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The 1998 Heisman Trophy ballot is sitting on my desk. The deadline for mailing it is Dec. 7. I'm going to use all the pondering time, and so should every other voter in the land. The race seems that close.

With the college football season near the end, there is no clear-cut favorite. Instead there are four worthy candidates whose cases should be examined with care.

The voting criterion is simple. The Downtown Athletic Club, which established the award more than 70 years ago, asks that voters identify "the most outstanding college football players in America." It's wide open to interpretation.

To me "outstanding" doesn't translate to "best." If they wanted to name the best player, the NFL scouts should do the voting. In most cases the winner would be the same guy who becomes the top pick in the NFL draft the following April. The "best" player could be an offensive tackle or a linebacker, who might not even be their team's MVP.

My feeling is that "outstanding," in this case at least, means the player most valuable to his team. I voted for past winners like Gino Torretta and Charley Ward even though the pros had little interest in either. They received my vote because I thought they deserved it, whether they ever played a down in the NFL.

Right now I'm still trying to decide on "most valuable" from among the three obvious players and one outsider.

The obvious are Ricky Williams, Texas running back; and two quarterbacks, Cade McNown of UCLA and Michael Bishop of Kansas State. The outsider is Oregon quarterback Akili Smith. It's a big year for quarterbacks.

I'm an admirer of Williams, who has been compared to Earl Campbell, maybe the greatest Longhorn of them all. If he had opted for the pro draft a year ago, Williams probably would have been a top-five pick. He has smashing statistics, but his team had another disappointing season. Working against his election is that the voters confuse him with Texas Tech's good back, another Ricky Williams, who outgained the Longhorn star in Tech's victory two weeks ago.

Some veteran college watchers say Bishop has the strongest passing arm since John Elway's days at Stanford. He's also an outstanding runner, but what he does best is win. Including his junior college seasons, he's lost just one collegiate game, that to No. 1 Nebraska when he was a junior. Bishop's one negative is K-State's cupcake schedule.

UCLA is headed for a national championship matchup against Tennessee and the over-achieving McNown made some enormous clutch plays for a team that lives on its offense. McNown's principal drawback is that he plays in the wrong time zone. Western players get overlooked because they don't appear in enough prime-time TV games to win over Eastern voters.

Smith's time-zone problem is worse than McNown's. Few thought the Ducks would be good enough to merit much national TV time. He threw four touchdown passes in Oregon's opener, a 48-14 upset of Michigan State, then disappeared from the nation's screens until Saturday night when the Ducks played their traditional rival, Oregon State.

The game, or at least part of it, was shown on MSG, the cable network. After Smith sent Oregon ahead in overtime with his fourth touchdown pass of the game, the network blacked out. It never did resume programming. Oregon State eventually won on its possession in the second overtime.

It was like watching the famous "Heidi" game without seeing the pig-tailed Swiss moppet.

It didn't really matter to voters, who saw Smith direct the Ducks' short-passing game about as well as it could be directed. Oregon lost three running backs to injury, which meant it was Smith vs. the World.

It's been like that for a while. Oregon lost its best back six games ago in a 41-38 overtime loss to UCLA. Arizona's tough defense stopped Smith, but in the last three games he threw 11 scoring passes and finished with 30 for the season. Oregon finished 9-3, with two losses in overtime.

Smith deserves some thoughtful consideration.

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