We continue our look at the Heisman race by conference with the Big 12, which remains in flux following the departure of Missouri and Texas A&M and the addition of TCU and West Virginia. The Big 12 is the only conference besides the SEC to produce a Heisman winner in the last five years, but it’s not a particularly strong year for candidates in this league, which means this list requires a little poetic license to get to 10.
1. Geno Smith, West Virginia – Smith was one of my darkhorse candidates last year and he had the kind of setup season that makes him a legit candidate for 2012. He threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdown passes and led the Mountaineers to a 10 win season. He’ll have two 1,000-yard receivers to throw to, which means he should have an even better year as he gets more comfortable in Dana Holgorsen’s offense. If he can guide WVU to the Big 12 title, he should make it to New York.
2. Collin Klein, Kansas State – Klein was probably the toughest player in college football last year, pound for pound. I can’t remember the last time I saw a player improve as much as Klein did between his sophomore and junior seasons. In 2011, he passed for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,141 with an amazing 27 scores. All this while leading the Wildcats to a 10-win season. It will be tough to duplicate that same production, but 40 combined scores and an incredible will-to-win puts him in the upper echelon of Heisman candidates.
3. Landry Jones, Oklahoma – Jones entered last season as one of the top candidates on everyone’s list, but he ended up throwing for the quietest 4,463 yards you’ll ever see while getting no Heisman attention. His 29-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio didn’t help his cause much and going through a full year without Ryan Broyles will make things a bit tougher. Still, Oklahoma has a lot of young talent at receiver and if it can mature in time, Jones might come through with a huge season. The continued development of mega-talent Blake Bell could eat into his numbers, too.
The Dark Horses
4. Casey Pachall, TCU – Pachall proved to be an able replacement for Andy Dalton, throwing for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns in his first year as a starter while leading his team to 11 wins (with two losses by a total of 9 points). He’ll get a chance to show he can do it on a bigger stage in the Big 12 and if he and his team responds with another fine season, he could gain some traction as a dark horse candidate.
5. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State – The Cowboys have been churning out offensive weapons with regularity of late and it looks like Randle’s turn in the spotlight is coming up. He rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore last season and he could be poised for bigger and better things in 2012. However, he’ll have to hold off talented backups Jeremy Smith and Herschel Sims.
6. Tavon Austin, West Virginia – It’s hard to win the Heisman as an all-purpose dynamo, but Austin could make a run at it. He had a ridiculous junior season, totaling 2,574 yards while leading the nation in all-purpose yardage per game. If he can continue to make plays as a receiver, runner and return man, he might emerge as the top Mountaineer Heisman candidate when it’s all said and done.
The Long Shots
7. David Ash, Texas – Ash is the first of a quartet of Longhorns I include on this list, in large part because of the dearth of real candidates in the league. Some will probably wonder why I include Ash and not Case McCoy, but my hunch is that Ash is on pace to be the starter in 2012. If that’s the case, the athletic sophomore is likely to have a pretty good season in a Boise State-style offense that has historically produced fine signal callers.
8. Joe Bergeron, Texas – At this point on the list, we are basically ranking the Texas backs who have the best chance of having a breakout season. A productive Texas running back is almost always on the Heisman radar. To my eye, it was Bergeron and not the more highly touted Malcolm Brown who was the superior freshman for the Longhorns in 2011. If Bergeron can hold off Brown and incoming freshman Johnathan Gray, he could establish himself as one of the top backs in the conference, if not nationally.
9. Malcolm Brown, Texas – Brown was ranked by many as the top running back recruit in the country last year and a lot of expectations were placed on him by the Texas faithful. But while his numbers were solid for a freshman (742 yards, 5 TDs), he wasn’t very explosive (4.31 yards per carry) and seemed tentative at times. Much of that could be blamed on nagging injuries that limited him for most of the last half of the season, but even when healthy he seemed a bit underwhelming. However, I do believe he has the talent to be very productive in the Texas offense and if he can stay healthy and hold off backs like Bergeron and incoming phenom Johnathan Gray, I expect a fine sophomore season.
10. Jonathan Gray, Texas – Let’s make one thing clear. I am not calling Gray a Heisman candidate by including him on this list. I am, however, pointing out that, occasionally, a freshmen can make a foray into the race and it’s within the realm of possibility that Gray is the one to do it this year. He is the top ranked incoming running back on HP’s recruiting chart, so I obviously expect big things. How the Texas running back depth chart shakes out will be the main factor here, but I certainly believe he has the talent to take control of the starting position by mid season. As with most freshmen, the immediacy of his impact will depend on how soon he picks up the offense. He may redshirt, but he also might have a special year. No, he won’t win the Heisman because freshmen don’t win the Heisman. But, if the stars align, he could make a run at it.