So many Heisman candidates. So little space on that ballot. I mean, do you vote for Jamario Thomas of North Texas State, who led the nation in rushing? Or do your tastes run more...

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So many Heisman candidates. So little space on that ballot.

I mean, do you vote for Jamario Thomas of North Texas State, who led the nation in rushing? Or do your tastes run more toward Stefan LeFors of Louisville, the top passer in the country?

Actually, I’ve known for quite a while who was getting my Heisman vote. A lot like Christmas shopping, it got put off until the final hours that the Downtown Athletic Club in New York was accepting ballots Wednesday.

The real angst wasn’t over the No. 1 choice, but Nos. 2 and 3 in a year when those might really matter. It’s one of the most competitive fields ever for what they deem “the most outstanding football player” of 2004.

You could make a case for either of two Oklahoma candidates, sixth-year quarterback Jason White or freshman running back Adrian Peterson. You might be swayed by Texas running back Cedric Benson. West Coasties in particular were sorely tempted by Matt Leinart of USC or Aaron Rodgers of California.

I continued a grand tradition of voting for a guy who won’t win it. My nod went to Alex Smith, the quarterback from Utah.

The definition of the award widens the debate. It’s like baseball’s MVP award. How, exactly, do you define “most outstanding player?”

For me, it’s a guy who caused his team to rise above the masses, preferably without an all-star supporting cast to muddy the reckoning. And if he’s from a team that emerged as a trendy national story, so much the better.

That’s Smith, and not because he already has an economics degree, or because he was born in Seattle.

The Utes’ junior quarterback from Bill Walton’s high school — Helix in LaMesa, Calif. — is second rated behind LeFors in pass efficiency, he’s thrown for 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions and he’s completed 66 percent of his throws.

More than that, he’s simply the linchpin of the first non-Bowl Championship Series team in the seven years of the system to play in a BCS game. He can run and throw; Arizona coach Mike Stoops called him the best passer he’s seen among guys who run the option, and Stoops has seen a lot of those in the Big Ten and Big 12.

Yes, Utah comes from a second-tier league, the Mountain West. But the Utes smashed a good Texas A&M team, they ran up 669 yards on North Carolina, and they torched everything in their path in the MWC. They didn’t merely win, they put up 50-plus points every week in doing it.

It was the runner-up candidates that stopped me. I finally settled on J.J. Arrington of California and Reggie Bush of USC.

Somehow, Arrington has largely escaped the national radar despite a season for the ages. He averages 6.99 yards a carry. His 1,845 yards rushing is third best in Pac-10 history, tops in the league since Marcus Allen’s dream season in 1981. Arrington has more yards rushing than any of the following ever had: O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Steven Jackson, Corey Dillon, Rueben Mayes or Napoleon Kaufman.

Call me provincial, but I couldn’t overlook the electrifying Bush, who is simply the most spectacular player in college football at least since Raghib Ismail played at Notre Dame. True, he’s not an every-down guy, but he rushed for 833 yards, caught three touchdown passes to thwart a very good Virginia Tech team in the opener, killed opponents with punt returns and was 10th nationally in kickoff returns. He changes the game.

Leinart is probably going to win USC’s second Heisman in three years. His two-year numbers as a starter are off the charts; he’s become the perfect operator for Norm Chow’s ball-control, take-what-you-give-us offense. While you have to respect Leinart’s success with unproven receivers this year, he has a top-shelf running game and the system flatters him. His yards per attempt is lower than anybody else in the top 10.

I couldn’t pull the trigger on either of the Oklahoma finalists, White or Peterson. First, they work behind a line that, tackle to tackle, has an unbelievable 179 combined career starts. White threw up red flags last year with his abysmal performances against Kansas State and Louisiana State. Peterson breaks tackles, runs with an attitude and has played his best against the best. But he gains more than a yard less per carry than Arrington.

Rodgers, Cal’s terrific quarterback, tempted me. But his performance seemed to backslide a bit toward the end, mirroring the injuries to his wide receivers.

So it’s Smith, Arrington and Bush. That’s my ballot, and I’m sticking to it.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or