Frisco, Texas

Say this about those who vote on the Football Championship Subdivision's top awards: They treat their ballots like the College of Cardinals treat the papal Conclave. Secrecy is of the highest order. The only thing missing is the puff of white smoke when winners are selected. I'll check the sky above the Embassy Suites in Frisco, Texas, on Friday night. Maybe I missed it last year.

There's also this possibility, one supposes: Maybe those who vote on the FCS awards just don't care enough to respond when somebody asks them about their ballots.

Either way, your intrepid columnist's attempt to get a pulse of who might prevail in the voting for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in FCS, ran into a wall as stout as those outside Vatican City.

Kevin Thomson, a junior quarterback from Sacramento State, is one of four players vying for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Bob Solorio / Sacramento State Athletics
Kevin Thomson, a junior quarterback from Sacramento State, is one of four players vying for the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Bob Solorio / Sacramento State Athletics

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The idea was to offer voters the opportunity to respond anonymously to a straw poll asking them to share their Payton ballots, on which they were asked to list their top five choices by STATS FCS, which administers the division's major awards. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place vote four points, a third-place vote three points, a fourth-place vote two points and a fifth-place vote one point.

I sent emails in early December, about a week after the actual voting closed, to the more than 160 voters listed by STATS FCS as having ballots on awards. I included a detailed explanation of the project and a Google Forms document that allowed them to list their top five choices for the award anonymously. There was no way I could find out whose ballots had been submitted. I also allowed them the option of emailing me their voting choices and giving me some comments, if they didn't mind letting people know how they voted and why.

I was hoping 50-75 ballots would be returned, enough to give a very unofficial flavor of how the voting might go and to allow North Dakota State fans a peek at whether Bison freshman quarterback Trey Lance had a real shot at the award. Lance is, indeed, one of four players invited to the banquet at which the award, considered the Heisman Trophy of the FCS, will be announced. That means he finished in the top four in the voting.

Total number of voters who responded to the straw poll: 19.

That's less flavor than a glass of water.

There can be no sweeping conclusions from the 19 ballots that were shared with me, other than perhaps how much of a crapshoot the FCS top awards can be. Players from every corner of the country, from conferences and schools that rarely make a national splash, received top-five votes. That includes some first-place votes.

Lance received his share of votes, obviously, as did the other three finalists in Kevin Thomson, a junior quarterback from Sacramento State; Case Cookus, a senior quarterback from Northern Arizona; and Pete Guerriero, a junior running back from Monmouth.

The eclectic nature of the ballots reflects the voters in a general sense. The majority of voters are sports information directors, athletic department employees who are public-relations workers who compile and provide statistics and team news to the media and public. A good many of the voters are radio broadcasters affiliated with teams. There are also bloggers, newspaper beat writers, television reporters, conference representatives and others.

Every FCS conference is strongly represented in some sense, either with sports information director or media votes. The Colonial Athletic Association has 19 voters connected to the league in some way. The Big Sky Conference has 18 voters and the Missouri Valley Football Conference has 17. At the other end of the spectrum, the Northeast Conference has eight voters and the Pioneer Football League has seven.

Northern Arizona senior quarterback Case Cookus is one of four players in the running to win the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Maria Saldivar / NAU Athletics
Northern Arizona senior quarterback Case Cookus is one of four players in the running to win the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Maria Saldivar / NAU Athletics

Of the 19 straw poll respondents, Lance received seven first-place votes, one second-place vote, zero third-place votes, two fourth-place votes and one fifth-place vote. Thomson received eight first-place votes, four second-place votes, one third-place vote, two fourth-place votes and one fifth-place vote.

Other ballots had Cookus, receiver Chris Rowland of Tennessee State and running back Jah-Maine Martin of North Carolina A&T as their top choice.

With that small of a sample size, any attempt to get an accurate feel of who might win is fruitless.

When STATS FCS announced the four players invited to the Friday night banquet in Frisco, it released the vote totals for the remaining 22 players eligible for the award. Seventeen of those players received at least one first-place vote: Rowland, Martin, quarterback Eric Barriere of Eastern Washington, quarterback Kenji Bahar of Monmouth, quarterback Daniel Smith of Villanova, running back James Robinson of Illinois State, quarterback Reid Sinnett of San Diego, quarterback Bailey Zappe of Houston Baptist, quarterback Tom Flacco of Towson, receiver Cade Johnson of South Dakota State, quarterback Breylin Smith of Central Arkansas, running back Alex Ramsey of Virginia Military Institute, quarterback Aaron Winchester of Central Connecticut State, quarterback Zerrick Cooper of Jacksonville State, receiver Aaron Parker of Rhode Island, quarterback Felix Harper of Alcorn State and running back Domenic Cozier of Holy Cross.

You want Example A why Payton Award voting is a roll of the dice? There it is. It would seem a good number of candidates got home-cooking.

The handful of voters who sent me an email explaining their ballot clearly took their vote seriously and put some thought into it, whether or not you agree with their choices.

Brian McLaughlin of HERO Sports voted Lance first, followed by Robinson, Barriere, Cookus and Guerriero.

"This is where you have to ditch politics and just be honest, folks," McLaughlin wrote. "North Dakota State has gone from 'rebuilding and questions' to very confident and almost 'seasoned' looking, and the biggest reason is this guy — Trey Lance."

Sam Herder, also of HERO Sports, called his first-place vote for Lance a "no-brainer."

"When it comes to pure skill set, he's the best all-around quarterback in the FCS," Herder wrote. "Lance isn't just good because of NDSU's offensive system. ... He can make any throw on the field ... and he's as good of a running threat at QB as the Bison have ever had."

Bradley Bugger, a former broadcaster who lives in Idaho, said he voted Lance No. 1 in the Jerry Rice Award balloting for the nation's top freshman (which the NDSU quarterback won), but only No. 5 for the Payton Award. Bugger's ballot had Rowland first, followed by Barriere, Cookus, tight end Adam Trautman from Dayton and Lance.

"I could see any of them winning the award and I wouldn't have a gripe," Bugger said. "I went with Rowland because he's both a weapon on offense and special teams, but you certainly could make a case for the other four guys."

Jamie Williams is an admitted huge James Madison fan who writes for The College Sports Journal. He didn't have Lance in his top five, instead going with Thomson, Barriere, Guerriero, Zappe and Parker.

"This has zero to do with him being a freshman. But from a top FCS player standpoint, I felt like NDSU leaned more on the run game with their backs, especially in the games where NDSU did receive a challenge," Williams said. "Lance's worst passing games came in their three tightest games."

Can you discern who is going to win the Payton from those snippets of ballots and comments? I cannot, but I'm willing to offer a prediction based on how the voting process works and gut feeling.

I say Thomson wins the Payton. Lance will finish second, Cookus third and Guerriero fourth.

Or the places could be reversed. Such is the nature, it seems, of the Payton voting.