Ranking the top 10 Heisman candidates by conference: The Pac-12

Continuing our series of looking at potential Heisman candidates (potential being a key distinction here, people) by conference, here is a look at the Pac-12. The conference has been very active in the Heisman race of late thanks to Stanford and Oregon, but hasn’t produced a winner since 2005 (yes, Reggie Bush won the Heisman, whether he still holds that honor or not).

The Contenders

1. Matt Barkley, USC – Barkley enters 2012 as the overall Heisman leader. While he’s not getting the accolades that Andrew Luck received heading into 2011, Barkley has the advantage of being the quarterback for a traditional Heisman power that also happens to be a strong contender for the national title. Then there is the surrounding narrative of his leading the Trojans back to prominence following a tough NCAA probation period. So, in that sense, he is potentially a stronger candidate than Luck, especially when you consider the field that is arrayed against him is not as strong as it was for Luck in 2011. Last year, Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns, so he has a good shot at bettering his numbers, especially with the best receiving corps in college football and almost all of his offense returning around him. If Barkley leads USC to an undefeated season and, at minimum, approximates his production from last season, he’ll win the Heisman.

2. DeAnthony Thomas, Oregon – By the end of last season, it was pretty clear what a special player Oregon had in Thomas. He only touched the ball 140 times as a true freshman (101 times on offense), but he produced 2,235 yards (an average of 16 yards per play) and 18 total touchdowns. Thomas will see his role expand in 2012 and that means plenty of opportunities to show why he’s quite possibly the most electrifying player in college football. He seems born to be featured in the Chip Kelly offense and I expect to see bigger and better things in 2012. If he stays healthy and produces, he could easily end up in New York City in December.

The Dark Horses

3. Keith Price, Washington – The concept of Price as a dark horse candidate has its roots in last season’s Holiday Bowl, when he went toe-to-toe with Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in a tough loss to Baylor. Price threw for 438 yards and four touchdowns, putting a cap on one of the best sophomore seasons in Pac-12 history. He threw for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns and should improve on those numbers in 2012 as young talents Kasen Williams and Austin Serferian-Jenkins start to come into their own. The main hurdle to a legitimate Price candidacy is that Washington’s record may not be that good. Beat LSU at Tiger Stadium in September and he’ll be a contender.

4. Kenjon Barner, Oregon – As mentioned in a previous post here at HP, Barner has a great chance to be just as productive in 2012 as LaMichael James was in 2011. The Oregon system is running back friendly and he could well double the 938 yards and 11 touchdowns he had last season. If that happens and the Ducks are once again among the top teams in the country, he’ll battle it out with his teammate Thomas for Heisman love.

5. Curtis McNeal, USC – Lack of tailback depth could propel McNeal to increased production in 2012. He rushed for 1,005 yards last season on just 145 carries (and with more depth around him), so as a senior he should end up with the most yards by a Trojan tailback since Reggie Bush in 2005. Unfortunately for McNeal, his teammate is the Heisman front runner, but you can never really count out the USC tailback mystique when it comes to the Heisman race.

The Long Shots

6. John White, Utah – White made quite a splash in the conference last season, rushing for 1,520 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s a bit atypical for the conference in that he is a true power back who can wear down a defense. He averaged 24 carries per game last year (third among running backs nationally), so it might be asking a bit much for him to keep up the same pace. But if he can lead Utah into conference title contention and help the Utes take out USC in early October, he could get some Heisman consideration.

7. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford – While Andrew Luck was getting all the attention these past two seasons, Taylor was quietly rushing for 2,467 yards and scoring 28 touchdowns. It could be that with Luck gone, the Cardinal reverts to its tailback-centric attack from the Toby Gerhart days. That could mean a special season for Taylor and a potential dark horse Heisman run.

8. Brett Nottingham, Stanford – It could well be that Nottingham is nothing special this year as Andrew Luck’s replacement (assuming he actually wins the job, which I do). But what if Nottingham ends up being really, really good in the same way that Matt Leinart was good following the departure of Carson Palmer at USC? The media will tout Nottingham as the next great Stanford quarterback and if you are the next great Stanford quarterback, it’s not out of the ordinary to be a Heisman candidate as well. Hey, this is why we have a ‘long shot’ category.

9. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA – Franklin has been decently productive the last two seasons, rushing for 2,103 yards for a bad team. But the Bruins have a new coach and a new system and it could well be that Franklin sees increased production as a result. He certainly has the skill set to break a lot of highlight reel runs and as long as he can hold onto the ball and stay healthy, he could have one of the better years by a UCLA back in quite a while.

10. Isi Sofele, California – Sofele rushed for 1,322 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and he seemed to get better as the year wore on. Although diminutive, he carried the ball 20 times or more in his last five games while topping the 100-yard mark three times. Cal has a recent tradition of running back success, so it’s possible that Sofele improves upon his debut year as a starter and earns accolades as one of the best backs in the country.

Previous Conference Heisman Top 10s for 2012

The SEC

The Big Ten

The Big 12

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.
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