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This is not about the Heisman Trophy, that beloved hunk of
bronze that is awarded each December by New York's Downtown
Athletic Club (D.A.C.) and that only by occasional coincidence
goes to the best college football player in America. The Heisman
is an institution replete with brand-name visibility, an austere
Saturday-evening television show and a black-tie presentation
dinner two nights later in a swank Manhattan ballroom. If the
trophy were to spring to life, it would step regally off its
pedestal, order a brandy and light up a cigar. Yet the criteria
for selecting its winner are ill-defined, and the decision of
the voters--who at last count numbered nearly 1,000, far too
many--is disproportionately driven by statistics and publicity,
so that the trophy is nearly always won by a quarterback or
running back on a high-profile team.

Deal with it: The Heisman Trophy will float on the Hudson River
before the D.A.C. changes anything about the way it is awarded.
For that reason it will be a huge shock if somebody other than
Tennessee senior quarterback Peyton Manning wins this year's
Heisman. College football could do much worse than hold up
Manning as its ideal. He is a great player, a student-athlete in
the truest sense, and he has given four productive, exciting
years to the game when he could have left for the NFL after
three seasons or even two. The Heisman is often a lifetime
achievement award, which Manning richly deserves.

Yet his knee-jerk coronation sidesteps an intriguing argument
about who has been the best college football player of 1997--and
only the '97 season. The prominent coach at one school in the
South sat in his office recently and was given the opportunity
to name his player of the year. Speaking anonymously because he
didn't select one of his players, the coach said, without
hesitation, "Peyton Manning. No doubt." Then he paused and
thought for a moment. "Of course, that linebacker at Ohio State,
[Andy] Katzenmoyer, he's a football player...and don't forget
about [Marshall wide receiver] Randy Moss. He might be the best
of the bunch." The room was quiet for several seconds before the
coach began to chuckle. "I guess there are a few of them this
year, aren't there?" He was wise to reconsider.

Manning has thrown for 2,764 yards and 26 touchdowns, and he has
conducted himself with poise and class as the most publicized
player in the country. What's more, fifth-ranked Tennessee will
find the back door to the national championship race open if No.
1 Michigan and No. 2 Florida State should both lose--to Ohio
State and Florida, respectively--this weekend. But the
Volunteers wouldn't need any help if Manning had been better in
a 33-20 loss to the Gators on Sept. 20. The key play in that
game was his ill-advised throw, under pressure, that Florida's
Tony George intercepted and ran back 89 yards for a touchdown.
In trying to single out the best college football player in a
year like this, one hiccup can make a difference.

No, Manning hasn't been the best player of this wild autumn. The
best college player in America has been junior Charles Woodson
of Michigan, a 6'1", 198-pound cornerback-punt returner-multiple
offensive threat who has been at the core of the Wolverines'
rise to No. 1.

Woodson doesn't win by a landslide. Besides Manning, the 6'4",
260-pound Katzenmoyer at times has been the most fearsome
presence on any college field. But his tour de force in an Oct.
4 win over Iowa has faded in the wake of his mediocre play ever
since. "He's going through the motions," says a Big Ten
offensive assistant coach whose team played Ohio State in the
second half of the season.

Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth, with 16 sacks, has
been as dominant a defender as Woodson, but until he lines up at
tight end, he's not as versatile.

Then there's the 6'5", 210-pound Moss, whose 22 touchdown
receptions this fall ties the Division I-A single-season record.
Ball State defensive coordinator Bob Bartolomeo, whose team
surrendered five touchdowns to him on Sept. 27, says, "I've been
in this league for six years, and I've never seen anybody who
comes close." But the league is the problem. Moss plays in the
Mid-American Athletic Conference, which isn't the SEC. No
rewards for dominating lesser athletes.

What distinguishes Woodson is that he does something no other
player has done to such great effect since two-platoon football
took hold more than three decades ago: Because of his ability to
overwhelm on defense and his threat to score on offense, he
demands that the other team find him on every snap. It's no
longer true that only a quarterback controls every play--Woodson
has seen to that this season. Midway through the second quarter
against Penn State on Nov. 8, he lined up in the left slot at
the Nittany Lions' 37-yard line. Penn State defenders began
chittering in desperation, "There's Woodson. There's Woodson."
Confused and, perhaps, intimidated by Woodson's presence, the
Lions failed to cover him as he sailed straight up the seam and
caught a touchdown pass from Brian Griese. "We believe if you
aren't prepared, Charles is going to beat you," says Michigan
coach Lloyd Carr. "That play against Penn State was the turning
point in the game."

Woodson's stats are modest: Six interceptions, four pass
breakups, 40 tackles (four for losses) and one sack. Ten
receptions for 194 yards and two touchdowns; three rushes for 15
yards and one touchdown. Twenty-eight punt returns for a
6.6-yard average. His accumulated yardage (402) this season is
roughly equal to one good game for Manning.

His performance in last Saturday's 26-16 win at Wisconsin, a
game that clinched for the Wolverines at least a tie for the Big
Ten title, was in many ways typical of his season. On a gimmick
play Woodson completed a 28-yard pass to Griese, who was shoved
out-of-bounds on the Badgers' one-yard line, setting up
Michigan's first touchdown. "He's done everything else. We might
as well let him throw the ball," said Griese. Woodson also
caught three passes for 27 yards and two first downs,
intercepted his sixth pass of the year and broke up another. Not
so typical was the 21-yard touchdown pass he allowed wide
receiver Tony Simmons to catch with 2:45 to play and the game
still in doubt. "I'm hurtin' bad on that," Woodson said
afterward, standing underneath the stands at Camp Randall
Stadium. There was just the slightest tinge of sarcasm in his
voice, as if he realized that it was ridiculous to flog himself
for yielding a single touchdown pass in 10 games. It was the
only pass Simmons caught all day, and the only reception Woodson
gave up.

