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The 2012 preseason is finally upon us.
Training camps are underway. The first top 25 poll has been released. Every outlet imaginable has put out a preseason All-American team.
All that’s left to speculate on is the race for the most prestigious award in sports.
As with almost everything else in college football, the procedure for determining the Heisman winner can be a bit quirky. Each fall, the Heisman Trust asks 925 voters from six different geographic regions to select the player they deem to be the ‘most outstanding’ for that season.
This subjective criteria has, not surprisingly, produced some rather controversial results over the years, leading some detractors to downplay the validity of the process. Nonetheless, the hunt for the Heisman and the drama surrounding it remains as appealing and enduring (and exasperating) as the race for the team title itself.
That’s because the Heisman is yet another way for college football fans to claim bragging rights. Your team might miss out on a conference title, or squander a national championship, or lose to its rival, but your favorite player can still be called up to that podium at season’s end to take his place alongside an elite group of college football legends. More often than not, the Heisman winner is the player who best captures the zeitgeist of a particular season. He’s the guy we all remember, that grainy, galloping blur on an old highlight reel. In some cases, he can define an era.
This counts for something. So do NFL betting picks. The Heisman appeals to our sense of college football history and tradition, which is why most of us still care who takes home the bronze statue.
When it comes to putting together an accurate preseason Heisman list, however, all that matters is what the voters think. I created HeismanPundit.com because I discerned a pattern in past voter behavior that I thought could help determine the players with the best chance of winning the trophy going forward. And so the 10 Heismandments were born. Have a look at them and you’ll see the philosophy that governs our preseason Heisman Watch.
Seeing as how it is a Presidential election year, it’s appropriate to use the following analogy to help understand how the Heisman race works: If you are a governor or Senator in a big state like California, Texas, New York or Florida, you’ve got a built-in advantage when it comes to running for the White House. Your name recognition is greater, you reside in or near major media markets, you have an easier time fundraising and the act of making decisions on behalf of a large population enhances your experience and overall prestige. You obviously need political talent–and luck–to win the Presidency, but your task is made easier by having all those advantages. Conversely, if you are a politician from a state like South Dakota, or Kansas, you’ve got to work a lot harder to become a viable candidate. In most cases, it will either take extraordinary luck, or skill, to rise to the top of the pack.
It’s the same in the Heisman race. If you are a successful player for one of the elite traditional powers–the USCs, the Ohio States, the Oklahomas–you are more likely to be regarded as a major candidate by the voters. If you play for a non-elite, non-power team, you’ve got to overcome more obstacles to be taken seriously.
Does this mean you must play for a traditional power, or a national-title-contending team to win the Heisman? No. Even one-term governor and former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter became President. Look at Robert Griffin III’s win last year for a prime example of how an upstart candidacy can catch fire. But it’s not a common occurrence. Is it fair? No, but it’s reality.
With all that in mind, here are the 10 players with the best chance of actually winning the Heisman heading into 2012. The most effective way to look at this list is to imagine all of the players having huge statistical seasons while leading their teams to an undefeated season. All those things being equal, who would the voters pick and in what order and why?
This list balances my educated guess of the likelihood of these players performing at a Heisman-worthy level with the built-in advantages they already possess with the Heisman electorate. Can a player not on this list win the Heisman or come close? Sure. But a lot would have to happen that would be impossible to predict with any certainty at this point, which is why we’ll be adjusting this list as the weeks go on. Players coming and going depending on the circumstances.
So without further ado, here is the 2012 Heismanpundit.com Preseason Heisman Watch:
1. Matt Barkley, QB, Senior, USC — Barkley is a fourth-year starting quarterback for a traditional Heisman power that also happens to be a prime national title contender. He’s coming off a junior season where he threw a Pac-12-record 39 touchdown passes on his way to a sixth-place finish in the Heisman tally. He has extraordinary name recognition and is clearly set to be one of the faces of college football in 2012. The current narrative surrounding his candidacy is that he turned down the NFL to help complete the revitalization of a program hit hard by NCAA sanctions. USC is launching an innovative campaign on his behalf and marquee games against Oregon, Stanford and Notre Dame will help him to stake his claim with the Heisman electorate. He’s got the best receiving corps in college football to catch his passes, so he should put up huge numbers. He’ll need to manage the pressure of being the front runner and the expectations that go with it and USC will have to make sure voters don’t take him for granted the way they did Andrew Luck last year. Like Luck, he may lack in the excitement category, but the significance of the Trojans putting forth a viable candidate so soon after the Heisman Trust vacated Reggie Bush’s award won’t be lost on many voters. Barkley is the clear front runner for the Heisman, but he is by no means a lock to win.
