So. What seems clear disappears into a heap of confusion as the season clatters to a halt. Troy Smith bites the dust against Florida. Darren McFadden goes meekly against Wisconsin. Slaton's fumbles still haunt WVU, and it's not like I was voting for Brady Quinn anyway but good God the NFL has to perk up to these performances sooner or later, yes/no?
Jumble jumble. So who was the best player in the country? Hell if I know. Candidates in no particular order:
PRO: Indisputably best defensive back in the country no matter what the Thorpe people think. Crusher who mixed highlight reel hits with actual interceptions (and interceptions caused either directly or indirectly). Leader of a secondary that plain annihilated Heisman winner Troy Smith. Possesses kickin' dreads.
CON: Is a safety, and not one of those run-supporting terrors that rack up a lot of tackles. Statistically thin: 6 INTs, 34 tackles, 2 TFL. (Noted that the INTs are not thin.)
PRO: Man-mountain defensive tackle was the real motive force behind the Michigan defense all year and can't be blamed for its secondary-based implosion. One of the few Michigan defenders to show well in games against OSU (two turnovers and can't be charged with any of the damage done) and USC (key in limiting USC's run game when they bothered with it). Featured abandoning the carcass of Anthony Morelli in one of the year's iconic images. Guaranteed top ten NFL draft pick, which is not what the award is about but is an indicator of his talent at a position the layman finds hard to judge.
CON: Like Nelson, plays at a position that is not looked upon kindly by statistics. Unlike Nelson, plays on a defense that was scalded in two consecutive losses at year's end.
PRO: Is Calvin Johnson.
CON: Erased in several critical GT games this year, whether it was by opposing defenses or Reggie Ball.
PRO: Few players can claim to have the sort of transformative effect on a program that McFadden did this year upon the Razorbacks. Houston Nutt was headed for unemployment at the beginning of the year after a crushing at the hands of USC followed up by limp and fortunate wins over SEC dregs Vanderbilt and Alabama. A nooner versus #2 Auburn on CBS loomed as the first step on a downward spiral that would end in a game versus a Sun Belt foe. Then -- poof -- like that, he's gone. McFadden went Keyser Soze on the Auburn defense, staked Arkansas to a lead and they didn't look back until they ran straight into vastly superior opposition in LSU and Florida. Before the ride was over McFadden had taken the Razorbacks to the SEC championship game and a New Year's Day bowl despite playing on a team with -- and I want to make this very clear -- not even the barest hint of a functional quarterback. Also was bestowed with the year's coolest nickname: "Humanity Advanced."
CON: He was bottled up and watched his team lose the aforementioned SEC championship game and New Year's Day bowl.
PRO: Is also Calvin Johnson, basically.
CON: Missed significant chunk of the year with an injury. Of no use in MNC-shattering loss to UCLA.
PRO: A defensive tackle who throws the ball willy-nilly all over the field and to extraordinary effect. Fastest waddler in history of college football. Culpepperian/Lorenzenian dimensions always good for a laugh/wonder.
CON: Singlehandedly responsible for most of LSU's turnovers against Florida and thus actively lost his team's most important game of the season. Other players with resume flaws were usually neutralized.
...but seriously, folks...
1. Reggie Nelson, Florida. I will admit to the possibility that I have been seduced by extracurriculars that have little impact on his play on the field (Orson's mancrush, his ability to fill the disappointing shoes of the last guy who looked like the Predator, Omar Jacobs, with bone-mangling authority befitting the hairstyle -- which should now be passed on to sufficiently badass Florida safeties until the stars grow cold and dim, like the #1 finds its way onto the shoulders of Michigan receivers). But six interceptions and a convincing case from various announcers during Florida games that a fair number of the rest of Florida's staggering total of 21 picks were caused either directly or indirectly by Nelson make a convincing case outside of personal biases. Florida was fourth in pass efficiency difference in a year when knowledgeable Florida fans were downright panicking about everyone other than Nelson in the secondary.
Plus... you know you're dealing with some sort of eccentric football genius if you've ever watched the guy line up 15 yards deep presnap. Who does that? Who aligns themself like that and singlehandedly removes the deep pass from every opponent? A cover-two in one body, I give you Reggie Nelson.
2. Alan Branch, Michigan. The one benefit of Smith performing so miserably and OSU losing so heavily -- other than schadenfreude and a sudden thinning of the OSU troll horde in the comments and the crowd shots of OSU fans late in the MNC game and... let's start over.
One of the many benefits of Troy Smith performing so miserably and OSU losing so heavily in the national championship game is it allows me to vote for defensive players with a clear conscience, which I must confess was always my hope. For a long time it looked as if my MaxwellPundit ballot would be indistinguishable from that of an addled Heisman voter who only acknowledges that players exist on one side of the ball. Not so in the wake of Smith's sudden (and severe) mortality.
So here goeth Branch, which may be homerism of a sort, but all I can say is that I've watched every snap he's played this year and good God. Michigan returns Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, two very promising players who were outstanding as mere sophomores this year, but Branch is a once-in-a-generation talent for the Michigan program. But, really, this is the reason:
For ten games this year the story was the Michigan defense, and though it came crashing down around him Branch remained steadfast in the middle.
3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas. Sheer improbability counts for something. Earns major style points for the Wildcat stuff. Featured in one of the year's turning point plays; threw touchdowns when too bored to run them in himself; arose and dragged Arkansas through the muck. This year's Atlas, and next year's, too, if Mustain doesn't improve quickly. Bonus points for nickname and tendency to zip into endzones.
4. Troy Smith, Ohio State. Hideous failure slides him way down. What do you do with this guy? He was magnificent when called upon, aside from that Penn State game, -- and even then he turned in one of the year's most memorable plays -- until the final hurdle, when he almost literally could not have played worse. There is much crowing about speed and pressure and blah blah from slack-jawed yokel country, but from this observer's perspective the only speed deficiency suddenly apparent in the Not Fiesta bowl existed in Smith's synapses. Particularly inexcusable was the final nail in OSU's coffin where he held onto the ball far, far too long, allowing Jarvis Moss to rattle it free from behind.
I still can't shake the terror that bastard engenders in me, though, so on the list he s tays.
5. Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech. Pure sentiment, I'll admit, the equivalent of a Heisman voter slapping a token defender third on his ballot or that guy who voted for an Alabama punter one year. What could have been if Johnson had not saddled himself with -- and I submit that this is no exaggeration -- the worst four-year starting quarterback in NCAA history? No one knows.
Viva la defense!