This year’s top 10 Heisman dark horses

No matter how confident one may feel about the Heisman race heading into a season, things don’t always go according to plan.

The last three years are good examples that.

Though Robert Griffin III did make the Heismanpundit.com preseason Heisman Watch list in 2011, it took a miraculous ending against Oklahoma in mid-November to cement his legitimacy as a candidate.

And while I did explicitly hail Cam Newton as a potential Heisman candidate–first out of high school and then out of junior college–his remarkable 2010 season was not something I was able to foresee. Here’s a sports betting guide.

Even Mark Ingram’s narrowest of Heisman wins in 2009 came out of the blue.

You might say that the Heisman race is changing before our very eyes. The advent of social media, the rapid proliferation of information and the shortening of the news cycle has made it easier for insurgent candidates to emerge.

Sometimes, all it takes is one play.

I recently put out the list of the 10 players most likely to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy, with another 10 below that who could also make run. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper, to look out for those players who might really jump up and surprise us.

This year’s top 10 Heisman dark horses (in no particular order):

Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama – The case for Lacy is based on simple math. The 6-foot-0, 220-pound junior carried the ball 95 times for 674 yards last season (a remarkable 7.1 yards per tote) and now a large chunk of Trent Richardson’s283 carries from last season are likely to go to Lacy, who should–conservatively–top the 200 carry mark (provided he stays healthy). That means if he averages just 6.1 yards per rush instead of the 7.1 he averaged last year, he’s looking at a minimum of 1,220 yards on the ground. He’s not the talent that Richardson is, but if he is relied upon as much as Richardson was last year, he’ll be a Heisman candidate in the Tide’s run-heavy offense.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State – Quick: Name the last true sophomore quarterback who used Urban Meyer’s spread offense to cruise his way to the Heisman. While Miller may not be the next Tim Tebow, he has earned high praise in the off season from Meyer, who called his young pupil “the most dynamic quarterback I have ever coached.” Last season, Miller rushed for a team-leading 715 yards and seven touchdowns and passed for 1,159 yards and 13 scores (with just four picks). I see no reason why the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Miller won’t maintain his ground totals. Meanwhile, his passing numbers should jump considerably. Based on his last four games of last year alone, he’ll easily top the 2,000-yard mark and probably throw between 20-25 touchdowns. Many see him as a guy to watch in 2013, but if he exceeds these expectations, he could ‘arrive’ a year early.

Kiehl Frazier, QB, Auburn – Frazier hasn’t even locked down the starting position for Auburn yet, but he’s a big-time dual-threat talent who should shine once he gets some more playing time under his belt. One question mark is how smooth the switch from Gus Malzahn’s system to new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler’s will be. It’s a possibility that Frazier just isn’t a good fit for the pro-style aspects of the new scheme. But if Frazier is handed the keys to the Auburn offense–and is used correctly–he’ll develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the year. For a guy who threw for just 34 yards and rushed for 327 last year, this may seem like a stretch. But he’s got the skills to do it. If the new OC doesn’t screw things up–and if you see a lot of Clint Moseley this year, you’ll know he has–then I expect a 2,000/1,000-type year from Frazier.

Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State – It’s fun to see a good football rushing duo grinding out the yards. But with rare exceptions, one back is always clearly better than the other. We saw last year how Montee Ball separated himself fromJames WhiteEric Dickerson pretty much left Craig James in the dust back in the early 1980s. And last year, Bell showed he was superior to Edwin Baker. Bell rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in his sophomore season, while Baker (coming off a 1,200-yard campaign in ’10) fell to 665 yards and a 3.9 average. Bell was very consistent, averaging 13 carries per game, but I expect that number to jump to 20 per game in ’12 as the Spartans rely on the running game more with the loss of quarterback Kirk Cousins to graduation. The 6-2, 237-pound Bell should become the workhorse of the Spartan offense. His yards per carry average may drop a bit, but he’ll probably rush for at least 1,300 yards, if not more.

Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M – It’s common sense to project that Michael, a talented senior who ran for 899 yards last season, will improve his numbers thanks to the loss of backfield mate Cyrus Gray to the NFL. Michael got about 43 percent of the carries in 2011 in an offense that also featured Ryan Tannehill’s 306 rushing yards. With both Gray and Tannehill gone, Michael is now the focus of the offense, which means he’ll probably carry the ball upwards of 250 times this season. As a result, he should be in the conversation as one of the top backs in the newly-reconfigured SEC and, if he stays healthy, he could have an All-American-level season. If he can do that against a schedule that includes Arkansas, Alabama and LSU, he might emerge as a Heisman candidate. One wildcard in all this is the development of true freshman Trey Williams, who is the Aggies’ tailback of the future. Williams has the potential to steal a lot of carries from Michael as the season wears on.

Check out the rest of our top 10 Heisman Dark horses at CBS Eye On College Football

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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