2. Denard Robinson, QB, Senior, Michigan — Like Barkley, Robinson is perceived as the catalyst behind the revival of a traditional power that had recently fallen on hard times. Heading into his senior year, he’s one of the most recognizable players in college football with his signature dreadlocks and ‘Shoelace’ nickname. What he lacks in proficiency on the passing side he makes up for with his elite speed and vision running the ball. He’s got a flair for the dramatic and an innate ability to abruptly change games with his athleticism. In short, he’s got the ‘wow’ factor that RG3 used to his advantage last season. Voters are well aware of his exploits as he finished sixth in Heisman balloting as a 2010 sophomore. A change of offensive systems put a damper on his numbers last season, but he still passed for 2,173 yards and rushed for 1,176 while accounting for 36 touchdowns. He should be more productive in Year Two under Brady Hoke. He’s got the perfect schedule for a Heisman run, with defending national champ Alabama in the season opener and Ohio State to close things out. A good game in a win over the Tide would vault him to front runner status. His main challenge all season long, as usual, will be to stay healthy and limit mistakes. If he can lead Michigan to the Big Ten title while continuing to wow the voters with his highlight-reel plays, he’ll have a good chance to win the Heisman. It’s important to note that Michigan’s athletic department does not believe in Heisman campaigns and will not be supporting Robinson in this regard. I would tell you how many yards he needs to become the all-time Wolverine rushing leader–but that’s their job, not mine.
3. Montee Ball, RB, Senior, Wisconsin — Ball is the leading returning vote getter from last year’s Heisman race. He finished fourth following a magnificent season that eventually saw him rush for 1,923 yards while scoring an NCAA record-tying 39 touchdowns. He is just 18 touchdowns away from becoming the all-time NCAA touchdown leader, a note prominently and helpfully displayed on his Heisman web site (see, Michigan, that’s how you do it). Ball could have easily been the front runner for 2012 if not for how well he did in 2011. To wit, his numbers last season were so out-of-this-world, he may have set the bar a bit high for himself. There haven’t been many instances of a player winning the Heisman while having significantly worse statistics than the year before. It could well be that Ball has another productive season while still being perceived as falling a bit short. Such is the fickleness of the Heisman electorate. What could rescue Ball from this fate is his career production. With a little over 1,800 yards, he’ll land himself somewhere between Archie Griffin and Herschel Walker on the top 10 of the all-time rushing list. Coupled with being the NCAA’s all-time Mr. Touchdown, it’d be an impressive sell to the voters. Ball will miss training camp due to his being on the wrong end of a campus ambush, but he should be fine for the season. He plays for the Big Ten favorite and is the latest in a long line of great Badger backs. The Wisconsin athletic department is promoting him well and he enters 2012 as one of the favorites, but he’ll have to come through big time to win.
4. Landry Jones, QB, Senior, Oklahoma — Jones had the unenviable task of replacing a Heisman winner (Sam Bradford) and he’s done a remarkable job, with 12,379 yards and 93 touchdowns in three seasons as the Sooners’ starting quarterback. Despite those great career numbers, he (and his team) were perceived as disappointments last year. Jones threw just one touchdown pass and was intercepted six times in OU’s last four games. He finished up with 15 interceptions, a number he’ll need to drastically reduce if he wants to contend for the Heisman. Jones has the advantage of playing for a traditional Heisman power that will be ranked in the top 10. He’s got good name recognition and he should have another fine season in the Sooner system. But he needs to approach the kind of statistics Bradford had in 2008 if he wants to both elevate his team and win the trophy. That’s certainly possible at Oklahoma, even with the difficulty it’s been having at the receiver position this offseason. Exotic matchups with Notre Dame, TCU and West Virginia add some spice to the schedule and give Jones a chance to rise to the top of the pack.
