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Thomas Jones,

Tiki Barber broke Virginia rushing records, earned a spot with the New York Giants and graduated with a degree from the Commerce School. But we wouldn't know until three years later that Barber was also a soothsayer.

Back in 1996, when Virginia football fans still were enamored with "The Barbers of C'Ville," (a pun which makes my skin crawl to this day), Tiki predicted that his first-year backup Thomas Jones would break all the records he had set.

It turns out, though, that Barber's predictions might have been only half right. In the process of approaching Barber's records, Jones has established himself as something far more impressive; He is now the best running back in college football.

Don't believe me? Just check the latest statistics. His 221-yard explosion against the Wolfpack gave him 1,109 yards for the year, more than any other back. His 12 touchdowns tie him for sixth in the country in scoring. And in 209 carries, the third-highest in America, he averages 5.3 yards, a stat that also ranks among the nation's finest.

Okay, the stats don't convince you. What about the testimony of others?

Throughout the year, Jones has made believers out of people. George Welsh, who typically shuns lavishing praise on one player, began the chorus after Virginia's 35-7 victory over Wake Forest. Since then, a divergent cast of characters including BYU coach LaVell Edwards, N.C. State head coach Mike O'Cain, Virginia Tech defensive end Corey Moore and ESPN analyst Todd Christensen have sung Jones's praises.

But if you look at the list of top contenders for the Heisman, Jones has about as good a chance to win the gold in female gymnastics in Sydney next summer as he does to take the prize this winter.

After booting Jones from their list following last week's loss to Duke, CNNSI returned the Virginia tri-captain to consideration with the following observation: "We still can't explain why we love him."

In case the crew at Turner-land is suffering from writer's block, a special "Thomas Jones for Heisman" Web site offers multiple reasons why the media should love Jones.

The only problem with the site is that as of Sunday evening, it hadn't been updated since Virginia's loss to Tech. The weekly highlights from Jones' 185-yard performance against Duke were absent.

Now I can see how everyone would want to forget the double-overtime loss to the Blue Devils. But after Jones' showing Saturday, closing down that site might be premature.

By no means is Jones a top contender for the Heisman, so long as Joe Hamilton, Drew Brees, Shaun Alexander and Ron Dayne are still around. But if he keeps up his torrid pace, Jones at least deserves an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club for the ceremony. And if the Cavaliers beat the odds and knock off either Florida State or Georgia Tech, it likely will send Jones' chances skyrocketing.

The Trophy is supposed to go to the best player in college football. A big part of that is how important a player is to the success of his team. And it's not a leap of faith to say that, without Jones, Virginia wouldn't be 4-3, they'd be 0-7. Tell me your heart didn't skip a beat when you saw Jones limp off the field during the first half against the 'Pack.

No one has meant more to their team than Jones has meant to the Cavaliers. That fact, combined with his leadership, academic record and phenomenal statistics on the field, should place Jones among the names mentioned in contention for the Trophy.

All season, reporters, radio and TV announcers and Virginia fans have lamented Jones' lack of national attention. There are five weeks left in the season. So to all that have sung Jones' praises, it's time to put up or shut up.

Otherwise Jones's year, one of the most impressive performances of this college football season, will go largely unnoticed.


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