USC's Marquise Lee is upended short of the goal line as Oregon's… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Who is the best player in college football?
USC posed the question, in bold type, at the start of a video it released Wednesday to hype one of its stars for the Heisman Trophy and other postseason awards.
The subject of the promotion was not Matt Barkley.
Sophomore receiver Marqise Lee, coming off spectacular performances against Arizona and Oregon, is the focus of the 1-minute 46-second video.
"Strike when the iron's hot," USC sports information director Tim Tessalone explained.
Tessalone said Lee's video was released to coincide with the start of balloting for the Biletnikoff Award, presented annually to college football's top receiver. He added that "there are things in the works" for other players who might be in contention for postseason awards and that they would be launched "if and when it's appropriate."
Barkley, who was regarded as the Heisman front-runner after announcing he would return for his senior year, has been the subject of a promotional campaign since before the start of the season. The quarterback's Heisman buzz faded, however, as the Trojans lost to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon.
Barkley has passed for 30 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He has been announced as a semifinalist for several postseason awards.
"Matt Barkley, from day one, has been very visible along with a number of our players," Tessalone said. "At this point in time, the timing is appropriate for this one" about Lee.
The video features highlights of Lee, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards, and superimposed quotes from coaches such as Oregon's Chip Kelly, UCLA's Jim Mora and Stanford's David Shaw, who said Tuesday that Lee was the best college receiver he'd seen since Randy Moss.
"When other people are making statements like that, I think that should be even more powerful than a video being sent out," Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin said after Wednesday's practice.
This is not the first time that USC has had to balance Heisman campaigns.
In 2004, junior quarterback Matt Leinart was the leading candidate, but sophomore tailback Reggie Bush made a strong push as the season wore on. Both players made it to New York for the annual Heisman ceremony, where Leinart was announced as the winner.
In 2005, after Leinart had decided to forgo the NFL draft, USC ran dual Heisman campaigns. Bush and Leinart both returned to New York, where Bush was announced as the winner.
Lee's recent performances — he had 877 all-purpose yards against Arizona and Oregon — vaulted him into third place in the latest HeismanPundit/CBSSports.com Heisman straw poll.
Chris Huston, a CBSSports.com analyst and founder of heismanpundit.com, called Lee "by far the most likely candidate" for the Trojans because "Barkley's narrative is over."
"His candidacy is more susceptible to losses than Lee's," said Huston, a former USC assistant sports information director. "When you're a quarterback, whatever you do is seen as being liable or responsible for the team's overall record."
Huston said Barkley was expected to lead a top-ranked USC team back to glory after a two-year bowl ban. The Trojans are 6-3 going into Saturday's game against Arizona State.
"All the factors working in his favor or that could have worked in his favor have declined," Huston said.
Huston said Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the 2007 Heisman, despite the Gators' 9-3 regular-season record, because of an overwhelming statistical season. Tebow accounted for more than 50 touchdowns passing and rushing.
Baylor's Robert Griffin III won last year despite a 9-3 record because he had outstanding statistics, dramatic victories and had taken "a normally floundering program and took it to national relevance," Huston said.