Most of the games played so far this year have had little real impact on the Heisman race.
Sure, players have used soft early-season schedules to pad their stats, but that’s always the case. And a few high-profile games have served to either boost a candidacy (Robert Griffin vs. TCU) or derail it (LaMichael James vs. LSU).
But now we are getting to the meat of the schedule: Conference play.
Why is conference play so different?
It’s different because we’re about to see teams play that know each other very well. In conference play, the coaches and players have a better grasp on the tendencies of their counterparts.
The result is that offensive production often hits a bump in the road. Or, sometimes it improves, depending on the situation.
This Saturday features a ton of games that should create the first bit of separation in a very tightly-bunched Heisman race. In December, we might look back at this weekend and see a Heisman winner starting to emerge. Here’s a look at what’s at stake:
Andrew Luck vs. UCLA — I see this game as being hugely important to Luck’s Heisman hopes. He’s been the front runner for a long time now, but the field arrayed against him has developed into a strong one. It will not be a cake walk to the Heisman. Pundits are talking up Robert Griffin III, Kellen Moore and several others and, as a result of Stanford’s low early-season profile, he’s been in the background a bit. As is often the case, people will be looking closely to see if there are any chinks in the front runner’s armor. Don’t believe for a second that players don’t feel the pressure of competing for the Heisman. They do. We’ll get a glimpse into Luck’s Heisman future on Saturday. If he has another brilliant, efficient game, he’ll maintain his status as the leader in the race. If he struggles a bit, it will give ammunition to his challengers.
Robert Griffin III at Kansas State — This is the first test for Griffin’s candidacy since he burst onto the scene with the big game in the opener against TCU. Griffin smoked the Cats last year to the tune of 404 yards and 4 TD passes, but it looks likes K-State has a better defense this time around. As remarkable as Griffin’s numbers have been, I’ll bet my left kidney that he won’t maintain a pass efficiency rating over 200 for the year. That means he has to drop at some point. He just has to, otherwise we are looking at the greatest passing season by a quarterback in the history of football, college or pro. But when will the drop happen? Could it come on Saturday? When will that first interception come? And how will he bounce back from it? He’s only thrown three straight incompletions once this year. What will happen if/when he throws four? I think Griffin will have another fine game against K-State, but not the crazy game we’re used to seeing from him this year. But if he does have another crazy game, he just might be most everyone’s front runner come Monday morning.
Russell Wilson vs. Nebraska — Wilson is the other quarterback who has been putting up ridiculous numbers this year. His rating of 218.38 is only slightly less absurd than Griffin’s. But, let’s face it, most of that production has come against rather weak competition. We’ll get a true sense of Wilson’s Heisman future Saturday as the Badgers host Nebraska. The Husker defense is very good and if Wilson passes this test, he should catapult into the upper echelon of contenders. If he is lackluster and the Badgers lose, I think you can pretty much write him off as a candidate. On the flip side, keep an eye out for Taylor Martinez, who has a golden chance to remind the country how good he is.
Tajh Boyd at Virginia Tech — Boyd has been outstanding this season, throwing for 1,255 yards and 13 TD passes in his first four games while leading Clemson to wins over ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks. If he can make it three in a row with a win in Blacksburg, then Clemson will be the hottest team in the country (if it isn’t already) and Boyd will be seen as a legit Heisman candidate. Simple as that.
Trent Richardson at Florida — This is the kind of game than can spark (or extinguish) a Heisman campaign. Richardson has been good this year, averaging 110 yards per game while scoring 8 TDs in his first four contests. But he’s been held in reserve by Nick Saban in anticipation of the SEC schedule. A bellcow back, Richardson has only carried the ball more than 17 times once this year, but I expect him to haul a huge load against the Gators. If Richardson comes through with a dominant game and Alabama wins at The Swamp, put him into the top tier of candidates and definitely No.1 among the running backs. If he fizzles and Bama loses, then I don’t think he can recover. That’s the price you pay for playing such high profile, high stakes games like this.
Keep a close eye on these matchups. The rest of the field won’t be challenged as much as these five players on the first big Heisman weekend of 2011.