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Jones, Dayne vie for title of best back in football

At virtually every Virginia football game, there are many Cavalier fans toting signs in attempts to get their faces on TV. But during Saturday's game against Buffalo, a non-televised game, the usual abundance of signs was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was one large sign hanging from the top of the student section of Scott Stadium that said very simply, "TJ for President and Heisman."

That one sign summed up what many Virginia fans have said all season and what the Heisman voters finally may be realizing.

But while Cavalier fans and the Virginia football team have been singing Thomas Jones' praises, the fourth year has remained silent about his desire for the Heisman Trophy.

"You can't worry about why someone thinks this about you or why someone thinks this about someone else," Jones said. "You have no control over that, and the people that are voting and that make that kind of decision -- it's up to them. All you can do is go out and play. You can't worry about what everyone else is thinking."

But for the first time all season, Jones is established as one of the top contenders for the biggest award in college football. On the CNN-SI Web site, Jones is listed as the No. 4 prospect to win the Trophy. He's the second-highest running back on the list, behind Ron Dayne of Wisconsin. Dayne broke Ricky Williams' NCAA career rushing record this weekend, further bolstering his chances for the Heisman.

Although Jones' spot is lower than most Cavalier fans might want for the tailback, it is a large step up from the lack of recognition that Jones had at the beginning of the season.

"It feels strange," Jones said. "You go from someone that is being productive but not getting a lot of recognition to someone who gets a lot of recognition all of a sudden."

But the recognition Jones is getting is credit that the Big Stone Gap, Va., native has earned by running over defenses and several records in the process.

Jones shattered former Cav Tiki Barber's rushing record and leads the ACC not only in rushing but also in receiving by a running back. He has had four 200-yard games this season and holds the Conference mark for most 200-yard games. And with 1,707 rushing yards thus far this season and one game left to play, Jones sits only 127 yards behind Dayne's season total. Dayne completed his regular season Saturday against Iowa.

While many consider Dayne the best running back in the country as well as the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, a large part of that comes from the fact that Dayne and Jones came into two very different programs and had very different roles.

Jones entered a Virginia program with Barber and other established offensive threats and spent much of the 1996 campaign serving as a backup. While he played in every game, the understudy role limited his productivity.

Meanwhile, Dayne entered Madison as the starting running back, a role that he has kept for all four years with the Badgers. In his freshman year, while Jones was backing up Barber, Dayne rushed for 2,109 yards.

Even in Jones' second and third years, after Barber graduated, he shared the running back duties with Antwoine Womack who, after being brought up on charges of malicious wounding during the off season, chose to redshirt this season for personal reasons. This year was Jones' first opportunity to have the brunt of the running duties completely to himself.

So it's no wonder Dayne has more career rushing yards than Jones. What Jones does have over Dayne, however, is 227 yards in receiving on the season, while Dayne only has nine.

The Heisman Trophy is intended to go to the best player in college football in that given season. With Dayne's phenomenal second half, along with his attainment of the NCAA career rushing mark, his status as a frontrunner is assured. But as Jones continues to rack up yards and shatter records, the question remains: Who is truly the best running back in the country? Not surprisingly, Jones has several of those votes, if not votes for the Heisman as well.

"How much did he have, 180 yards?" said Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden after the Virginia-FSU game Oct. 30. "If you knew how hard we worked to not let him get 100; he's working on his second 100. He's too much. I'll be honest with you. I think he's the best running back in the nation. I know Dayne's mighty good up there at Wisconsin, but there couldn't be one better than Jones."

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