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Five worthy contenders have turned the scramble for this season's Heisman Trophy into one of the closest ever

This year's race for the Heisman Trophy is a bit like your 20-year-old black-and-white TV: Adjust the antenna, fiddle with the vertical hold, thump it on the side—the darned picture still won't come into focus. As the season heads into the final full Saturday, there is still no clear-cut favorite for the award, although nearly all of the 918 Heisman voters would agree that the campaign has boiled down to five survivors: quarterbacks Major Harris of West Virginia, Tony Rice of Notre Dame and Andre Ware of Houston, and tailbacks Emmitt Smith of Florida and Anthony Thompson of Indiana. Each is deserving, yet each has his shortcomings, which means the voting should be the closest since 1985, when Auburn running back Bo Jackson came out ahead of Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by a scant 45 points.

While neither Houston nor West Virginia played last Saturday—bad luck for Ware and Harris at this critical stage in the campaign—Rice took full advantage of yet another national TV appearance by the Irish. He rushed for a career-high 141 yards in a 34-23 victory over Penn State while orchestrating a Notre Dame attack that had its way with the previously impregnable Nittany Lion defense.

The Irish generated 425 yards on the ground, the most rushing yards ever yielded by Penn State. Even Lion coach Joe Paterno appeared to climb on the Rice-for-the-Heisman bandwagon, saying, "He is the one guy we just couldn't handle."

But Penn State linebacker Andre Collins credited Rice's supporting cast. "The offensive line was the big thing," said Collins. "A couple guys on their right side go 290 [Dean Brown, 291; Tim Grunhard, 292], and at the same time you're trying to shed 290, you've got to track down [tailback] Ricky Watters and Tony Rice."

Collins cut to the nub of the controversy over Rice's Heisman candidacy. Though unquestionably a leader and a winner—the Irish will take a 23-game victory streak into Saturday's game at Miami—Rice's numbers are decidedly un-Heisman-like. Deftly directing coach Lou Holtz's balanced, close-to-the-vest attack, Rice has rushed for roughly 75 yards a game and passed for fewer than 100. Some voters think Rice isn't even the most deserving candidate on the team. They accord that distinction to sophomore big-play specialist Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, who as a kick returner, receiver and runner has numbers comparable to those put up by Notre Dame flanker Tim Brown when he won the Heisman two years ago.

Indeed, Ismail might have won the national title for the Irish with two high-voltage kickoff returns for touchdowns in a 24-19 win over Michigan on Sept. 16. Afterward, someone pointed out to Holtz that he had two Heisman candidates on his squad. "I don't want any," he said. Unfortunately for Holtz, the nation's appetite for Heisman winners from Notre Dame seems insatiable. Seven Irish players have won the award in its 55-year history.

Florida, on the other hand, has but one Heisman in its trophy case. Steve Spurrier won it as a quarterback for the Gators way back in 1966. Smith, a junior, finished ninth in the Heisman voting two years ago—the best showing by a freshman since Georgia's Herschel Walker finished third in 1980. Injuries knocked Smith out of contention last year, but his consistent performance this fall—126 yards per game and a remarkable 316-yard effort against New Mexico on Oct. 21—has been overshadowed by the threat of probation that hangs over Gainesville.

On Oct. 8, coach Galen Hall resigned amid charges that he improperly paid two assistant coaches, and a week later quarterback Kyle Morris received a one-year suspension for betting on college football games. Smith's Heisman hopes began to sag even though, being the Gators' only remaining offensive threat, every defense was keying on him—and he still gained his 100 yards per game.

If statistics were votes, Ware would be a lock. He has 40 touchdown passes this season (Rice has two) and has passed for more than 400 yards in six games. But Ware, a senior who has exploited the Cougars' run-and-shoot offense for 3,824 passing yards—and has two games still to play—must face the fact that the Heisman has never been won by a player whose school is on NCAA probation. That he could miss out on winning the award because of violations committed years ago understandably irritates him. "I was in junior high when all of this started," Ware says, "and I wasn't aware of it when I was recruited or when I signed."

Thanks to the probation, Ware has not appeared this year on TV. That will cost him votes, as will the fact that his team lost its two biggest games, to Texas A & M and Arkansas. Then there's the matter of Houston's 95-21 gutting of SMU on Oct. 21. A lot of voters might turn thumbs down on Ware as a way of punishing the Cougars and their coach, Jack Pardee, for that display of excess—even though Ware was out of the game by halftime.

It's not as difficult to pinpoint Harris's liabilities. A redshirt junior, he has not been as effective as he was last season, but neither have the Mountaineers, who did not lose a game until meeting Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite being handicapped by two freshmen running backs and an overhauled offensive line, Harris has passed and run for 2,581 yards—while throwing only 20 times a game.

He might be the most exciting player in the country, a gifted athlete who's at his best while improvising. "He's got the best vision of the field that I've ever seen in anyone," says West Virginia quarterback coach Dwight Wallace. "In fact, it's too good. He'll drop back on third-and-five and see so many things, he's like a kid in a candy store."

Harris fumbled three times in a 19-9 loss to Penn State on Nov. 4. In the minds of many voters, those gaffes offset his 301 yards in total offense. Worse, Harris couldn't keep Virginia Tech, of all teams, from upsetting the Mountaineers on Oct. 7, or Pitt from overcoming a 22-point deficit in the final quarter to gain a 31-31 tie the previous week.

All is not lost for Harris, however. If this year's race had a theme, it would be "To err is human." All five of our finalists have had an off week or two. Harris gets one last chance to sway voters on Thanksgiving Day, when West Virginia plays Syracuse on national TV.

Unfamiliar faces in the huddle haven't been Harris's only handicap, points out Mountaineer publicist Shelly Poe. "Major is the most famous person in the whole state," she says. "He can't go to the grocery store without being mobbed for autographs. He has to wear all kinds of glasses and hats in public."

