If this is Tuesday, it must be time to cast my MaxwellPundit ballot. After I listed my top five players in college football last week, an old college buddy of mine noted the heavy slant in favor of offensive players, which I will attempt to explain, and try to rectify, this week.
The tendency to overemphasize offensive skill position players is natural, if misguided. Laser-like passes, circus catches, and bruising runs are exciting grist for highlight reels, so it is no wonder that they become the emblematic images dancing in Heisman Trophy voters' minds.
It's a lot harder to pull off this kind of nonsense after making a pancake block.
Blocking and tackling, by contrast, are neither sophisticated nor glamorous, so we tend to slight them, deigning to notice only their absence, rather than their presence. Defensive prowess is harder to measure numerically than offensive acumen, but no one who has seen Deion Sanders take away half the field, Lawrence Taylor bring disruption and destruction to the middle of a play, or Deacon Jones set the standard for the quarterback sack can doubt the importance of defense.
In short, blocking and tackling are the essence of football, and they have been since long before the forward pass was legalized, so I will endeavor to focus on both sides of the ball and give more than just a small subset of players their due.
These are my top five players in college football at the midpoint of the 2006 campaign:
1. Troy Smith (Ohio State): The Buckeye quarterback narrowly missed being beaten out for the top spot by another signal-caller, but, although Smith did not have his best day on Saturday (17 for 20, 191 yards, 3 T.D.s, no interceptions), his overall season statistics (101 for 148, 1,261 yards, 15 T.D.s, 2 interceptions) and his consistent performance kept him, like his team, on top.
2. Erik Ainge (Tennessee): I got to see David Cutcliffe's latest prodigy up close on Saturday night and he was as ruthlessly efficient as any quarterback I have ever seen play in person, with the possible exception of Peyton Manning. Ainge missed out on first place solely because of his sub-par performance in a losing effort against Florida, in which he completed barely half of his passes for two picks and no touchdowns. Over the course of the season, though, he has connected on 118 of 171 attempts for 1,657 yards and a fine 14:5 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. Last weekend, much to my chagrin, he was 25 of 38 for 268 yards and a pair of touchdowns . . . and that yardage total was artificially suppressed by the short fields with which he had to work. Believe me, had he started from his own one yard line every time, he'd have led a bunch of 99-yard drives against a pretty good defense.
Obviously, this picture is from two years ago. No one in a red jersey got anywhere near that close to him last Saturday night. (Photograph from University of Tennessee.)
3. James Laurinaitis (Ohio State): For all of Troy Smith's heroics, the Buckeye offense is simply living up to the preseason hype. The O.S.U. defense, on the other hand, spent the entire summer hearing about the loss of nine starters . . . then it proceeded to hold its first six opponents to an average of 9.3 points per game, limiting Texas to a touchdown and Iowa to 17 points on the road. No defensive player is more important to Ohio State's success than Laurinaitis, who has 50 tackles (neatly divided into 25 solo stops and 25 assists), among them 4.5 tackles for a loss, including a pair of sacks. Laurinaitis likewise has a pass breakup, two forced fumbles, and four interceptions to his credit. He is a force of nature who deserves recognition.
4. Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech): I was hesitant to put Calvin in my top five this week, because he wasn't even the most important Johnson who played for the Yellow Jackets last Saturday; that honor is reserved for backup defensive end Michael Johnson, who sacked Maryland's Sam Hollenbach twice to preserve the victory. Nevertheless, C.J. had one of his better days this past weekend, hauling in a season-high 10 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown, bringing his tally for the year to 35 catches for 559 yards and eight scores. As much as I hate to do it, I have to give credit where credit is due.
5. Patrick Willis (Ole Miss): He's easy to overlook because the Rebels are having such a sorry season, but the Mississippi linebacker is showing all-S.E.C. form once again. The league's leading tackler has 62 stops on the season, 44 of which were solo efforts and one of which was a sack. Willis is averaging over 10 tackles a game and he is solely responsible for halting over 11 per cent of the 394 plays run against the Rebs that did not produce touchdowns. That warrants some attention.
"Whatchyoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"
Honorable mention goes to the Bulldogs' Brannan Southerland. Fullbacks don't get a lot of attention these days, but Southerland is the latest in a long line of Georgia players to make an impact at that position.
In last Saturday's loss to the Tennessee Volunteers, Southerland touched the ball seven times---four carries and three pass receptions---for 55 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to fulfilling his regular duties as the unsung hero of the I-formation who blocks for the guys who get the glory. For the season, Southerland has had 15 rushing attempts for 53 yards and a team-leading four touchdown runs, has caught eight passes for 76 yards and a team-leading two touchdown catches, and is the team's leading scorer.
Those are my top five players, but, if you think there's someone I'm missing, by all means, please bring that player to my attention in the diaries to the right or in the comments below.