Twenty-seven finalists. Nine awards. And one awards show — Thursday at 6 p.m. on ESPN — at which to hand out all that National College Football Awards Association hardware.
The Heisman Trophy won’t be presented until Saturday in New York, but first come the others in a handsomely staged, if kind of cheesy, event from the vastly underrated College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. This year, I voted for five of the nine awards listed below.
MAXWELL: PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The finalists: Saquon Barkley, Jr., Penn State; Bryce Love, Jr., Stanford; Baker Mayfield, Sr., Oklahoma.
The pick: Despite the three-year Sooners starting quarterback’s occasional unsportsmanlike displays, it’s Mayfield. The passing stats — 4,340 yards, 41 touchdowns, a 71 percent completion rate, only five interceptions — are at a level we’ve rarely seen, and he’s unquestionably the heart and soul of his playoff-bound team.
BEDNARIK: BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
The finalists: Bradley Chubb, Sr., NC State; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jr., Alabama; Roquan Smith, Jr., Georgia.
The pick: It’s hard to top the performance and production of Smith, the SEC’s defensive player of the year, MVP of the league’s championship game and winner of the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. Chubb, though, is a spectacular talent and a tackles-for-loss machine — and no one gets double-teamed more often. I’d have voted for Chubb.
O’BRIEN: BEST QUARTERBACK
The finalists: Mayfield; J.T. Barrett, Sr., Ohio State; Mason Rudolph, Sr., Oklahoma State.
The pick: I voted for Mayfield. Have I mentioned his all-time-high passing efficiency rating of 203.8? That smashes the FBS record set in 2016 by one Baker Reagan Mayfield (196.4).
WALKER: BEST RUNNING BACK
The finalists: Barkley; Love; Jonathan Taylor, Fr., Wisconsin.
The pick: Seven games into the season, Love had over 1,300 yards rushing and was averaging about 10 yards per carry. What he has done since has arguably been even more impressive. Ankle injuries have cost him one full game and lots of carries in others — not to mention some of his cutting and driving ability — yet Love has hung in there and continues to lead his team. Barkley and Taylor are outstanding, but Love is the clear winner.
BILETNIKOFF: BEST RECEIVER
The finalists: Michael Gallup, Sr., Colorado State; David Sills V, Jr., West Virginia; James Washington, Sr., Oklahoma State.
The pick: I voted for Washington. Gallup has more receptions (94) and Sills more touchdown grabs (18), but Washington has been an elite deep threat, and Option 1 in a great passing offense, for three years. Don’t you just love a guy who gets you 20-plus yards per catch?
THORPE: DEST DEFENSIVE BACK
The finalists: Fitzpatrick; DeShon Elliott, Jr., Texas; Josh Jackson, Jr., Iowa.
The pick: I voted for Jackson. Fitzpatrick certainly has the higher profile, but Jackson made a heck of a case for this honor over back-to-back Saturdays in early November. In the Hawkeyes’ upset victory over Ohio State, the long, rangy cornerback had — count ’em — three interceptions. A week later in a loss at Wisconsin, he had two pick-sixes and a forced fumble. Incredible.
OUTLAND: BEST INTERIOR LINEMAN
The finalists: Orlando Brown, Jr., Oklahoma; Quenton Nelson, Sr., Notre Dame; Ed Oliver, So., Houston.
The pick: This is the toughest call of them all. Brown, considering the team he plays for and the quarterback he protects as a left tackle, has a strong chance to win. Defensive tackle Oliver, who was a first-team All-American as a freshman, is a great player. But I’d have voted for Nelson, a nimble powerhouse of a left guard, who has developed — over three years as an Irish starter — into basically a flawless blocker.
GUY: BEST PUNTER
The finalists: Michael Dickson, Jr., Texas; JK Scott, Sr., Alabama; Mitch Wishnowsky, Jr., Utah.
The pick: I voted for Dickson. No one in FBS history has had as many punts in a season (73) with as high an average (48.4 yards). Case closed, right?
GROZA: BEST KICKER
The finalists: Daniel Carlson, Sr., Auburn; Dominik Eberle, So., Utah State; Matt Gay, Jr., Utah.
The pick: I voted for Gay, who leads the nation with 27 field goals and has the top success rate — 87.1 percent — of any kicker with at least 20 field goals made. Killer kicker stat: Gay has made eight 50-plus-yarders this season. He’s also perfect on PATs. Not bad for an out-of-nowhere dude who made the team as a walk-on over the summer.
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