Heisman candidates could make history -- and change minds

The awarding of the 2007 Heisman Memorial Trophy that will take place Saturday night (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) will make history no matter which of the four finalists wins. Tailback Darren McFadden of Arkansas and quarterbacks Colt Brennan of Hawaii and Chase Daniel of Missouri each would be the first player from his school to win the Heisman.

Quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida would make history, too. All 72 of the previous winners have been juniors or seniors. Tebow, a sophomore from Jacksonville, is the favorite to win, which makes him the favorite to break through the barrier that has prevented past sophomores from winning.

In 1944, Army halfbacks Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard finished two-three behind Ohio State back Les Horvath.

In 1973, Buckeye tailback Archie Griffin rushed for more yards (1,428) and scored more touchdowns (six) than he did as a senior in 1975, when he won his second Heisman (1,357 yards, four touchdowns). Griffin finished fifth in the Heisman vote as a sophomore.

In 1985, Lorenzo White of Michigan State rushed for more yards (1,908) than the winner, Bo Jackson of Auburn (1,786). White finished fourth.

In 2003, Larry Fitzgerald of Pittsburgh caught 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns, and finished second to Oklahoma quarterback Jason White.

Whether he wins or not, Tebow already has made history in a couple of ways. For one, as has been well documented, he became the first player in Division I-A history to run for 20 touchdowns and throw for 20 touchdowns in one season. For another, Tebow, together with Brennan, Daniel and Oregon's Dennis Dixon, brought into the open the debate over what exactly is a "system quarterback."

In the past, the term has been used to diminish the inflated statistics of players who run spread offenses. Texas Tech quarterbacks have thrown for at least 4,200 yards in five consecutive seasons in coach Mike Leach's offense, yet none of them has gotten enough votes to merit serious consideration for the Heisman.

The apprehension dates back nearly 20 years. In 1989, Houston quarterback Andre Ware led the nation with 4,699 yards and 46 touchdown passes. Ware won a close Heisman vote over tailback Anthony Thompson of Indiana. But Ware's struggle in the NFL cast a shadow over the shotgun, run-and-shoot and spread quarterbacks who came after him.

The phrase "system quarterback" stuck its nose into the lexicon.

This season, when nearly all the top quarterbacks have come out of these offenses, may have taken some of the condescension out of the voice of everyone who utters the phrase.

"If there is a system quarterback, then we're all dumb. We should be running that system," said Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who took over the Duck offense for this season and transformed Dixon into one of the best players in the nation. "I hear that all the time. Obviously, some guys flourish in one program. Matt Ryan [of Boston College] is not going to come in and run the spread. He's a helluva quarterback."

Hawaii coach June Jones created controversy a few days ago by referring to Tebow as coming out of a system. Jones, attempting to clarify his remarks, said he had no intention of demeaning Tebow, whom he called "a great quarterback who'll probably win [another] national championship."

But Jones said Tebow is more of a system quarterback than Brennan.

"My quarterback [Brennan] has been labeled a 'system quarterback' for three years," Jones said Monday, according to a transcription on the school's Web site. "He is the best passer in college history. He is. There is no question about it. Tim Tebow is in a system. … Colt Brennan plays in an NFL passing game. You can dial it up and see that it is not a system. Tim Tebow's system is a college system."

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's roots are in defense. His Tigers limited Tebow to 201 passing yards, his second-lowest total this season, and held McFadden to 43 rushing yards, his lowest total of the season. Tuberville said all quarterbacks are system quarterbacks.

"Look at Gino Torretta," said Tuberville, referring to the 1992 Heisman-winning quarterback from Miami. Tuberville coached the linebackers on that team. "He was the product of a system he ran for five years. He learned how to run it. Tebow was the old single wing quarterback. He just ran the ball and threw it. You can score 20 [rushing] touchdowns if, every time you get the ball inside the five, they call your number."

Tuberville thinks McFadden should win the Heisman but that Tebow will win it. If the sophomore wins Saturday night, he will make history. He may also make "system quarterback" a term that can be used in polite company.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.