Clausen's Heisman hopes hinge on clash with Trojans

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As autumn takes hold and the football season enters its seventh week, the landscape unique to each college season slowly reveals itself.

For a Heisman race that was one of the most highly anticipated in memory, what has emerged was not necessarily expected, but still filled with intrigue. With last year’s Heisman finalists all returning for another season, many expected Colt McCoy to wage battle with previous winners Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford. Yet the season has not gone according to plan, and whether it be injury or play worthy of mere mortals, the Heisman race is far from finished as the ides of October approach.

Summing up where Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen fits in all of this is a complicated proposition. By the numbers, Clausen deserves to be at the forefront of the Heisman discussion. He’s competing 67 percent of his throws, averaging 308 yards passing per game (his only sub 300-yard game was Purdue, where he sat out a large chunk), and has 12 touchdown passes against only 2 interceptions. Yet Clausen also has failed to pass any major test. While Notre Dame fans offer a clutch 4th-quarter drive in the last-second loss to Michigan, and valiant comeback victories against Purdue and Washington, Clausen has yet to engineer a singular “Heisman moment” that could catapult his candidacy ahead of mainstays McCoy and Tebow.

But Clausen is in a position to take the leap.

HeismanPundit.com is a website dedicated to “breaking down the politics of the most prestigious awards in sports.” Managed and edited by former USC assistant sports information director Chris Huston, Huston worked first-hand directing successful Heisman campaigns for former Trojan quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Huston coordinates the Heismanpundit/Orlando Sentinel Heisman Poll, a weekly survey of actual Heisman voters that was the most accurate predictor of all polls last season, and even became a Heisman voter in August of 2009. (Basically, he knows his stuff.)

Catching up with Chris yesterday night, he had this to say about Clausen’s candidacy.

“If Clausen leads the Irish to a win over USC, he’ll finally have that signature victory over a quality opponent that has eluded him for so long.  Heisman voters know he’s good, they just don’t know if he’s good enough to get Notre Dame over that hump.  Beat the Trojans and they’ll finally believe.  Clausen would probably move into the Heisman lead with a good performance in a win over USC.”

A quick look at other the major media outlets reveals that the Notre Dame signal-caller has gotten people’s attention. Last Saturday during ESPN’s popular College GameDay, Clausen spoke live to Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, who both sang Jimmy’s praises. ESPN’s Heisman Watch has Clausen running third behind Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy.

Gene Menez, who captains Sports Illustrated’s Heisman Watch put Clausen at his top spot, and said that “it’s safe to say that no other game on Clausen’s schedule will have a bigger impact on his chances to become Notre Dame’s eighth Heisman winner than Saturday’s.”

The Sporting News’ Matt Hayes has Jimmy Clausen sitting third in his Heisman race after six weeks, with Clausen behind Tebow and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who historically has little chance to actually win the award. Hayes also focuses in on this weekend’s matchup. “Beat USC next week and gain instant credibility.”

At CBS Sportsline, their five-man Heisman panel has Clausen sitting narrowly atop Tebow in first place, with — surprise — this week’s game against Southern Cal a huge spotlight for Jimmy and the Irish.

And finally, NBC Sports very own Race for the Heisman has Clausen in a four-man race with Tebow, McCoy, and Suh, who caught the eye of many football fans with his dominating defensive performance on a rainy Thursday night in Missouri last week.

You could say that the season starts here for Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish. If Clausen and Notre Dame have any greater aspirations for this season, they’ll need to find a way to defeat their nemesis in Southern California, a team that has had their way with the Irish since Charlie Weis came to South Bend.

If Clausen can manage that feat, it’ll be a brave new world for the Irish quarterback. Expect a website that is already in its planning stages to be launched by the Irish’s Sports Information department. Expect a media frenzy that is already buzzing around Clausen to be a full-fledged circus. And expect Jimmy Clausen, a player who walked into Notre Dame with the self-imposed burden of great expectations, to emerge from this weekend’s storm the front-runner for college football’s most coveted award.