5. Aaron Murray, QB, Junior, Georgia — Murray tossed a school-record 35 touchdown passes last season as he led the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship Game. Throwing 35 touchdowns in Mark Richt’s unimaginative offense is hard enough, but doing it as a sophomore makes it even more impressive. Murray has a great feel for the game and is a terrific field general. His ability to throw on the run and his knack for the clutch play should make him enticing to the voters. If he shows further improvement as a junior and Georgia wins the SEC, he’s a lock to go to New York as one of the Heisman finalists. He’s got the talent to shine, but he also needs to cut down on his mistakes (he had 14 picks last season) and work on improving his completion percentage. A high-profile SEC schedule should give him plenty of opportunities to spotlight his play.
6. E.J. Manuel, QB, Senior, Florida State — Putting Manuel here is difficult since Florida State’s offense seems to be permanently stuck on stupid, but there’s no denying he has the ability to make a Heisman run if he can finally put together a complete season. As with Barkley and Robinson, he has a chance to go down as the guy who turned his team around after the doldrums of the past decade. He showed flashes of potential last year, especially toward the end, and he’s sitting on a streak of 121 passes without an interception. Overall, he threw for 2,666 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight picks in 2011. If FSU finally lives up to its potential by going undefeated and winning the ACC and Manuel plays a key role in it, voters will see him as having redeemed himself and the program. While the schedule isn’t conducive to a Heisman run, Florida State is a traditional power and the meme that ‘The Seminoles are back’ would be more than enough to boost his prospects.
7. Geno Smith, QB, Senior, West Virginia — As I wrote recently, Smith has some unique advantages when it comes to the Heisman race. The most obvious is that he operates in a system that produces huge passing numbers. Another is that WVU is making the jump to the Big 12, which will allow him to play against more high profile opponents than he was able to in the Big East. The last time the country saw him, he was leading his team to a 70-33 pasting of Clemson. Now, they’ll get to see how well he can do against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and TCU. Voters will be paying close attention to those games. He threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first year in Dana Holgorsen’s offense and he should improve upon those numbers in 2012, especially with a great group of receivers at his disposal. At the same time, Smith must push his team to new heights–a Big 12 title, perhaps?–in order to have a chance to win the Heisman.
8. Knile Davis, RB, Junior, Arkansas — Davis is an elite back who missed all of last season with a broken ankle. He rushed for 1,322 and 13 touchdowns in 2010, however, while averaging a stellar 6.5 yards per rush. By all accounts, he is fully recovered and stronger and faster than ever. If he can build upon the production he had in 2010 and stay healthy, he’ll emerge as the SEC’s best back. Playing for Arkansas gives him a little boost with voters, as the Hog running back tradition is still fresh in voters’ minds–remember that Darren McFadden was a two-time Heisman runner up. The schedule gives Davis plenty of chances to impress voters as Alabama and LSU come to Fayetteville.
9. De’Anthony Thomas, AP, Sophomore, Oregon — Thomas is lightning in a bottle, the type of player who can break a play at any time. As an all-purpose guy, he won’t necessarily be required by voters to put up eye-popping numbers from scrimmage. Instead, they will keep an eye out for him on the highlight reels. A punt return here, a kick return there and he could be at the forefront of the Heisman race. He had 2,235 total yards and scored 18 touchdowns on just 140 touches as a true freshman, so he’s got the numbers, too. His coming out game in the Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin undoubtedly left an impression. The Oregon offensive scheme will give him plenty of opportunities to roam and ‘The Black Mamba’ should be cranking out the highlights all season long. Games against USC and Stanford give him a chance to grab the attention of voters.
10. Tajh Boyd, QB, Junior, Clemson — Clemson was the ‘it’ team for a while last year and Boyd was one of the ‘it’ players. In his first year as a starter, he threw for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading his team to the ACC title despite its having a roster littered with freshmen and sophomores at many key positions. The Tigers play an exciting brand of offensive football under Gus Malzahn protege Chad Morris and it’s reasonable to assume that Boyd will improve even more now that he has a year of starting experience under his belt. It helps that Boyd has perhaps the best receiver in college football to throw to in Sammy Watkins (though Watkins will miss the first two games due to suspension). If Clemson can win another ACC championship and Boyd ups his production, he could garner some Heisman mention.
On the cusp: Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina; Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas; Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee; Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia; Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State; Keith Price, QB, Washington; Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon; Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech; Cierre Wood, RB, Notre Dame; James Franklin, QB, MissouriPowered by Sidelines