By RALPH D. RUSSO, Associated Press
For Braxton Miller and No. 7 Ohio State, the Heisman could be their championship trophy.
The Buckeyes' quarterback has grown up fast in Urban Meyer's spread offense. A sophomore in his second season as a starter, Miller is averaging 311 yards total offense per game (16th best in the nation), including 130 a game on the ground (seventh in the nation).
He has accounted for 20 touchdowns, and carried the Buckeyes and their shoddy defense to a 7-0 record. They might be the best team in unimpressive Big Ten, but because Ohio State did not self-impose a bowl ban last year — before the NCAA handed down punishments for the memorabilia-for-tattoos scandal — the Buckeyes' 2012 season will end with the Michigan game on Nov. 24.
While conference and national championships are off the table, the Heisman is very much in play.
"I would have no problem putting Braxton Miller on my Heisman ballot," said Mark Snyder from the Detroit Free Press. "He still plays the games, still has to perform at the level worthy of the award and he had nothing to do with the reason the Buckeyes are sanctioned."
Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph and Columbus Ledger-Enquirer said: "He's blameless, so I won't blame him."
There is also precedent for a player on a bowl-banned team winning the Heisman. Houston quarterback Andre Ware did it in 1989, when he threw for 4,699 yards, 44 touchdowns while directing the Cougars and their run-and-shoot offense to a 9-2 season in the Southwest Conference.
Chris Houston, a Heisman historian who runs www.Heismanpundit.com and does a weekly straw poll of 11 voters, said the sanctions might even work to Miller's advantage with voters.
"They might credit him for keeping the program afloat in tough times," Houston said.
Miller was third behind West Virginia's Geno Smith and Kansas State's Collin Klein in last week's straw poll, and will be no worse than third when this week's comes out Tuesday.
The biggest problem the postseason ban poses for Miller is it keeps him and the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten title game on the final Saturday before Heisman ballots are due.
In recent years, the final weekend of games has become a time for closing arguments in the Heisman race. The last four Heisman winners all played, and played well, during what has become known as championship weekend.
Miller won't play at all, which could provide an opportunity for another contender to make a decisive final impression.
Maybe the most fascinating part of Miller's Heisman candidacy, though, is the way it will be treated by Ohio State.
Meyer has tried to subtly to downplay Miller's Heisman-worthiness, while still talking up his guy.
"I think he's one of those freaks of nature that has a lot of ability and great things can happen to him," Meyer said back in September. "But there won't be billboards posted anywhere or anything like that."
Last week, the message changed a bit.
"I don't think Braxton's a Heisman candidate right now," Meyer said. "I think he's certainly to watch. He's got the ability. But then again, I don't know who is. We're only halfway through the season. In about two or three games I think you can start talking about that. I'm not talking to Braxton about it. We're trying to win some games, so ...
"I think at the right time, he will be a candidate if he continues to play very well."
Coaches with championships to play for don't delve that deeply into Heisman questions in October.
But Meyer understands that if Miller can make a serious run at the big bronze statue, and get an invite to New York city for the awards ceremony on Dec. 8, it keeps the Buckeyes in the headlines even though they won't be preparing for a bowl game.
And what's better to add to a trophy case, anyway, a Heisman Trophy or whatever they give you for winning an Outback Bowl?
SEC and Big 12 officials are expected to decide by the end of October where their new marquee bowl game will be played.
The choice has come down to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans or the Cotton Bowl, now played at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The SEC has had a long and prosperous relationship with the Sugar Bowl and the city of New Orleans. Atlanta is the conference's eastern hub and the site of its championship game. New Orleans is its western home base, and the place it goes to party after the season.
The Big 12 has been sending teams to the Cotton Bowl for a long time, but the city of Dallas has not always been embraced by all the conference's members. Most of the northern members of the Big 12 voted against moving the league offices to the Dallas area out of Kansas City, Mo., after the Big Eight became the Big 12 in 1996. Of course, two of those members — Missouri and Nebraska — are now gone.
If the choice simply came down to venue, Jerry Jones' billion dollar stadium would win in a landslide over the perfectly functional — but not nearly as audacious — Superdome.
Cowboys Stadium holds close to 90,000. The Superdome can hold about 76,000. More tickets equals more revenue.
But fans love going to New Orleans. No city does big sporting events better.
Ultimately, there will be no loser. Whichever group doesn't land the Champions Bowl will still end up in the semifinal rotation for the new playoff system starting in 2014.
They call him Johnny Football, and in the next few weeks we'll find out if Texas A&M redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel can also be called a serious Heisman contender.
A dual-threat quarterback running coach Kevin Sumlin's spread, Manziel is second in the nation in total offense (392 ypg) for the 20th-ranked Aggies.
On Saturday, No. 6 LSU comes to College Station. After that, the Aggies play three road games in three weeks against Auburn, No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama.
— Arizona State coach Todd Graham received plenty of criticism for leaving Pittsburgh after just one season. It's time to give Graham some praise for leading a team with only eight returning starters to a 5-1 start. There is much heavy lifting to come, though. ASU's schedule is backloaded, starting Thursday night when No. 2 Oregon comes to Tempe.
— For all of Wisconsin's issues, you can just about guarantee the Badgers are heading toward their second consecutive Big Ten title game, with a chance to go to a third straight Rose Bowl. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the Legends Division title, and Purdue, Indiana and Illinois a combined 0-8 in the league, Montee Ball and the Badgers (5-2, 2-1) should be able to get to Indianapolis with two more league victories. They play Minnesota this week and are at Indiana on Nov. 10. That should do it.
— The only winless teams left in FCS are Mid-American Conference rivals Massachusetts (0-6) and Eastern Michigan (0-6), and, stunningly, Southern Mississippi (0-6). The Conference USA champions and were expected to contend again under new coach Ellis Johnson, but instead will need to win out to avoid the program's first losing season since 1993.
"I know I've got time to fix it and I know I can." Texas coach Mack Brown, whose team is coming off a 63-21 loss to Oklahoma.
AP sports writers Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, and Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, contributed.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoAP
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