After a week off for the holiday, Rakes of Mallow's Maxwell Pundit hits the stretch run, yet, - unlike some other awards we can think of - considers bowl games part of the season and essential to the final selection of the nation's most outstanding player. So every player below will have a final chance to impress, if he's among the finalists set to be singled out for a bowl game "watch list" next week.
The list remains, as it has much of the season, largely one of default, as no single player overwhelms SMQ in terms of stupefying ability against hard-hitting competition and outrageous production. Every contender has some caveat that would prove fatal in a stronger year (say, 2002, or last season) - Troy Smith's iffy games against Penn State and Illinois, Darren McFadden's early injuries and near-total absence in his team's momentous opener against USC, LaMarr Woodley's sporadic disappearance from the stat sheet altogether, the schedule-based skepticism of anyone associated with Hawaii, BYU, Boise State or West Virginia. In the absence of a perfect beast of a candidate, the competition feels like it should be an open one, but there is, of course, little doubt from the outset:
1. Troy Smith Irresistable Force, Ohio State
Still concerned Smith is boosted on hype at least as much production. It's just not worth it anymore, though, to try to justify his placement further down the list by some outraged Buckeye partisan aghast at the brazen the lunacy of considering Smith's performance this season only the third or fourth-best in the nation. Simply can't justify anyone else here. SMQ to date has largely fought the notion of inevitability that's driven Smith's campaign since the win at Texas in September, rather than his actual merits, which have kept him in the discussion in the face of backlash. The numbers are great but not elite (67 percent completion, 2,500 yards, 6-1 TD-INT ratio) and still leave him vulnerable to the pack depending on Smith's efforts in the mythical championship, but again, there are inconsistencies, stat/production problems and questions about competition for every other possible name. And none of them have Smith's clutch performances in probably the season's two biggest games.
SMQ can't fight this feelin' anymore
2. Darren McFadden RB, Arkansas
The mutant acceleration on the 80-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against LSU alone puts him in contention for the top spot with two serious games remaining. Has about 1,900 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns, including passing and returns, with overwhelming, terrifying athleticism that makes even spectacular defensive athletes look helpless (see LSU above) and draws obsessive attention when he doesn't keep or even touch the ball.
Another caveat: SMQ is aware of the double standard applied here to McFadden, who had some injury problems early in the season, and Steve Slaton and Pat White, each of whom he's snubbed all season in favor of a lineman meant to represent the all-around, multi-faceted dominance of the Mountaineers' attack. But here's McFadden, with his own productive backfield mate in Felix Jones, and no Arkansas lineman in sight. In general, McFadden has probably had more success against more top defenses (he's lit up Auburn, Tennessee and LSU, to say nothing of a monster performance at South Carolina) than the Mountaineers have faced, and Slaton and White were most recently held in check by a defense nobody'd paid much attention to beforehand. Pretty much, though, McFadden is higher based on the rather subjective designation of `Superfreak.'
3. Reggie Nelson Perpetuator of Fear, Florida
Wrests from LaMarr Woodley the title of "Most Benefit Derived From Convincing Homer Blog," thanks to the most comprehensive yet of many borderline creepy Reggie-love posts at Every Day Should Be Saturday Tuesday. Doesn't hurt that Nelson also has some numbers from the defensive side and some consistent ballhawking, ground-covering, brain-pounding instincts each of the four or five times SMQ's watched Florida this season.
4. LaMarr Woodley Hybrid of Mass Destruction, Michigan
Not going to be discarded, though it would be easy after his statline came up short against Ohio State. Michigan adjusted its pass rush in the second half to deal with OSU's killer spread, built the whole scheme around freeing up its best player, and it worked relative to the red carpet on which the Buckeyes strolled into the end zone in the second quarter. Woodley put the heat on Troy Smith over and over again and created a lot of pressure, which ultimately made no difference because it was a step late each time. But he remains the lynchpin in what should still probably regarded as the best defense in the country - especially against the run - over the course of the entire season. Any chance of surpassing Smith, though, is far gone.
Woodley, a step late to the epic collision
5. Colt Brennan QB, Hawaii
Fifty-one touchdown passes. Has another game and a bowl to hit 5,000 yards (though he may just need the one game, against Oregon State). Are you kidding? The Rainbows or whatever haven't been held under 40 in two months, and were one point away, before only dropping 42 on Purdue Saturday, from scoring 50 or more in six straight games. Leads the nation in yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, passer rating, touchdown percentage and yards per attempt, most of which - aside from yards and touchdowns - are relative measures that have nothing to do with how often he throws. That's, uh, pretty good, against anybody.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech
Dwayne Jarrett, WR, Southern Cal (If Johnson's going to be mentioned here for superb ability in lieu of overwhelming stats, Jarrett, after Saturday, must follow)
Robert Meachem, WR, Tennessee
John Beck, QB, BYU
Mike Hart, RB, Michigan
Dave Harris, LB, Michigan
Patrick Willis, LB, Ole Miss
Dan Mozes, Symbol of Unselfish Dominance, West Virginia
Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia
Pat White, QB, West Virginia
Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin
DeSean Jackson, WR/PR, California
Brady Quinn, Manchurian Candidate, Notre Dame