TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- A year ago, Mark Ingram was a freshman backup showing considerable power and potential and a knack for reaching the end zone.
Now, the Alabama tailback is reaching for something more substantial: becoming the first player in the top-ranked Crimson Tide's storied history to win the Heisman Trophy.
"It's just really humbling, overwhelming and exciting all at the same time," the sophomore tailback said of being a finalist. "You kind of dream about this growing up watching all the great players who won the Heisman Trophy."
There have been plenty of great ones who starred for Alabama but never snared college football's top award, ranging from Joe Namath to Ozzie Newsome to Shaun Alexander at the marquee offensive positions. It has almost become a badge of pride for a program that has collected six national championships and 22 Southeastern Conference titles.
It's about winning titles not awards, they said, sniffing at rival Auburn's two Heismans and one national title. Then again, that was before Ingram emerged as a legitimate candidate.
The offensive star for the nation's top-ranked team, he has a chance to finally add college football's top trophy to the Tide's collection.
The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder is one of five Heisman finalists, joining Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and quarterbacks Colt McCoy of Texas and Tim Tebow of Florida.
Ingram has run for a school-record 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns while catching 30 passes for 322 yards and three more TDs. A whopping 1,002 yards have come after contact.
Ingram was named SEC offensive player of the year by The Associated Press.
He showed flashes of that ability as a freshman, racking up 728 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns as Glen Coffee's backup. Coffee then skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft and is with the San Francisco 49ers.
He might have had a hard time holding onto his job at Alabama.
Ingram has thrived behind an offensive line that had to replace three starters, including All-Americans Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.
He seemed like a solid Heisman front-runner going into the Tide's regular-season finale at Auburn. Then, the seemingly unstoppable back got stopped.
Ingram managed just 30 yards on 16 carries against the nation's 88th-ranked run defense. Then the question became not would he win, but would he even make it to New York as a finalist.
"I wasn't too worried about it," Ingram said. "When you have a great game, everybody loves you. When you have a bad game, it's (treated like) the end of the world. We won the game, and that's what matters."
Ingram rebounded with a huge performance against Florida in the SEC championship game. He ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns and also took a screen pass 69 yards to carry the Tide into the BCS national title game against No. 2 Texas.
Heisman hype hasn't been the only potential distraction for Ingram this season. His father, former New York Giants wide receiver Mark Ingram, is serving a 92-month sentence on a federal money laundering and bank fraud conviction. Now, he's in a holding facility in New York awaiting a hearing, court-appointed attorney James Neville said, that could extend that sentence because he didn't report to a federal prison in Kentucky last December.
The elder Ingram wanted to stay at the holding so he could be sure to watch his son play in the SEC championship game on TV.
He was captured on Jan. 2 in a Michigan motel room hours before the Tide was set to play Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
"He's happy for me. He's real proud of me," said the Alabama star, who says little about his father publicly. "He's not really surprised because he always told me there was no other running back better than me. He always expected more of me than I expected of myself.
"I'm sure he's going through rough times, but I'm sure the fact that he has something to look forward to and be proud of has made his time a little easier."
The younger Ingram opened his sophomore season with a 150-yard effort against then-No. 7 Virginia Tech, then had three straight games that left him far from the Heisman conversation.
He had only 197 yards over the next three games against Florida International, North Texas and Arkansas -- getting scant carries in the first two games, both blowouts.
When the numbers started improving, and the attention started growing, Ingram relied on running backs coach Burton Burns' advice: "Start where you are."
"Every Sunday when I went to watch film, he'd say, 'Start where you are, don't dwell on the past. Just keep getting better right now,"' Ingram said.
The South Carolina game moved him into serious Heisman territory. Ingram set a Bryant-Denny Stadium record with 246 yards. He covered all 68 yards on a late drive to seal the game, running five times out of the wildcat formation and taking a pitch for a 4-yard touchdown.
"They just put the ball in my hands," Ingram said. "That shows the kind of respect they have for me and the trust they have in me. That wasn't all me. I've got to give credit to the offensive line and receivers."
Not surprisingly, those kinds of comments have endeared him to his blockers. Guard Mike Johnson said Ingram has handled the Heisman hype "phenomenally."
"Great kid, great teammate. As an offensive lineman, he thanks us every day," Johnson said. "He shakes our hands and really shows he has confidence in us and (says) it's because of us, and we appreciate that from him."
Alabama hasn't had a player crack the Heisman top 10 since Alexander was seventh in 1999. Quarterback Jay Barker was fifth in 1994 while receiver/return man David Palmer was third the previous season.
Ingram appears to have the best chance among that group.
"We've never had a Heisman and he's been able to put together such a great season and really come through in the clutch for us all year," Johnson said. "You can't say enough about the kid. He deserves everything he gets."