COLUMBIA — It didn’t hit Chase Daniel until he saw it writing. The perfectly creased envelope, the Heisman Trophy Trust insignia, and the letter with his name, along with 19 other players, who are potential finalists for the most prestigious award in college football.
“To open it up and see my name was something that I never imagined in a hundred years that I would even be able to get that far,” he said.
But it shouldn’t have come as too big of a surprise for the Missouri quarterback. As a junior, Daniel has been one of the elite college football players in the country. Not only has he led the Tigers to their best start since 1969, but he has done it in style.
MU is one of two teams in college football that has scored at least 30 points in each of its games (Hawaii being the other), and Daniel is ranked in the top five in the NCAA in several statistical categories, including completion percentage (69.4 percent), passing yards (3,306) and total offense (355 yards per game).
Ultimately, however, Daniel’s chances of winning the Heisman will depend on how the Tigers finish their season. MU doesn’t exactly breed Heisman hopefuls, and with many of the voters located on the East and West Coasts, Daniel will need all the national exposure he can get.
“I don’t know if he’s the best quarterback in the country,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said on Saturday after Daniel threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in the Tigers’ win over Texas A&M, “but somebody’s got to show me who’s better than him.”
Daniel’s gaudy statistics, coupled with the Tigers’ success, make for a compelling argument. Quarterbacks Dennis Dixon of Oregon, Tim Tebow of Florida and Pat White of West Virginia are generally regarded as Daniel’s biggest competition.
All three have the advantage of playing on a coast, but Daniel has the advantage in statistics. Daniel has thrown for more yards and touchdowns this season and also boasts the best completion percentage among the group.
But that still might not be enough to get him a plane ticket to New York City, where the finalists will gather to see the Heisman presented on Dec. 8.
The Tigers will likely have to beat Kansas State and Kansas and win the Big 12 title game for Daniel to get serious consideration to win the award.
“At least he’ll get on people’s radar more,” said Frank Bodani, a Heisman voter who covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record. “But they have to win. If Missouri doesn’t win, I think people are going to look at him kind of as an afterthought.”
The Heisman ballots were mailed on Wednesday to the 925 voters, who are required to fill out their top three candidates by Dec 5. Of the voters, 870 are sports journalists throughout the country and 54 are former Heisman winners. A fan vote that is tallied from various NCAA sponsors counts as one vote.
Like the electoral college, the number of voters depends on the population of the state. Thus, larger and more populated states like Florida, Texas and California are going to pull more weight than smaller states like Delaware or Vermont.
Regardless of size, most states outside the Midwest still don’t know much about Daniel.
Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the State Chairman of the Heisman in Missouri. Unlike a majority of voters, Gregorian has seen Daniel multiple times. He said the Missouri quarterback possesses all of the qualities voters look for in a candidate: great stats, leadership and a certain moxie in his demeanor.
Still, Gregorian concedes that Daniel’s quest for the trophy will likely go as far as his team does.
“It’s not really fair, and I don’t think it will necessarily affect how I’ll vote for him as long as he continues to play well, but I think it’s one of those things where there might be people waiting to see if Missouri’s going to struggle at the end,” he said. “And I think that might really hurt his chances if Missouri does.”
Recent history seems to back Gregorian’s claim. Although six of the past 10 Heisman winners have been from schools in the Midwest, four of those players, including Charles Woodson in 1997, Eric Crouch in 2001, Jason White in 2003 and Troy Smith in 2006, reached the BCS National Championship game with his respective team.
Bodani compared Daniel’s nomination to an independent film that’s trying to build up enough steam for an Academy Award nod. Daniel might be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine, but that might not matter if no one knows about him.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are,” Bodani said. “If you have the publicity machine running for you at USC or Florida or Florida State, you’re going to be in everybody’s mind. But Missouri? When’s the last time they had a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate?”
To find that out, you have go back to the college football Stone Age. Quarterback Paul Christman finished third in the voting in 1939 and fifth a year later. The last player to crack the top 10 was lineman Danny LaRose, who finished eighth in 1960. Quarterback Brad Smith mustered a bit of a stir in the middle of the ’03 season, but nothing ever materialized after the team struggled.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder voters are having trouble putting “MU” and “Heisman” together in the same sentence. That’s where MU media relations director Chad Moller comes in. He said he is working on putting together a “grass-roots” campaign that will likely include sending out e-mails to members of the national media and creating a special Web site dedicated to Daniel’s nomination.
“We’re not going to go directing a statue in Times Square or whatever other schools have done,” he said. “But we’ll definitely start linking his name to the H-word.”
The more games the Tigers win, the easier Moller’s job will be. A story about MU’s surprising start was featured in Sports Illustrated last month, and the team has made several cameos on ESPN.com’s college football home page recently.
Voters seem to be noticing the increased publicity, too. The Rocky Mountain News Heisman Trophy poll is the longest-running weekly Heisman poll in the country. The poll is made up of 10 voters, including Gregorian, who vote for five players every week. When the latest poll was released on Monday, Daniel was ranked third, behind Dixon and Tebow.
If the Tigers keep winning and voters get more opportunities to become familiar with Daniel, there’s a good chance he’ll be in New York with the other finalists come December.
“I can’t tell you I’ll vote for him today,” Gregorian said. “There’s so much to consider. But I’d be astonished if he’s not in my top three when the vote comes.”