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The real prize on the CFB awards circuit? Intel about bowl foes

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Mayfield's Heisman win is very deserving (1:10)

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield's performance in 2017 proved why he is one of the most talented college football players and why he deserved to win the 2017 Heisman Trophy. (1:10)

With Saturday night's announcement of Baker Mayfield as the Heisman Trophy winner, college football's awards red carpet season came to a close. It was a jam-packed week during which the game's best and brightest were herded into banquet halls, each collecting a pile of stuff to bring back home.

There were event programs autographed by their new friends. There were photographs taken at dinners and during bus rides to those dinners. There were, of course, lots and lots of trophies. But not even those accolades of brass and bronze were the most valuable booty loaded up and hauled onto the flights home, from Atlanta and New York back to Norman, Tuscaloosa, Athens, Clemson, and all football facilities in between.

The most precious post-awards cargo wasn't engraved onto the nameplate of a statue. It was engraved in the memory banks of the players, all of whom have at least one more gigantic game remaining in their season.

"We're all gathering intel, man," Mayfield confessed last Thursday morning, as the 27 nominees for that night's College Football Awards gathered in a meeting room at the College Football Hall of Fame. When the soon-to-be Heisman winner arrived for a morning media Q&A session, he and Oklahoma teammate Orlando Brown made a beeline for Quenton Nelson, immediately peppering the Notre Dame offensive lineman with questions. Why? Because back in Week 2 the Irish faced off against Georgia. And guess who Oklahoma plays in the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Day?

"Every guy in here, they have looked and seen who has already played against who," Mayfield explained. "We've all already watched film of the team we're playing in our games, but nothing beats real game experience. So, if you really watch this week you'll see guys grabbing other guys and asking for tips on their next opponent."

In that very room with the two Sooners sat Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith. He kept his distance from Mayfield, the quarterback he'll be charged with stopping in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 1. Smith stayed on the back row of the conference room, throwing down on a bag of Chick-Fil-A. But as soon as Mayfield was pulled out of that room to knock out a TV interview, Smith jumped up and went straight to Ed Oliver, the Houston defensive lineman who burst onto the national scene in 2016 by making Mayfield's day miserable. The two tackling machines talked barely above a whisper, Oliver's hands torquing to illustrate a point.

Hey, Roquan, what did Oliver tell you?

"I don't know what you're talking about, man."

Hey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, stud Alabama safety, what were you asking Bradley Chubb, stud NC State defensive lineman? Was it about Clemson? After all, you're facing the Tigers and their first-year QB Kelly Bryant in the other CFP semifinal, the Allstate Sugar Bowl. And after all, in their narrow 38-31 loss to Clemson, Chubb had eight tackles, 1.5 for loss, and a pair QB hurries chasing Bryant.

"Nah, man, I was just asking him how his morning was," Fitzpatrick replied, grinning.

Chubb, also grinning, chose not to keep up the ruse. "I've been talking to guys all week," he confessed, speaking of a schedule that ran him the length of I-85, from Raleigh to the Bronko Nagurski Award presentation in Charlotte to this event in Atlanta. In Charlotte he'd already been chatted up by Fitzpatrick and Smith about Clemson.

But the red carpet information exchange isn't limited to the College Football Playoff. Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell was also a Nagurski finalist and had mined Chubb for info about Boston College, whom the Hawkeyes will face in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27. In Atlanta he also had talked to Iowa safety Josh Jackson about BC and after their midmorning media time was finished Chubb hung back in the Hall of Fame hallway, hoping to track down Stanford's Bryce Love and the two Utah players in attendance, both kickers. Why? He needed some Pac-12 inside scoop on Arizona State, whom they both played earlier in the fall. NC State faces the Sun Devils in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29.

"We've all already watched film of the team we're playing in our games, but nothing beats real game experience. So, if you really watch this week you'll see guys grabbing other guys and asking for tips on their next opponent."

Baker Mayfield

"I think that's probably where you see guys working it the most, even more than the playoff," Chubb explained. "The top teams that are on TV every Saturday night, we've seen them already. We've all seen Alabama a bunch of times or Oklahoma. But I bet a lot of East Coast teams haven't seen a ton of Arizona State and I bet a lot of West Coast guys haven't seen us play, either."

The All-American smiled and nodded in the direction of Bryce Love, native of the N.C. Triangle. "Except my man, here. He's from Raleigh. I know he watches the Wolfpack. I'll be reminding him that he needs to take care of us with some information, since we're from back home."

Love talked to the Big 12 attendees about TCU, Stanford's Alamo Bowl opponent, specifically about Gary Patterson's legendary defense and how it has historically attacked five-star runners like himself.

When West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V arrived in Atlanta, he already had a Virginia Tech scouting report ready to go, knowing that fellow Big 12 pass-catcher and Fred Biletnikoff Award finalist James Washington would be looking for an assessment of the Hokies' secondary. Washington was joined by his Oklahoma State teammate, QB Mason Rudolph. Sills and the Mountaineers lost to Tech in Week 1, 31-24.

"They are long and physical at the corners," Sills told the Cowboys of Tech, against whom he hauled in 94 yards receiving and a pair of TD catches. "We had them at their best, at their healthiest. They've had some injuries and suspensions, but they are older guys, they've been in that system a long time. They keep plays in the front of them, so you've got to figure out how to get behind them deep at least a couple of times. But guess what? That's what James and Mason do best. I think they got excited when I told them that."

DeShon Elliott of Texas suggested concentrating on "blitz, blitz and blitz again" vs. Oklahoma, but not to do so at the expense of leaving the back door open. He warned that it was a busted downfield coverage on a blitz that ultimately undid the Horns against the Sooners in mid-October, 29-24.

Perhaps the most unexpectedly popular members of the group were linebackers Micah Kiser of Virginia, in Atlanta to accept the Campbell Award as the nation's to scholar-athlete, and Courtney Love of Kentucky, winner of the Wuerffel Trophy as top community servant. Between the two of them they faced 11 bowl teams in 2017, including Love's meeting with Georgia close to season's end. "I've never been so popular, I just have to make sure Roquan isn't around, right?" the senior joked, reminding that he'd also watched a lot of Alabama on the film of SEC East opponents. "Meanwhile, I'm finding Big Ten guys and asking, 'So, what's the story on Northwestern?'"

It is worth noting that not everyone involved in awards week is also involved in the information market. The placekickers weren't being bugged a whole lot. Neither were the players who spent the year keeping their work inside the Group of 5. "Yeah, nobody's coming to me for anything or vice-versa," said Colorado State's Michael Gallup, a Biletnikoff finalist, looking up from his phone on the back row of the room. "I'm playing Marshall in the New Mexico Bowl."

All participants also readily admit that the depth of the awards scene data exchange is limited. Film study is still the key. However, any little hint helps -- no matter how obvious the tip might be.

"The Georgia guys did ask me about Oklahoma and I don't think they gave them much, but what I gave them was the most important thing," said Washington. "Baker Mayfield, Baker Mayfield, Baker Mayfield. Guy's a player."

The Oklahoma State Cowboy extended a finger from one his catcher's mitt hands and pointed in the direction of the Oklahoma QB, who had Courtney Love cornered, no doubt whispering queries about the Georgia Bulldogs.

"See? He's playing right now."