Yeah, well, life's tough all over, we can hear Terance Mathis saying. Mathis is dreadful New Mexico's brilliant senior wide receiver. His nine catches in the Lobos' 45-22 upset of previously undefeated Fresno State last Saturday gave him an NCAA record 263 for his career. He also holds the record for career receiving yards with 4,254. Mathis is the best new player you've never heard of, the old one being Johnny Bailey, the Texas A & I senior tailback who this season became the top ground gainer in NCAA history with 6,320 yards. But Bailey, who spent his four years in Division II, is no longer a well-kept secret, having appeared on the Today show with Ware last week.

Mathis is resigned to anonymity. "We don't play on TV, Albuquerque is not what you'd call a major media center, and we do keep losing," he said before last weekend's victory, which improved the Lobos' record to 2-9. He concedes that he hasn't a prayer of being invited to the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 2 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. "But it would be nice to sneak in the back door," he says.

Mathis and Bailey aren't the only ones who deserve more mention than they've gotten. In the air-happy Western Athletic Conference, Brigham Young sophomore Ty Detmer has accumulated more passing yards (4,233) than Ware—in fact, more than anyone else in the nation—while leading the Cougars to a 9-2 record. Two other quarterbacks, Colorado's Darian Hagan and Florida State's Peter Tom Willis, have also blossomed in their first opportunities as starters. Why aren't they Heisman candidates? After all, in 1964. Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte won the prize despite not having seen enough action in any previous season to have earned a letter. If Huarte's Heisman is a tribute to the Irish's power to get out the vote, it's also an indication that, in those days, voters were more open-minded than they are today. How could he be a bona fide candidate if I didn't get a promotional poster of him last July?

Unlike Hagan and Willis, Indiana's Thompson has been building his case for four seasons, and if the voters haven't been paying attention, they ought to start. Last Saturday, Thompson ground out 182 yards in a 41-28 loss to Illinois—not exactly a powder-puff opponent—and scored a touchdown to extend his NCAA career record to 65. Thompson now has 1,696 yards for the season and a 169-yard average through 10 games. Two weeks ago against Wisconsin, he gained 377 yards to break the NCAA single-game record by 20 yards.

Who could not be impressed by such a performance? Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, for one. "Some guy getting a bunch of yards on 52 carries against a team that hasn't won much—I want a 100-yard game from a guy when the game is on the line," says Schembechler. Fair enough, Bo, but if Thompson were running behind your offensive front of woolly mammoths, he would have had the Heisman locked up by Halloween.

Of the quintet of principal candidates, Thompson is the most deserving of the award, in spite of—or perhaps because of—what he does not bring to the table. He plays for a mediocre team—Indiana is 5-5 going into its season finale this week against Purdue—and he doesn't break long runs. In four years, during which he has rumbled for 4,868 yards, seventh-best in NCAA history, his longest gain has been for 52 yards. So why should he win the Heisman? For starters, Thompson has had to drill many of his own holes. All but one of his blockers is new to his position this year, and, according to Hoosier coach Bill Mallory, he has never had adequate downfield blocking. The truth is, Thompson can't resist the temptation to clobber defensive backs. "Hit them before they hit you," he says. "I learned that from watching Walter Payton and playing sandlot ball with my uncle Hubert."

Indiana running back coach Buck Suhr remembers the first time he saw Thompson play. Then a senior at Terre Haute (Ind.) North High, Thompson played the entire first half without getting his uniform dirty. "They knocked him out of bounds once, but they never did get him on the ground," says Suhr. Since then the 6-foot, 210-pound Thompson has endured four years of weight training with strength coach Bill Montgomery, whom Hoosier players refer to as the Prince of Darkness.

These days Thompson bench-presses 420 pounds, more than most of the defensive linemen who try to tackle him. Defenders collapse before his stiff arms as if they've been hit with a lance. On Indiana's first possession two weeks ago, Wisconsin's 6'4", 250-pound defensive tackle, Don Davey, met Thompson head-on at the Badger two-yard line. Davey ended up on his tailbone, Thompson in the end zone. "That is not an ordinary back," said Davey.

Thompson appeared daisy-fresh following his record performance that afternoon, looking nothing like a man who had just run with the ball 52 times. That's typical. After carrying 28 times in a 51-20 loss to Michigan State the week before, he cooled off by playing an hour and a half of full-court basketball. "He's as tough as I've been around," says Mallory, a tough cuss himself.

Thompson almost quit football before he even reached high school. He remembers getting ready for a Pop Warner game one day when he was eight or nine. Two of his older brothers also had games that day. Trouble was, there were only two pairs of white socks in the house. "So I wore black socks," recalls Thompson. "Boy, did the other kids make fun of me." He wanted to go home right then, but stuck it out instead. By the time the game was over, the teasing had stopped. Thompson, who spends much of his spare time talking to elementary school students about the dangers of drugs, tells that story to kids. The moral is: Don't give up easily. That Thompson is a nice guy should have no bearing on whether he wins the Heisman. That he is a nice guy who has more touchdowns than anyone else in NCAA history, should.

In any case, the coats and ties at the Downtown Athletic Club are all smiles these days, and not necessarily because they guessed right on 30-year Treasury bonds or made a killing on pork bellies. For the first time in four years, the awards ceremony won't be a snooze. The envelope, please.




Thompson delights in putting the wood to defensive backs.



Harris may be the most gifted of them all, but untimely fumbles and losses have hurt him.



Ware has produced some huge numbers directing Houston's run-and-shoot attack.



The Gators' recent off-field troubles have hurt Smith's chances.



Rice (above) has done nothing but win, but Rocket could cause a split in the Irish vote.



[See caption above.]