Spiller is ready for his close-up

pstrelow@thestate.comNovember 17, 2009 

Clemson running back C.J. Spiller

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM

  • CAVALIERS AT TIGERS

    WHO: Virginia (3-7, 2-4 ACC) at Clemson (7-3, 5-2)

    WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

    WHERE: Memorial Stadium

    TV: ABC

    RADIO: ESPN Radio 93.1 FM

    LINE: Clemson by 21

    THESTATE.COM/TIGERS: Live chat with Paul Strelow, 3 p.m. Thursday

CLEMSON - Alabama running back Mark Ingram gets a crack at Florida's vaunted defense in the SEC championship game.

Two quarterbacks with name recognition - Texas' Colt McCoy and Florida's Tim Tebow - are in position to lead their respective unbeaten teams to the national title.

Even Stanford running back Toby Gerhart has the chance to impress the old guard in a matchup against Notre Dame.

As for Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's best shot at making a final splash in the Heisman Trophy race - well, the Tigers presumably have to reach the Dec. 5 ACC title game to provide him the platform for making a closing argument.

"He has a chance, but it's going to be very tough for him," ESPN writer Bruce Feldman said. "He's a dynamic player and is as explosive as anyone in the country, but is he going to get the chance to get everyone's attention?"

The 926 Heisman ballots will be distributed Wednesday and are due Dec. 7 - two days after the Saturday slate of conference championships. The 18th-ranked Tigers can advance to meet No. 7 Georgia Tech in Tampa, Fla., by beating Virginia this weekend or via a Boston College loss in its final two contests.

Heisman finalists are announced the same day ballots are due, and the accounting firm that handles the tabulation will determine the number of finalists based on the "natural break" in the voting tally. Between three and six finalists are invited to the Heisman ceremonies in New York, although there have not been six since 1994.

The handful of national college football analysts interviewed by The State on Monday unanimously believe Spiller's Heisman candidacy is gaining steam.

He ranks fifth in ESPN's writers poll, with NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper championing Spiller's cause in interviews. SI.com writer Gene Menez has Spiller third. All five of CBSSports.com's analysts included Spiller among the top five in their poll.

Still, opinions were tempered by the obstacles Spiller must overcome to earn an invitation.

"Spiller's a guy that everybody knows to think about, but I'm not sure everybody has seen," said Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com. "And I don't know that people are going to want to vote for someone they don't know that much about."

First, there is the matter of Spiller's competition - both in terms of production and perception.

Ingram is widely regarded as the front-runner and has staying power because of his stats and Alabama's resume. Feldman thinks many voters will pencil in McCoy for second or third place as a career achievement honor. Tebow's candidacy is the elephant in the room; momentum seems to have turned against him, although a breakout performance could easily turn the tide.

Yet because no candidate has seized the court of public opinion, the pecking order is believed more volatile than normal. Gerhart is suddenly No. 2 on numerous lists after a 181-yard, three-touchdown showing against Southern California. Houston quarterback Case Keenum plummeted with his team's loss, and Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore remains in the conversation due to his gaudy passing numbers and team success.

Somewhere between the first group and the second seems to lie Spiller, who popped back on the radar with 310 all-purpose yards at Miami more than three weeks ago and garnered publicity for tallying touchdowns via run, pass and catch Saturday at N.C. State.

Fiutak contends Spiller's greatest hurdle boils down to exposure, especially as it compares to the rest of his competition down the stretch.

Spiller can be seen on an ABC regional telecast Saturday in a matchup with struggling Virginia that doesn't figure to carry widespread appeal. Then, in the regular-season finale, he will go against USC in a noon ESPN telecast with marginally more marketing zest.

Even if Clemson reaches the Dec. 5 ACC title game on ESPN as expected, it will be competing in the 8 p.m. slot with McCoy and the Big 12 championship on ABC. Those games will follow the highly anticipated 4 p.m. SEC clash featuring Tebow and Ingram.

"It will be interesting to see what happens in the SEC championship, especially if neither of those guys has a big game," SI.com writer Stewart Mandel said.

"I'm almost of the opinion it's going to come down to that last day. Whoever has the biggest game on the big stage that day is going to win it."

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