NEW YORK - A freshman or sophomore has never won the Heisman Trophy.

Of course, there's never been an underclassman quite like Tim Tebow. Florida's charismatic and multitalented quarterback has had a season like no other in the history of major college football.

Tebow, a sophomore, is the favorite among four finalists who will be in New York for the Heisman presentation tonight.

Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, last season's Heisman runner-up, is thought to be Tebow's main competition. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan and Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel are the other finalists.

Conventional wisdom suggests Tebow's class status would leave him at a disadvantage against three upperclassmen, but Heisman voters have warmed up to the idea of voting for underclassmen over the years.

"I'm still a college football player," Tebow said last night to a gathering of reporters at a hotel in Manhattan. "It doesn't matter what year you are."

For decades, underclassmen were an afterthought at Heisman time.

After Southern Methodist sophomore tailback Doak Walker finished third in the Heisman voting in 1947, the next underclassman to break the top three was Georgia's Hershel Walker, who finished third as a freshman in 1980 and second as a sophomore before winning it as a junior in '82.

During most of those 35 seasons, freshmen were ineligible to play.

"Sophomores in the past, such as a deserving Doak Walker in '47, for example, weren't given proper consideration because freshmen weren't eligible and there was an obvious prejudice against youth," author and sportswriter Dan Jenkins, the historian for the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame, wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

After Herschel Walker, it was 10 more years before an underclassman made a serious run at the Heisman. In 1992, San Diego State sophomore Marshall Faulk finished second to Miami quarterback Gino Torretta.

Since then, the combination of scholarship limitations in big-time college football and early departures to the NFL has given underclassmen more opportunities to play. As a result, more have become Heisman contenders.

Michael Vick was a redshirt freshman for Virginia Tech in 1999, when he was third. Florida quarterback Rex Grossman was the runner-up to Nebraska's Eric Crouch as a sophomore in 2001. Two years later, Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald was a sophomore when he was second to Oklahoma's Jason White.

Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson became the first freshman to be the Heisman runner-up, in 2004, and McFadden was a sophomore last year when he finished second to Ohio State's Troy Smith.

Now here comes Tebow, already a folk hero in Gainesville, Fla., with a chance to become the third Florida Heisman winner, joining Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, who received the trophy in 1966 and 1996, respectively.

Tebow exceeded the monumental expectations placed on him by Gators fans in his first season as a starter. He is the first player to run for 20 touchdowns and throw 20 touchdown passes in the same season. He accounted for 51 touchdowns overall, including a Southeastern Conference record of 22 on the ground.

The 235-pound Tebow showed what he could do running the ball last season as a part-time player, complementing senior quarterback Chris Leak and helping Florida win the national title.

This season, in full control of Urban Meyer's spread offense, Tebow has left no doubt he's more than just a bruiser. Tebow is second in the country in passer rating (177.9), with 3,132 yards and 29 touchdown passes.

Butkus Award.

The trophy awarded to the best linebacker in the nation went to Ohio State's James Laurinaitis last night.

Laurinaitis was chosen over Penn State's Dan Connor and Colorado's Jordan Dizon.

He became the second Buckeye to win the 23-year-old award presented by the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando, joining Andy Katzenmoyer in 1997.

On Thursday, Connor won the Bednarik Award for linebackers presented by the Maxwell Club.