It likely isn’t the most popular reading for the sports fan between pitching changes every summer, yet it arrives in the inbox about the same time every year, as routine as a sweltering July day in North Texas.
Award watch lists have been a part of the college football preseason for the better part of three generations, but unlike its forefathers, the lists today smack of the cultural phenomena of everybody wins a trophy.
The lists have become as long as a politician’s catalog of white lies.
Of 19 college football player awards — not including the most prestigious, the Heisman Trophy, and the ones for spirit and scholars — 986 players are on watch lists released this month. The Lombardi Award, presented to the top interior lineman, leads the way with 123 players. The Bronko Nagurski Award, presented to the best defensive player in the country, has 81 players to watch.
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“For me it’s a great honor and privilege,” said Nick O’Toole, the handlebar mustachioed punter at West Virginia, one of 25 punters on the preseason Ray Guy Award watch list.
“But you have to take it with a grain of salt. Everybody is on it. When the first one came out last season, everybody’s all excited and there’s like 55 guys on it or something. I’m, like, ‘OK, well, that’s like every team in the nation.’ In my head, everybody’s on it. There’s nothing special about it.
“My dad was really happy about it, though.”
There’s also a better chance than not that the ultimate winner announced after the season won’t even have been on the watch list.
Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Florida State’s Jameis Winston weren’t on any watch lists, yet they are the past two winners of the Davey O’Brien Award, presented to the best quarterback. This year, 39 players are on the O’Brien preseason list.
The O’Brien watch list is compiled through a three-step process, said Bill Brady, executive director of the Davey O’Brien Foundation.
An independent media partner makes up the initial list, which is then sent to a subset of O’Brien voters. That committee vets the credentials of each and filters the list of potential nominees before sending it off to the board for approval.
Brady said there were about 48 names on the initial list.
“In a perfect world, we don’t want the number to be 39,” Brady said. “I think last year it was 34 or 35. More than one person had an argument or a position on each one of those kids.”
Universities embrace the recognition and an opportunity to market all its products. As longtime college football observer Dan Jenkins said wryly: “All it does, to my mind, is give the college publicists another avenue to make a preseason headline.”
There is another reason for the proliferation of the college watch lists and it probably will not surprise you.
The sports network behemoth’s College Football Awards show is broadcast each December.
As part of coordinating and marketing that effort, ESPN also helps promote the watch lists by assisting the National College Football Awards Association. The more players on the list, the broader their potential audience becomes.
“Ten days in July … 15 watch lists,” read the awards association’s promotional.
It’s a win for the schools, the awards foundations and the network.
The O’Brien Award’s watch list was released on July 16. Winston made it this year, as did Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota. Rakeem Cato of Marshall and Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion are there, too.
Since the July 16 release, Brady said: “We’ve had a significant amount of activity about our award. We’re still getting re-tweets and favorites off it. That’s what the watch list allows: One, it allows recognition of young talented people, but it also identifies and brands the award.
“Anytime we can market and identify our award is a positive for us.”
The list, too, serves a purpose, O’Toole and Biletnikoff watch-lister Antwan Goodley of Baylor said.
It’s another avenue to compete. There are 25 or 55 or whatever other guys they’re trying to best each week. When the finalists are announced, they want to be one of them.
“That’s great for us. It’s great for Baylor,” Petty said. “There was a time when there wasn’t a Baylor football player on there.”
“I don’t pay attention to them because at the end of the day a preseason watch list doesn’t matter.”