Winston’s legal issues cloud final stages of Heisman race

11/24/2013 4:06 PM

11/24/2013 4:07 PM

If all that mattered was playing football, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would have a hammerlock on the Heisman Trophy race this morning.

But more is involved, starting with the same integrity clause for candidates that led some voters to announce plans to disqualify Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel from the 2013 race before the defending champ took his first snap of the season.

Manziel drew voter rebukes amid allegations he took money for signing memorabilia against NCAA rules.

The same integrity issue applies to Winston. But his situation is way more serious than anything attached to Manziel.

Unless you have spent the past week in total isolation, you should know Winston leads the NCAA in passing efficiency (194.5 rating) and has No. 2 FSU (11-0) on pace to meet No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in the BCS National Championship Game.

You also should realize Winston led his team to Saturday’s 80-14 rout of Idaho while playing against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation into a 2012 sexual assault case that implicates him.

Winston, a redshirt freshman, has not been charged in the incident. State Attorney Willie Meggs has said it is unlikely that a final decision about charging Winston will be made before Thanksgiving.

Until officials in Florida make a call in regard to charging Winston, Heisman voters will be in a bind as they head to the ballot box if they seek to follow the Heisman Trust’s stated goal to honor the nation’s most outstanding player “whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

The predicament drew lots of chatter among Heisman voters gathered to watch Saturday’s Texas A&M-LSU game in Baton Rouge, La. The consensus opinion, which I hold, seems to be that Winston should not be punished by award voters for an allegation or an implication.

Only when an official charge enters the picture, if it ever does, should Winston’s off-field issue cloud the on-field candidacy of a freshman who already has thrown six more touchdown passes (32) and posted a higher completion rate (69.6 pct.) than Manziel did last year while becoming the first freshman winner in Heisman history.

But one fellow voter made it clear he would be uncomfortable watching Winston hoist the Heisman, followed shortly thereafter by an official charge that goes way beyond a question of integrity. The voter predicted Winston will suffer accordingly at the ballot box, which will be interesting to track.

Ballots were due Sunday to determine finalists for other postseason honors that ask voters to examine character-related issues, including the 2013 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award.

If Winston emerges Monday as one of the three O’Brien finalists, that should offer some insight about what type of response he can anticipate from Heisman voters. If Winston is not an O’Brien finalist, that speaks loudly, too.

Let’s also remember that a legal charge, regardless of the alleged crime, does not equal a conviction. But an official charge will raise more questions on the integrity front than a mere allegation. Either way, voters will be forced to make a judgment call on Winston in regard to his worthiness for postseason honors.

The hanging chad in this Florida-related election involves the state’s legal system and the timing of its investigation. If charges are levied against Winston before Dec. 9, the day most ballots will be returned following a weekend of conference championship games, Winston’s approval rating among Heisman voters could fall meteorically.

If no charges surface until after the Heisman winner is revealed Dec. 14 in New York, it seems likely that Winston took a giant step toward a historic moment by stepping up Saturday on an afternoon when three fellow Heisman front-runners, including Manziel, backslid badly in lopsided losses.

Manziel, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the presumed Final Five in the 2013 Heisman race, along with Winston and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, were stymied in blowout losses to LSU (Manziel), Oklahoma State (Petty) and Arizona (Mariota).

Winston’s individual stats dwarf McCarron’s. That makes the separation between those two a pretty clear call unless voters choose to turn the 2013 race into a career achievement award for the Crimson Tide signal-caller, who has a chance to lead his team to an unprecedented third consecutive BCS national title.

Will that become the fallback option for Heisman voters who choose not to vote for Winston? Will Saturday’s developments and Winston’s unsettled legal situation open the door for a late charge by some under-the-radar candidate?

Two to track from undefeated teams would be Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, who leads the nation in total offense (405.2 yards per game), and Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch. Lynch, a dual threat, has rushed for 1,434 yards (with 17 TDs) and passed for 2,418, with 21 TD passes against 5 interceptions.

As of now, Winston still seems to be college football’s flavor of the month. But we’re only one legal update away from potential chaos in the 2013 Heisman race.

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