The race for the 2012 Heisman appears to be wide open, especially assuming you can cross the following names off this year’s top 10 in the voting list due to either early entry into the NFL draft or expiration of eligibility:
1. Robert Griffin III
2. Andrew Luck
3. Trent Richardson
4. Montee Ball
5. Tyrann Mathieu
6. Matt Barkley
7. Case Keenum
8. Kellen Moore
9. Russell Wilson
10. LaMichael James
Whereas this past season had five of the top six finishers in the Heisman race returning, it’s very likely that eight of 10 from this season will not return (something that hasn’t happened since 2005). That means the race for the 2012 Heisman is likely to be wide open, with no real front runner in place.
So here is my early 2012 list (in no particular order) with the understanding that it could change if one or more of the players above decides to return for another year. And, of course, some of the players below still might go pro. I will release my official 2012 watch list after spring practice.
Denard Robinson, Michigan – He’s perhaps the biggest name in the race and the most accomplished over the past two seasons. If anyone is the front runner, he’s it. He could be primed for an outstanding senior year now that he is more familiar with Michigan’s new offense.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina – Much depends on how well he returns from a season-ending leg injury suffered in game seven. An injury-free year might produce a real run at the Heisman.
David Wilson, Virginia Tech – If he doesn’t go pro, he’ll be the leading returning rusher from a BCS conference school. If he can improve upon the 1,627 rushing yards he had this season, he’ll be a factor.
Michael Dyer, Auburn – Assuming he doesn’t further muck up his college career with off-the-field problems (and assuming voters give him a pass), Dyer has the potential to make some noise in next year’s race.
Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan – While he was only the second-leading rusher on his team, Toussaint average 135 yards on the ground over the last five games of the season. If he keeps up that pace all next year, he’ll be in the Heisman conversation.
Collin Klein, Kansas State – Perhaps the most underrated player in college football, Klein is one score shy of the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27) with one game to go.
Tajh Boyd, Clemson – One of the surprise players of 2011, he threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns as a first-year starter. He’s got an incredible array of weapons at his disposal, which means those numbers could improve in 2012.
Sammy Watkins, Clemson – The national freshman of the year was fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage. Besides his 1,159 receiving yards, he also had 695 yards in the return game. He could be the most exciting player in college football in 2012.
Knile Davis, Arkansas – He missed all of 2011 with an ankle injury, but he was the best running back in the SEC in 2010. If he’s back healthy, he’ll be the best back in the league in 2012, too.
James Franklin, Missouri – He had a fine debut season as a starter and looks to be the next great dual-threat quarterback to come out of Missouri.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State – Showed great flashes as a true freshman and should blossom in Urban Meyer’s offense, for which he is a perfect fit.
De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon – An electric will o’ the wisp who can score on the ground, in the air or by returning kicks and punts. Should be the star of yet another fine Oregon team.
Geno Smith, West Virginia – Year One under Dana Holgorsen went well for Smith, who had nearly 4,000 yards passing and 25 touchdowns. If he can work out the kinks in year two and improve upon those numbers, he’ll make a serious Heisman run.
Aaron Murray, Georgia – He led the Bulldogs back from a slow start while throwing a school-record 33 touchdown passes. He could be set for a special junior season.
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech – If anyone looks the part of a great player, it is Thomas, who stands 6-6 and 250 pounds. He did well as a sophomore, throwing for 2,799 yards and rushing for 416. He should be even better in 2012.
Blake Bell, Oklahoma – It may not matter much if Landry Jones goes pro, as Bell is a talent who can’t be kept off the field. He’s a rare specimen who can run and throw at 6-6, 245 pounds. If he gets enough playing time as a sophomore, his numbers should impress.
Curtis McNeal, USC – The USC running back position is a favorite of Heisman voters. McNeal averaged 120 yards per game and nearly 7 yards per carry in his last six games, which could point to an even bigger season in 2012.
Kiehl Frazier, Auburn – Frazier is a major talent who should flourish in Gus Malzahn’s scheme. Don’t be shocked if he explodes as a first-year starter in 2012.
Note: I do not include Tyrann Mathieu on this list because I do not believe he can win the Heisman in 2012.