When SI asked 18 Division I-A coaches and assistants to list the
five active players they would select to start a college team,
Woodson was named on 16 ballots, eight more than second-place
Manning and nine more than Katzenmoyer. Those are numbers you
can dig your teeth into. Here's another: Largely because of the
work of a Woodson-led unit that is ranked No. 1 in the nation in
total defense (202.4 yards per game), scoring defense (8.4
points per game) and pass efficiency defense (opponents have a
rating of 75.9 against Michigan), the Wolverines are on course
to play for their first national championship since 1948. They
need a victory on Saturday over fourth-ranked Ohio State
(10-1)--whose gifted wideouts David Boston and Dee Miller will
test Woodson severely--and then a win in the Rose Bowl.

"Woodson may not be Deion [Sanders], but he's awfully close,"
says one NFC scout. "He's even closer to [seven-time All-Pro
cornerback] Rod Woodson because he plays big and he's very
versatile. And unlike Deion, he loves the physical game. He'll
hit you."

Even before this season, Woodson had earned the reputation as
being unbeatable in man-to-man coverage. "If you're going to
throw to his side, it better be perfect," says Carr. In search
of more creative ways to use Woodson, Carr and defensive
coordinator Jim Herrmann now employ him as the Wolverines'
nickelback (he used to stay at corner) in passing situations.
The nickelback lines up inside the corner, usually over the slot
receiver. From there Woodson is a threat to blitz, which he has
done about 10 times. Michigan's front seven is already a
handful, and Woodson makes the rush lethal.

Because Woodson is so aggressive in bump-and-run coverage,
offensive coordinators have hit upon the idea of baiting him
with pump fakes and hitch-and-go routes, trying to throw over
his head. "We tried to get him to bite, and he did," says
Minnesota wide receivers coach Vic Adamle. "But he recovers so
fast it doesn't matter." On Sept. 27, Notre Dame's Bobby Brown
got a pass interference call on a streak, but Woodson says,
"That was an unfortunate mistake by the official."

As for throwing short against Woodson, good luck. On Oct. 25,
Michigan State quarterback Todd Schultz was twice picked off by
Woodson. The first time was at the dying end of a scramble, when
Schultz tried to throw a pass high and out-of-bounds as he was
dragged down. Woodson leaped high and snatched the ball out of
the air with one hand, landing with one foot inbounds. Later
Schultz tried to force a curl into the middle of the field, and
Woodson blanketed the receiver and stole the pass. "Probably the
quickest guy I've ever seen," says Schultz.

Northwestern's Tim Hughes tried to throw an out on Woodson on
Oct. 11, putting the ball low and away like the book says, and
Woodson reached across Hughes's target and took the ball off the
grass before rolling out-of-bounds. Penn State senior Joe
Jurevicius caught six balls for 59 yards against a Michigan zone
last year and three for 20 yards this year facing Woodson man to

And he knows he's good. "Best player in the country standing
before you," he said in the week leading to the Penn State
showdown. Give him more touches on offense, he said, and he'll
score more touchdowns. "I really do think I'm going to score
every time I touch the ball."

Nevertheless, on offense Michigan continues to sprinkle Woodson
around like cayenne pepper--sparingly, but to great effect. He
averages 6.1 offensive plays per game but has scored three
touchdowns, made eight first downs and created defensive chaos
every time he has lined up. Most of the skills that enabled him
to gain 2,028 rushing yards in his senior year at Ross High in
Fremont, Ohio, are still intact, as he showed on a 33-yard
reverse for a touchdown against Minnesota on Nov. 1. Opponents
will punt the ball out-of-bounds or painfully short to avoid a
Woodson return.

The best part of all is that Woodson hasn't coasted on his
talent. "When we finish practice, and he's done his two periods
of offense and tried not to let anybody catch a single pass on
him on defense, he's spent," says Carr. "But he has gotten
better since he walked in here. Some guys get bored, get in a
comfort zone. Not Charles."

Woodson was raw when he arrived in Ann Arbor. Secondary coach
Vance Bedford watched him backpedal awkwardly in his first
practices and couldn't believe he was a high school all-star at
any position. Woodson had never lifted weights and still hates
it, but he can bench 225 pounds 14 times, respectable for a
cornerback. He ran a 4.4 40 as a freshman and says he's faster
now. The NFL will get a prepackaged All-Pro, probably this spring.

On the matter of traditional awards, Woodson is a realist. "I
know people are talking about me, and the Heisman would be a
great honor," he said last week. "But they won't give it to me
because Peyton and those other guys have the numbers. I don't
have the numbers."

He doesn't need numbers. He's got everything else.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Woodson opened the season with an interception against Colorado and nowhas six for the year. [Charles Woodson intercepting pass in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The multidimensional Woodson, returning a punt against Notre Dame, is a constant threat. [Charles Woodson carrying football in game]

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER One of the nation's best cover corners, Woodson is equally effective on the blitz. [Charles Woodson tackling University of Colorado player in game]