We now know who’s leaving early for the NFL, so it’s time to cobble together our list of the players who currently have the best shot of winning the 2012 Heisman Trophy.
Too early? Too bad. We’ve got another seven-and-a-half months to go until the season starts and we know you all can’t get by on recruiting and spring football alone.
This is just the first rollout of a series of lists. We’ll have revisions after spring ball and then a final Watch List heading into the season.
1. Matt Barkley, USC – Barkley returns for his senior year as the front runner for the 2012 Heisman. He’s got perhaps the best receiving corps in the history of college football catching his passes, so you know his numbers will be stellar. However, he must beat the expectations game or voters could eventually turn on him like they did Andrew Luck.
2. Denard Robinson, Michigan – Four of the last six Heisman winners have been dual-threat quarterbacks and it is this style that has the most potential to wow the voters. The story with Robinson will be how he turned around a storied program. If the Wolverines challenge for national honors, he’ll be a strong Heisman candidate.
3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin – Ball is the leading returning vote getter from last season, when he took fourth in the Heisman balloting. Because of this, it is very tempting to just make him the front runner, but one has to take into account the tremendous standard he set for himself last season by scoring 39 touchdowns. He’s bound to have a drop off of sorts and just how much he drops off will determine his eventual standing in the race.
4. Geno Smith, West Virginia – Smith passed for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first season in Dana Holgorsen’s system. If he improves his numbers again this year and his team has improved success to go along with it, then he’ll be in the Heisman mix.
5. De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon – Thomas might’ve benefitted from the best postseason spring-board of this whole bunch, as he rushed for 155 yards on two carries against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Thomas has the ability to win the Heisman based on the excitement factor alone. Voters love multi-purpose athletes.
6. Landry Jones, Oklahoma – Jones is the opposite of Oregon’s Thomas when it comes to the excitement factor, but he’s a senior quarterback on a traditional power and he’s got the potential to put up huge numbers yet again.
7. Tajh Boyd, Clemson – Boyd was a revelation as a sophomore, throwing for over 3,800 yards with 33 touchdown passes as a first-year starter while leading the Tigers to the ACC title. He’s got the second-best receiving corps in the country to throw to and a fine offensive general in Chad Morris calling the plays, so he should have another big season.
8. Sammy Watkins, Clemson – If Thomas is the most exciting player in the country, Watkins isn’t far behind. The nation’s best receiver piles up yards receiving, rushing and returning kicks. If any wide out challenges for the Heisman in ’12, it’s him.
9. Knile Davis, Arkansas – Davis was the premier back in the SEC in 2010 before breaking an ankle and missing all of last season. If he returns fully healthy, he should have another productive campaign and get some Heisman mention.
10. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina – Lattimore is a bruising runner with a lot of name recognition, but he’s been slowed by injuries. If he can stay healthy for a full season–and that’s a BIG if–he could make a serious Heisman run.
11. Collin Klein, Kansas State – Klein’s improvement from his sophomore to junior year was remarkable as he rushed for 27 touchdowns in 2011. If he can lead K-State to yet another successful season, he’ll get some Heisman love.
12. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan – Toussaint had a strong finish to his sophomore season and might be primed for a breakout year in 2012.
13. Braxton Miller, Ohio State – The last time Urban Meyer coached a true sophomore quarterback with these kinds of skills, that true sophomore won the Heisman Trophy.
14. Tavon Austin, West Virginia – Another all-purpose dynamo with the ability to beat opposing teams any number of ways. He had a fantastic Orange Bowl and will enter 2012 as one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the country.
15. Aaron Murray, Georgia – It’s really hard to win a Heisman playing in Mark Richt’s system, but Murray was able to crank out 35 touchdown passes as a sophomore. If that’s a precursor to bigger and better things, look out.