With the sexual assault investigation of Florida State star quarterback Jameis Winston still perhaps a week away from a resolution, the 929 Heisman Trophy voters face a difficult question before they submit their ballots by Monday's deadline.
Should rape allegations factor into the Heisman candidacy of the quarterback for the top-ranked Seminoles, even if he has not been — and may never be — arrested or charged with a crime?
"It's definitely uncharted territory," said Chris Huston, noted Heisman guru and publisher of heismanpundit.com.
Previous scandals have never lingered this close to the voting deadline.
The NCAA cleared Cam Newton of wrongdoing before Auburn won the SEC championship, paving his way for the 2010 Heisman. Reggie Bush's NCAA violations only surfaced after he won the 2005 Heisman at Southern Cal. Criminal charges during the season kept early favorites like FSU's Peter Warrick (1999) and Nebraska's Lawrence Phillips (1995) off the field and out of the top five in voting.
Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, met with investigators last week because he feared the long investigation could hurt his client's Heisman chances. But the State Attorney's Office in Tallahassee has indicated its investigation into a sexual assault reported almost a year ago might continue into next week. Jansen, who has not returned multiple phone messages, has repeatedly said Winston did nothing wrong.
So what happens if the Heisman Trophy front-runner is charged with rape after ballots are submitted but before the ceremony? Or what if an innocent man loses college football's most prestigious individual honor because of false accusations?
Heisman coordinator Tim Henning said the award has never had to redo a vote, but otherwise declined to talk about specific scenarios regarding Winston.
"The Heisman Trust would be responsible for making any type of decisions should one be necessary," Henning said of the nine-person committee that manages the award.
Winston's off-the-field uncertainty is the only drama surrounding an otherwise clear-cut Heisman race. Winston's 192.6 passing efficiency rating is on track to set an NCAA record. In the Bowl Championship Series era, only three quarterbacks of top-five teams have put up similar statistics (3,400 yards, 35 touchdowns) and not won the Heisman: USC's Matt Leinart (2003), Stanford's Andrew Luck (2011) and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (2011).
Winston also meets most of Huston's "Heismandments," including playing for a national title contender at a blue-blood program and starring in marquee games.
Winston's only previous known run-ins with police were minor and resolved without charges filed: A Burger King manager alleged Winston stole soda from a machine in July, and he and three teammates were accused of damaging their apartment building during a BB gun battle in November 2012.
Although the Heisman Trust's mission statement says the award goes to the top player who best exhibits "the pursuit of excellence with integrity," the ballot for voters — including the Tampa Bay Times' Antonya English — is simpler: Pick the most outstanding player in college football, as long as he's a bona fide student and in compliance with NCAA bylaws.
"The only thing that prevents him from being a slam dunk and winning this thing going away are these (possible) charges," said Huston, also a Heisman voter.
Voters aren't supposed to disclose their ballots before the deadline. But if you believe Vegas odds and polls, Winston is winning the race going away regardless, with all-or-nothing ballots.
Winston took 45 of 52 first-place votes in unscientific straw polls from USA Today, ESPN and Heisman Pundit. A $2,000 bet on Winston at sportsbook.com nets only $100. Bovada, a sports betting site, pegs Winston as a 1/5 favorite.
Winston's case has gotten two recent boosts. No damaging information has leaked in the past week. In the straw polls, he was only left off four ballots — down from seven the week before.
And no other candidate has starred while the accusations swirled. Losses last week hurt the campaigns of Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. An injury derailed late-charging running back Andre Williams of Boston College, leaving Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch a distant second to Winston.
"Because the race is so spread out among so many different candidates, he's still the front-runner," Huston said.
Perhaps only the State Attorney's Office can change that.
Times staff writer Tia Mitchell and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]