Following each weekend of college football action, several denizens of the intercollegiate athletics blogosphere are called upon to vote in the MaxwellPundit balloting, which is designed to recognize the best player in the sport in a way the Heisman Trophy seldom succeeds in doing.
At this point in the season, the field of suitable candidates has narrowed considerably, as injuries have felled some contenders, sub-par performances have sidelined some others (Calvin Johnson can't catch the ball unless Calvin Johnson is thrown the ball), and the cream has risen to the top.
While time remains for various players to jockey for position and improve their standing, most of the top performers have cemented their status and, accordingly, my ballot this week is identical to my ballot from last week:
1. Troy Smith (Ohio State): The Buckeye signal-caller isn't a student-athlete, he's a well-oiled, finely-tuned quarterbacking machine churning out weekly stat lines that appear mundane only because of their consistent excellence. On Saturday, Smith threw 23 passes for 15 completions, 220 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions, attaining his best single-game passer efficiency rating against a B.C.S. conference opponent this season. Over the course of the entire autumn, he has tallied 1,715 yards through the air while connecting on 131 of his 193 throws and achieving a striking 21-to-2 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio.
Troy Smith enjoys a little down time.
2. Ian Johnson (Boise State): The Bronco running back failed to claim the top spot on my ballot because his production slipped a bit this weekend; after Saturday's effort, he's only averaging 6.99 yards per carry this season. Otherwise, Johnson was his usual stellar self. In 169 rushing attempts this fall, he has tallied 1,181 yards and 18 touchdowns. Those numbers were bolstered by a 27-carry, 183-yard performance on Saturday, when Johnson had his second consecutive four-touchdown game.
3. James Laurinaitis (Ohio State): Although his numbers for the weekend were relatively meager---five tackles, including a half a tackle for loss---the wrecking ball of the Buckeye defense has wreaked enough havoc in the Big Ten this season to remain in third place on my ballot, a position he occupies on the strength of 31 solo tackles, 33 assists, seven tackles for loss, three sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a pass breakup.
4. LaMarr Woodley (Michigan): To the considerable extent that football is a game of field position, Woodley is as effective a defensive weapon as the college game can claim in 2006. His 12 tackles for loss have pushed opposing offenses back 101 yards; his nine sacks have cost the other team 92 yards; his two fumble recoveries have been advanced 54 yards. Woodley is a one-man return team and ball-control offense wrapped up in a single defensive player, the likes of which we have not seen in Ann Arbor since that certain someone who stood between Peyton Manning and the Heisman Trophy. Woodley was active in disrupting the opposition's game plan on Saturday, as well, tallying three tackles (including two sacks) and forcing his third fumble of the season.
Push 'em back! Push 'em back! Waaaaaaaaaay back!
5. Patrick Willis (Ole Miss): Maybe this is the regional homer in me, but I simply have a hard time believing that the guy who is the S.E.C.'s leading tackler week in and week out isn't, by definition, one of the top five players in the game. Willis has recorded 86 tackles this season, including a sack and an impressive 58 solo stops. He averages just under 11 tackles per game. That's a football player right there.
Honorable mention goes to a pair of underappreciated offensive weapons, Rutgers's Ray Rice and Georgia's Brannan Southerland, who seldom get their due but who play every down and make a real difference, even when it doesn't show up on the stat sheet.
Those are my choices for the top five players in college football. Who are yours?