Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 12/8/11
The best player in college football this season doesn't play games on Saturdays in the Greatest Conference in World History known as the SEC. He isn't the robo-quarterback with the perfect form and future No. 1 draft pick tag in Palo Alto, Calif. He isn't the playmaking quarterback in Waco, Texas, who has become the darling of a nation. No, the best player in college football is a lunch-pail-toting, hard-hat-carrying guy most people probably hadn't even heard of until past the midway point of this season. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball might not provide the sizzle of some other college football stars, but he's rightfully earned his seat as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy award. All that's left is for him to win it. That's right. Ball, the guy a nation ignored for much of this season, is the most deserving recipient of the Heisman Trophy. At this point, most pundits consider Ball a long shot in a field that includes Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Online straw polls and betting sites list Ball fourth in the Heisman voting behind everyone but Matheiu. But judging from statistics, the question is why? In 13 games this season, Ball rushed for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdowns and added six receiving scores. His 38 touchdowns are 12 more than any other FBS player has scored this year and rank second in NCAA history behind only Barry Sanders' 39, set in 1988 at Oklahoma State. Sanders, not surprisingly, won the Heisman that year. It should be noted that Ball isn't amassing these numbers against a slew of hapless patsies. Wisconsin's opponents this season included college football bluebloods Nebraska, Penn State and Ohio State, as well as two matchups against top-20 program Michigan State. If performing at a high level when the season is on the line matters most, well, Ball did that, too. During Wisconsin's current five-game winning streak, when the team absolutely needed victories to reach the Rose Bowl, Ball rushed for 906 yards 181.2 per game and 14 touchdowns. He became the first player in NCAA history to score at least two touchdowns in the first 13 games of the season, and that includes the Badgers' two losses this year, when he still averaged 100 yards rushing. He scored four touchdowns apiece in a division-clinching victory against Penn State and in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State's vaunted defense, ranked top 10 in scoring defense nationally. Ball accounted for as many points 24 as any other team besides Wisconsin scored on the Spartans in a game all season. To be fair, Ball's statistics cannot accurately be compared to those of quarterbacks Luck and Griffin because they have the ball in their hands on every offensive play. But he can be compared to Richardson, as well as past Heisman Trophy-winning running backs, and his numbers stack up more than favorably. This season, Richardson has 1,583 yards rushing with 20 touchdowns and 23 total scores for the Crimson Tide in one fewer game than Ball. Richardson averages 6.0 yards per carry; Ball is at 6.4. Ball's overall numbers are also better than those of the previous two running backs who won the Heisman. In 2009, Alabama's Mark Ingram rushed for 1,678 yards with 17 touchdowns and three receiving scores. In 2005, USC's Reggie Bush had 1,740 yards with 16 touchdowns and two TD catches, although Bush has since forfeited the award for receiving improper benefits in college. Ball had 17 rushing touchdowns by the seventh game of the season. Still, he likely didn't secure his spot as a Heisman finalist until the final game of the year, when his four touchdowns helped propel Wisconsin to a 42-39 victory against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game last Saturday. Why has it taken so long for Ball to be recognized on a national level? For starters, Ball spent the early portion of the season playing second fiddle on his own team to quarterback Russell Wilson, who grabbed headlines with his transfer story from North Carolina State and his stellar play. Ball, the 5-foot-11 junior from Wentzville, Mo., also is not a particularly polarizing figure. Instead, he's a hard worker who says little and has climbed his way up from being the team's third-string running back a year ago. Guys like Richardson and Luck were on the college football radar and Heisman watch list well before this season began. One could argue that team success ranks among the most important components in picking a Heisman winner and that Ball's Wisconsin team faltered with consecutive losses against Michigan State and Ohio State, knocking him out of Heisman-winning contention. But other than Mathieu, who pundits predict will finish fifth in the voting, every player in the Heisman running suffered at least one loss. Griffin, the current Heisman favorite, plays for a team that lost three games. For as remarkable a season as Ball has put together, there is no denying that the odds will be stacked against him when Heisman votes are revealed Saturday night. Only two running backs Bush and Ingram have won the award since Wisconsin's Ron Dayne in 1999. The other nine winners have been quarterbacks. Of course, that doesn't mean Ball can't break the trend. Even Ingram, the former Heisman winner, is on the Ball bandwagon. While lending his support for former teammate Richardson, he also Tweeted this on Tuesday: "Montee Ball doesn't get enough respect 38 TD's is ridiculous!!!" Ball won't truly garner the respect he deserves until he takes home the Heisman Trophy. Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter
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