ATLANTA -- On the surface, it seems a bit far-fetched. Dig a little deeper, though, and it is conceivable that a Clemson player will begin his campaign for the 2008 Heisman Trophy in tonight's Chick-fil-A Bowl.
A huge game from running back James Davis could thrust him into the national spotlight, a position that could carry him into next season should he decide to return for his senior season.
A more likely candidate to emerge tonight is quarterback Cullen Harper, who never found his way into the Heisman picture this season because he was a relative unknown as a first-year starter.
Harper could shed his unknown status with a sterling performance tonight and could add luster to his national prominence with another strong showing in Clemson's proposed 2008 season-opener against Alabama.
There is one other factor that plays in the infancy of a player's Heisman candidacy.
"I think he'd have to win big games on TV. It's all related to winning," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "You've got to win. You've got to play a (good) schedule. If he was to win this game, the Alabama game and all that ..."
Bowden's words trailed off because such talk really is about wandering into the great unknown. Few would have imagined Florida quarterback Tim Tebow winning the Heisman this season, simply because it was his first as a starter and because he was a sophomore.
No one could have projected at this time last year that the name Cullen Harper and the Heisman Trophy would ever be mentioned in the same sentence. He entered this season just as green and wet behind the ears as quarterback Will Proctor the season before, and we know how that played out.
Yet, despite having thrown only 22 passes in his first three Clemson seasons, Harper played like a poised veteran from the outset. He became the first Clemson quarterback to defeat a top-25 opponent (No. 19 Florida State) in his first career start and to win his first four games as a starter since Chris Morocco in 1988-89.
"When a guy has never played, you always think, but you never know, how they're going to respond under pressure, during TV games, when they are ahead, behind, all that stuff. You never know," Bowden said.
Clemson soon found out that Harper had poise beyond his experience, more than adequate arm strength as a passer, and leadership qualities that showed most when his teammates elected him a permanent team captain.
"When you look at a player in this conference, at that position, and you measure his statistics at the end of the season and where he ends up, and the defenses that he plays against week in and week out, I would say that he has exceeded my expectations," says Rob Spence, Clemson's offensive coordinator.
The statistics of which Spence speaks are quite remarkable. Tthe passing numbers are amazingly similar to those produced this season by Florida's Tebow. Harper threw for 2,887 yards and completed 67 percent of his passes, including 27 for touchdowns. He threw six interceptions.
Tebow completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,132 yards, 29 touchdowns and six interceptions. Of course, Tebow won the Heisman because of his dual abilities as a runner as well as passer. He rushed for 838 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Tebow, no doubt, will be the leading candidate to win the Heisman again next season. He is among seven returning quarterbacks from a "Rivals.com" list of college football's top 10 quarterbacks this season.
Harper is No. 10 on that list, behind Tebow (No. 1), Missouri's Chase Daniel (3), West Virginia's Pat White (4), Kansas' Todd Reesing (5), Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (7) and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell (9).
Harper's statistics match up in nearly every category except passing yardage with all of those quarterbacks. All likely will enter next season as contenders to dethrone Tebow as the Heisman winner. There is every reason to believe Harper could improve his numbers for next season simply by gaining more experience.
Clemson has had several Heisman candidates over the years, most notably quarterback Steve Fuller in 1979 and defensive tackle William Perry in 1984. In those days, a player earned Heisman candidacy by not only their play on the field but also how well they were promoted by the school's sports information staff.
Clemson printed T-shirts with "Fuller for the Heisman" across the front and distributed paper refrigerators touting William "The Refrigerator" Perry for the nation's top football award.
These days, there is a quicker route to gaining recognition for national awards. It is paramount that your team wins and wins big. An ACC championship would go a long way to boosting Harper's candidacy. It also is important that a player has big games on national television.
That is why any chance of Harper becoming a Heisman candidate begins tonight when Clemson faces Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on national TV.