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The battle for number 1: Mr. Heisman vs. Mr. Heupel

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Chris Weinke

[AP photo]
Josh Heupel

You've heard athletes say this before: They would trade any individual award for the success of their team. Tonight, the Heisman winner takes on the runner-up, and this time, the prize both truly covet is at stake - the national championship.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001


MIAMI -- In many ways, the quarterbacks in tonight's national championship Orange Bowl game couldn't be more dissimilar.

Florida State's Chris Weinke is renowned for his powerful right arm. Oklahoma's Josh Heupel is a lefty known for his uncanny accuracy. Off the field, Weinke is outgoing; Heupel shy.

Then there's that age thing. Weinke, who spent six years playing minor-league baseball, is 28. When he shaves, the baby-faced Heupel appears even younger than 22. Even FSU coach Bobby Bowden couldn't resist calling one a "grand daddy" and one a "grandson."

Yet they will be linked forever by this year's Heisman Trophy race.

Weinke edged Heupel by a Bush-over-Gore-like margin of 76 points to win college football's most cherished individual prize, setting up just the third bowl matchup between the top two Heisman finishers and only the second with such high stakes.

Ohio State's Archie Griffin and USC's Anthony Davis were 1-2 in the Heisman in 1974, but the Trojans beat OSU 18-17 in the Rose Bowl to claim the top spot in the coaches poll. (Oklahoma won the AP vote.)

"It is coincidental," Bowden said. "That adds a little more luster to the game."

And an intriguing subplot.

While Davis said his main objective was to win a title, "I did have that thought in the back of my mind" to show Griffin and the voters who the nation's best back was that year. (He and Griffin both were injured in the game, Griffin finishing with 75 yards on 20 carries and Davis with 67 yards on 13 attempts.)

Pittsburgh players had a similar idea in the 1980 Gator Bowl against South Carolina and Heisman winning tailback George Rogers. Pittsburgh star defensive end Hugh Green, the runner-up, and his team cruised to an easy 37-9 victory.

Some of the Sooners can relate.

"There's always that opportunity to make people second-guess themselves," OU sophomore receiver Damian Mackey said. "We're not going to say, "We're going out on the field with just that intention,' but as the game plays out, hopefully people will realize Josh Heupel was a very good candidate and he should have got more votes than he got."

"When he lost, we said, "Okay. We'll go out there on Jan. 3 and show the nation who the best quarterback really is,' " added senior free safety J.T. Thatcher. "That motivated us. It made us mad. We'd like to win one for No. 14."

But Heupel adamantly insists that the Heisman verdict has no bearing for him on tonight's game.

"No one on this team cares about individual awards; it's not something anybody is concerned about," he said, pausing to glance at the Sears Trophy only a few yards to his left. "That's the ultimate goal. That's what we set out to do at the beginning of the year. The Heisman Trophy was not something I was concerned about. It was not a goal of mine. My goal, our goal, is to win the national championship."

The consensus No. 1-ranked Sooners (12-0), among the nation's elite for the first time in more than a decade and in a major bowl for the first time since the 1987 season, can do that with an upset of defending champ and No. 3 FSU (11-1).

"I don't believe he'll get caught up in a personal battle with Chris Weinke," said OU quarterbacks coach Chuck Long, himself a tantalizingly close Heisman runner-up in 1985 to Bo Jackson. "That's not his style...He's as ultimate a team player as I've been around as a quarterback and I can't say that for every quarterback I've been around."

FSU folks say the same thing about Weinke, the undisputed leader of a team in its third straight Bowl Championship Series finale that's bidding to become just the second team in two decades to defend its title.

"I was fortunate to win the Heisman and I'll take it; I'm not giving it back," Weinke said.

"But the reason I came back was to win another national championship. There was no more satisfaction last year than being able to hold that Sears Trophy and say, "We accomplished this as a team.' As proud as I am of the Heisman, and it is an honor, there's nothing better than holding the national championship trophy. To be honest with you, with all respect to the Heisman Trophy, I could care less about that right now. My focus is on winning this football game."

But Weinke also recognizes what a sterling, winning performance might mean to all those who believed he deserved to take home that bronze statute symbolizing this season's best player and to all those who didn't.

"I think by winning this game it's kind of putting a stamp on that award," he said. "If you find a way to win, it answers a lot of questions for the people who think maybe someone else should have won it."

That's not to suggest he will press. But had he finished second to Heupel, FSU offensive coordinator Mark Richt, for one, isn't so sure that wouldn't have been the case.

"I think it would have been a problem if he had lost," Richt said, adding that Weinke does recognize this game will help "define his career" and his place in FSU history.

In terms of success, Weinke and Charlie Ward each have a championship ring and a Heisman Trophy. A second ring would separate Weinke. Even though he is blessed to be surrounded by a veteran, talented cast, Weinke is the key for the Seminoles.

"Chris Weinke has been more influential than Peter Warrick was in coming back last year," Bowden said. "He's a guy who provides stability. He's the starting point for stability on this football team. I've got some other stable players, mature players, but he's the ignition."

So too is Heupel for the Sooners.

"If you look at Josh Heupel and where he's taken this team, he was voted the offensive player of the league in the Big 12 and the only other guy we had on first-team all-conference on offense was our left tackle, Frank Romero. That tells you how important he is to us," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

Bowden, in fact, sees in Heupel the same kind of composure, mental and physical toughness and big-play capability that has been Weinke's signature.

"I think if either quarterback gets hot, then they'll win; whoever that is," Bowden said. "That's how good these quarterbacks are. They are great quarterbacks and they are opposites."

In most ways, any way.

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