Forgive Jahvid Best if he's not a Heisman Trophy historian.

Cal's star running back said he's never watched the Heisman ceremony, which takes place at the end of the season. When asked about last year's three high-profile finalists, he said he is familiar with them mostly by playing EA Sports' "NCAA Football" video game.

"I use Florida a lot," Best said. "(Tim) Tebow doesn't make a bad pass in that game."

It may be that Best has never seen the Downtown Athletic Club on television, but many college football experts believe he has a chance to make it to New York City in person this December. He is the country's top returning rusher in yards per game (131.67).

"In my mind, he's the best back in college football," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. "If you're the premier back in college football, there's no question you should be in the discussion as far as the Heisman Trophy is concerned."

Best was fifth in the nation in rushing in the nation last season with 1,580. He led the Pac-10 in kick returns (26.3 ypr) and finished second in the NCAA in all-purpose yardage (187.3 ypg). He's on a team ranked 12th in the Associated Press preseason top 25, and one many believe can unseat USC for Pac-10 supremacy this year.

But for all that Best appears to have going for him, he has two weighty obstacles to overcome. The top three vote-getters from last year are all back this season — Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Tebow. Bradford won the award last year, Tebow in 2007.


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Best also is fighting history. Only three non-USC players from Pac-10 schools have ever won the award since its inception in 1935 — Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker in 1962, UCLA quarterback Gary Beban in 1967 and Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in 1970. The Beavers weren't a conference member in '62, and it was still the Pac-8 when Beban and Plunkett won.

"For him to really be in the conversation with the three quarterbacks in front of him, he needs to have a 2,000-yard season and they have to win the Pac-10," ESPN analyst Craig James said. "If Best is healthy, he has the talent to run for 2,000 yards. I believe he clearly has the talent level of a Heisman contender, but there are a lot of things that come into play."

There's no reason to believe Bradford, McCoy and Tebow won't once again put up huge numbers this season. Their teams make up the top three in the AP preseason poll.

"I'd have to defeat the odds to win it," Best admits.

Best's 1,580 yards rushing last season were second-most in Cal history, trailing only J.J. Arrington's 2,018 yards in 2004. Arrington led the country in rushing that year but finished eighth in the Heisman voting.

"In my traveling the last 15 years, I've recognized without any question an East Coast bias from the fans and media," Herbstreit said. "USC is the only school in the Pac-10 that gets national exposure consistently. Unless you're at USC, it makes it very, very tough. It's just hard to see, outside of highlights on 'SportsCenter,' just how good a player Jahvid Best is."

The consensus seems to be that for Best to have any chance of beating last year's finalists, the Bears will have to get off to a strong start as well as win the Pac-10. The good news for Best is that Cal has a chance to make an imprint on the national scene fairly early, opening Pac-10 play at Oregon followed by a home game against USC.

If the Bears were to begin the season 5-0, including wins over the Ducks and Trojans, they likely would be firmly in the national championship race, with Best probably having a lot to do with that.

"He needs to be included in the conversation, there's no question about it," CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman said. "Jahvid has everything you need to be a difference-maker. If he just holds serve and does what he did last year — maybe get a couple hundred more yards — and Cal wins the Pac-10, he is going to be right there in the thick of it."

The only real question about Best is his durability. He missed the final three games of his freshman season with a hip injury, then skipped one game and parts of three others with elbow, foot and ankle injuries last year. Best already has sat out a good chunk of training camp this season with a sore toe.

"I feel like that's the biggest knock on me, so I'm going out there to prove that it's not that way," Best said of his health.

Best has emerged as the top Heisman candidate on the West Coast despite not being the Pac-10's Offensive Player of the Year last season, which was won by Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers. But Best grabbed much of the attention late last season, rushing for 700 yards and eight touchdowns in the final three games. He had 188 yards and two scores in the Bears' 24-17 win over Miami in the Emerald Bowl, televised in prime time on ESPN.

"I think the first time he was really seen last year was against Miami on ESPN," Herbstreit said. "I think people were blown away with how fast he is. He is running away from the Miami defense and people were like, 'Who's this guy?' It was a springboard game going into the 2009 season for everybody anticipating Cal and really anticipating to see Jahvid Best."

It was evident at Best's first practice at Cal that he had the breakaway speed and moves to become an impact player. He had a couple of highlight-reel plays as a true freshman, but his playing time was limited behind starter Justin Forsett. By the end of last season, which included a school-record 311 yards against Washington, Best had developed into a special player.

But as good as he has become, Best says there is a player he aspires to be — himself, the video game version.

"I think I'm better in the video game than I am in real life," he said. "I break tons of tackles in that video game. I have to step up my game to be the video game Jahvid this year."