For a guy who never started a college football game before this season, Iowa quarterback Brad Banks caught on pretty fast.
Not only did Banks become the nation's top-rated passer, he also led the Hawkeyes (11-1) back to national prominence and into the Orange Bowl.
"I can't imagine a better success story," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Brad wasn't on anyone's radar screen in late August. But he improved every week, and played his best in our biggest games."
Other than two fumbles in a loss to Iowa State, Banks was nearly perfect in No. 3 Iowa's winningest season ever. The miscues did nothing to take away from his sensational play, and Banks was chosen Monday as The Associated Press College Player of the Year.
"I'm kind of shocked to hear I've won this," said Banks, among the leading Heisman Trophy contenders. "I'm very happy the way the season went, and the way everyone on this team made Iowa a household name. I'm glad to play a part in all this."
The 6-foot-1, 202-pound Banks received 24 votes in balloting by 71 members of the AP college football poll board, which includes representatives of newspapers, TV and radio stations. He edged Southern California quarterback Carson Palmer by three votes, with Miami running back Willis McGahee third with 10 votes.
Penn State running back Larry Johnson was fourth with six votes, Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey had five votes, and Washington State quarterback Jason Gesser had three votes.
Banks completed 155 of 258 passes for 2,369 yards, with 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also ran for 387 yards and five scores.
In the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, Banks will match passes with Palmer, who threw for 3,639 yards and 32 TDs. "Should be a great game," Banks said. "I'm really looking forward to it."
Iowa and Ohio State were co-Big Ten champions, both with 8-0 league marks. It's the first league title for the Hawkeyes since 1990 and first time since 1922 the team went unbeaten in conference play.
Banks, a senior from Belle Glade, Fla., made his presence known in his first start. He threw first-quarter touchdown passes of 56 and 36 yards as the Hawkeyes rolled to a 57-21 win over Akron.
Two games later, Iowa and Banks got a taste of national exposure against Iowa State. It did not end well. Banks fumbled on consecutive possessions in the third quarter, allowing the Cyclones to rally from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 36-31 victory.
"We just fell apart for a little bit," Banks said. "Plays broke down, and I made mistakes. I think we learned from that game."
Yes they did. Two games later, Iowa played at Penn State. And Banks was awesome, leading the Hawkeyes to a 35-13 third-quarter lead before the Lions staged a furious rally to force overtime.
But Banks settled down, threw a 6-yard TD pass in OT, and Iowa prevailed, 42-35.
"That showed me something," Ferentz said. "He kept his poise, and even though things were a little hairy, he came up with the play when he needed to."
Up next was Purdue, perhaps Banks' defining game.
Iowa trailed 28-24 and had the ball with 2:16 left and no time outs. Banks calmly drove the Hawkeyes 87 yards for the winning touchdown _ a 7-yard pass to Dallas Clark on fourth down with 1:07 to go. Final score: Iowa 31, Purdue 28.
"I sprinted out to the left, and Dallas sneaked out and ran across the field away from me," Banks said. "Everyone was coming toward me, and I held the ball as long as I could before putting it up for Dallas."
Ferentz said: "To win championships, you have to make plays like that. And that's what Brad has done all year."
Banks found his way to Iowa two years ago almost by accident. Hawkeyes defensive line coach Ron Aiken was scouting another player at Hinds (Miss.) Community College when he found out about Banks.
"Their coach told Ron he had a kid that's being overlooked," Ferentz said. "Ron brought the tape back, and Brad was evaluated as the top quarterback who wanted to come here. We fell in love with what we saw."
Before his two years in junior college, Banks spent a redshirt season at Central Florida, where he learned the art of dropback passing and ball release from coach Mike Kruczek and senior starter Daunte Culpepper.
"Having a chance to watch him every day for a year was a big help," Banks said.
Florida quarterback Rex Grossman was last year's AP Player of the Year.