter has this season. As a quarterback, he is 53-of-79 passing for 660 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. As a runner, he has a team-leading 589 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 118 carries. As a receiver, he's third on the Wildcats with 40 receptions, 454 yards and three touchdowns. His biggest day came in Northwestern's upset of Nebraska. He threw for 115 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 57 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 57 yards. He became the first player to accumulate 100 passing yards, 50 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards in one game since ESPN began keeping such statistics in 2000.

Northern Illinois senior quarterback Chandler Harnish

Harnish has put together an unforgettable season, which might have catapulted him into the real Heisman Trophy discussion if not for some early losses and a rough individual day against Wisconsin. Harnish leads all quarterbacks in the country with 1,351 rushing yards. He also has run for 11 touchdowns for the Huskies. His 154.4 quarterback rating ranks 15th in the nation. He is 203-of-322 passing for 2,692 yards, 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. His dual-threat ability was showcased in a recent win over Ball State, during which he threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 181 yards and a touchdown.

Illinois junior defensive end Whitney Mercilus

Mercilus has been one of the nation's top defensive players this year. A year after having just one sack for the Fighting Illini, he leads the country with 13.5 sacks. He also is tops in the country with nine forced fumbles and has 19.5 tackles for loss. Mercilus registered four tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles against Indiana. He tallied two sacks and one forced fumble against Arizona State. And he had 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble against Penn State.

Notable performers

Illinois sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown

More people would be talking about Brown if it wasn't for Mercilus' season. Brown has 102 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and six sacks. Brown's high quality of play was tarnished in early October, when he was suspended for one game after appearing to intentionally knee an opposing player.

Northwestern senior tight end Drake Dunsmore

Dunsmore is the Big Ten's top tight end this season. He has 43 receptions for 509 yards and six touchdowns.

Northwestern senior wide receiver Jeremy Ebert

Ebert has 71 receptions for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns. He had the 90-yard touchdown reception against Rice on Nov. 12.

Illinois senior wide receiver A.J. Jenkins

Jenkins earned all-Big Ten first-team honors. He ranks 11th in the country with 84 receptions and 12th with 1,196 receiving yards. He also has seven touchdowns.

Northern Illinois senior linebacker Pat Schiller

Schiller leads the Huskies with 103 tackles. He also has 10 tackles for loss, two sacks, six pass breakups and two quarterback hurries.

And the winner is ...

My pick is Chandler Harnish. He is arguably the nation's top dual-threat quarterback this season, and his Northern Illinois team is guaranteed a bowl game, unlike Illinois and Northwestern, which will have to wait and see if they are invited to bowls.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.