As the season gets closer, we’ll take an in-depth look at each candidate and ask: What does that player have to do to win?
First up: Junior quarterback Andrew Luck of the Stanford Cardinal.
Luck enters the 2011 season as the prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman. Let’s list his attributes:
–He was the Heisman runner up in 2010. His 1,079 points in the balloting were, next to Colt McCoy’s 1,604 in 2009, the most by a returning runner up since Marshall Faulk totaled 1,080 points in 1992.
–He’s on a team that will enter the year ranked in the top 10.
–His team plays a favorable schedule. The Cardinal have a pretty good shot at starting the season 7-0 before it faces the meat of its slate. Games against traditional powers USC and Notre Dame, plus a matchup against highly-rated Oregon will then determine the fate of his candidacy. Playing well in wins against these teams could do the trick.
–He plays for a program that is not a traditional Heisman power, but which has been relevant in the last couple years, with two-consecutive runners up in the voting. He also plays for a school with a great quarterback tradition,with names like Plunkett and Elway among them.
–He is widely considered the best pro-style quarterback in the college game and the first-pick-in-the-draft in waiting, so his talent is not in question. There are no doubts out there that he might be a mere product of his system.
–When it comes to publicity, he is perfectly situated. He is not overexposed and is not underexposed. In fact, he is in a sweet spot when it comes to name recognition: He is well-known, but not to the point to where he is being shoved down your throat by ESPN on a weekly basis.
–He is coming off an excellent sophomore campaign, but did not put up the kind of numbers–3,338 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, 8 interceptions–that present an impossible bar to surpass, as has been the case for some recent challengers and would-be repeat winners.
–His off-the-field image is sterling, mostly because he is humble, well-spoken and plays for an elite academic institution. The perception is that Stanford football players are not part of a factory that exists merely to spew out product to the NFL, so any major success by a Stanford player is seen as somewhat out of the ordinary.
There is a meme that exists among some college football writers that to challenge for a Heisman you must be on a national title contending team. That is not the case. While it is true that most of the recent Heisman winners fit that mold, let’s also not forget that of the last 13 winners, four came from teams that did not sniff the championship game. A fifth–Stanford’s Toby Gerhart in 2009–lost in the closest race in Heisman history despite playing for an 8-4 squad.
So Luck does not have to lead his team to an undefeated season to win the Heisman. His talent is held in such high esteem that he could conceivably take the trophy with Stanford winning 10 or possibly 9 games, though it will depend on the exploits of the field arrayed against him and the overall context of the race. The fewer games Stanford wins, the better his numbers must be when compared to the rest of the candidates. However, if Stanford wins big–along the order of 11 to 13 wins–he’ll merely need to hold serve statistically to prevail, barring a Tebow-like season from another challenger. As long as he retains the perception that he is the most physically gifted quarterback out there and then backs it up with Heisman-worthy numbers that give voters cover to choose him, he’ll be in great shape.
There’s a long way to go and the games must still be played, but Luck is in solid position to win Stanford’s first Heisman since 1970.