The first weekend of the 2012 college football season might have been lacking a bit when it came to compelling team matchups, but there were a lot of intriguing developments on the Heisman front:
1. Denard Robinson’s Heisman hopes shattered after the lopsided loss to Alabama
I wrote before the season that the Michigan-Alabama game presented Robinson with a low-risk, high reward situation. A win by the Wolverines would’ve vaulted him to the top of the Heisman ranks. A loss didn’t have to sink him. Had he performed valiantly in a respectable loss, he still would have 11 games to bounce back. Unfortunately for Robinson, he had a bit of a meltdown against the Crimson Tide. While his overall numbers by game’s end didn’t look horrible, the first half of the game was a debacle. It’s going to take a while for Heisman voters to purge this performance from their minds. He’s not completely eliminated from Heisman contention, but he’ll have to go on one of the great tears of all time to be a factor. Given the constraints Robinson seems to be under in the Michigan offense–he’s still far better suited for the Rich Rodriguez system, by the way–I doubt that will happen.
2. Dark horses begin stalking of preseason favorites
A lot of up-and-coming players got off to hot starts over the weekend. A select few have the institutional pull to become legitimate candidates with a couple more productive outings. They are:
Braxton Miller, Ohio State – He was brilliant in a 56-10 win over Miami (OH), throwing for 207 yards and rushing for 164 while accounting for three touchdowns. The sky is the limit for Miller in Urban Meyer’s scheme. If he’s still putting up these kinds of numbers at the end of September, look out.
Taylor Martinez, Nebraska – Martinez was dominant at times as a freshman but seemed to regress as a sophomore, so I was wary of including him on any preseason Heisman lists. The clamor from Nebraska fans all offseason was for Rex Burkhead to be considered a candidate, but it looks like Martinez was the best bet all along–at least if his performance against Southern Mississippi is any indication. He passed for a career-high 354 yards and five touchdowns. Let’s see what he does against UCLA this weekend.
Kenny Hilliard, LSU – Everyone knows that LSU has the deepest group of running backs in college football. Not enough people know that Hilliard is easily the most talented of the bunch. I don’t think it will be a secret for much longer, especially after the way Hilliard looked while rolling for 141 yards and two scores (including a 60-yarder) on 13 carries against North Texas. The 5-foot-11, 240-pound sophomore is incredibly quick and agile for his size. He’s a power back who also has the speed to go downtown on occasion. If he continues to separate himself from the rest of the LSU running backs in this manner, he’ll emerge as a Heisman contender.
Le’Veon Bell of Michigan State and Marqise Lee of USC (more on them down below)
3. Young players appear on radar for future Heisman runs
There is an exciting group of freshmen out there who look ready to battle it out for Heismans in the next few seasons. A few could potentially score some votes this year, though not actually win the trophy:
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon – The redshirt freshman had a sterling debut, going 18 of 22 for 200 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 24 yards in just one half of play against Arkansas State . He appears to be a perfect fit for Chip Kelly’s system and is a physical upgrade over Darron Thomas. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he develops leading up to the big showdown against USC on November 3.
Duke Johnson , RB, Miami – Johnson is the most dynamic playmaker to suit up for Miami in at least a decade. He is a game changer, as evidenced by how he rescued the ‘Canes against Boston College on Saturday. He rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns (of 54 and 56 yards) on just seven carries. He also caught three passes and had 69 yards on kickoff returns. One game in and he’s already the main reason to tune in to watch Miami play.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama – No freshman shined on a bigger stage than Yeldon did on Saturday. He rushed for 111 yards and one touchdown on just 11 carries as Alabama rolled over Michigan. Yeldon already carries himself like a veteran and seems destined to be a star for the Tide. His mix of power, athleticism and football savvy is rare. If he can hold off Eddie Lacy and become the main back for ‘Bama, he should crack the 1,000 yard barrier.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia – If Yeldon was phenomenal, Gurley wasn’t too far behind for Georgia against Buffalo. Who needs Isaiah Crowell? Gurley (and fellow freshman Keith Marshall) are more talented. The true freshman rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries and also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Gurley is a good-sized back at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, but he has breakaway speed to boot.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA– Stop the presses. UCLA might have finally found its savior. Hundley popped a 71-yard touchdown run on his first play as a Bruin and finished with 202 yards passing and 68 yards rushing and three total touchdowns against Rice. He is an elite quarterback talent with good size and athleticism. He’s going to give the Pac-12 fits for the next few seasons.
4. Will Marqise Lee be the wrench in the works for Matt Barkley’s Heisman hopes?
The box score will forever show that Matt Barkley threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to Marqise Lee on the first play of USC’s 49-10 win over Hawaii on Saturday. What it won’t show is that Barkley threw the ball about 15 yards, tops, before Lee did the rest, blazing by defenders to the end zone. Lee finished with 10 catches for 197 yards and he later returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. The buzz after the game was that Lee upstaged Barkley, who nonetheless threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns. As a receiver who also returns kicks, Lee has a chance to make a run at the Heisman, but he’s going to have trouble gaining traction with Barkley on the same team. After all, every touchdown pass caught by Lee is a touchdown pass thrown by Barkley. Lee might have, say, 16 touchdown catches at the end of the year, but Barkley may well have 45 touchdown passes. While there may be general acknowledgement that Lee is the better player, voters are likely to see Barkley–a senior who skipped the NFL to help USC challenge for a national title–as more deserving of the Heisman. That’s not to say that Lee can’t get to New York. He’ll do so with a Biletnikoff Award tucked under his arm if he keeps this up.
5. 50 is the new 40.
Heisman winners come in three different styles these days: (1) A remarkable player on a good team (2) A good player on a remarkable team (3) A remarkable player on a remarkable team. We usually know what makes a remarkable team–win all or almost all of your games. But what constitutes a remarkable player in the context of the Heisman race? I’ve come the conclusion recently that, for quarterbacks at least, it’s all about 50. As in, 50 touchdowns.
To properly understand why this number is important, consider that before 2007, no Heisman winner had ever topped 46 touchdowns in a season. That 46-TD effort was by Andre Ware in 1989. Surpassing the 40-TD total was extremely rare. But in 2007, Tim Tebow passed and ran for 55 touchdowns. In 2008, Sam Bradford also had 55 touchdowns. In 2009, Mark Ingram won the Heisman as a good player on a remarkable team, but then Cam Newton burst onto the scene in 2010 with another 50-TD season. Robert Griffin III didn’t produce 50 touchdowns last season, but he did have 47, which is awfully close. The average season touchdown total of the last four quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy is 52, with an average of 49 at the time of the Heisman vote (which is what really counts).
Part of the reason, of course, is the longer season. Some of these players had 13 regular season games in which to put up these numbers. Also, they all played in some variation of the spread offense, which tends to maximize quarterback production.
I bring up this point because we can use it as a bench mark to determine which quarterbacks out there have the potential to win the Heisman despite not playing for a great team. We know that Matt Barkley, Aaron Murray and EJ Manuel can probably fall well short of 50 touchdowns and still win the Heisman as long as their teams go undefeated. But Geno Smith, Braxton Miller, Collin Klein, Tyler Wilson, Landry Jones and Tyler Bray may not have that luxury. The quarterback out of this group that can approach or surpass the magic 50-TD mark could make a serious case for the Heisman.
It’s worth noting that Smith totaled five touchdowns in week one. So he’s on pace for 60.
“I was definitely a little tired, but everybody out there on the field gets a little tired.” – Le’Veon Bell, after touching the ball 50 times against Boise State.
It made perfect sense to project that Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell would see a surge in production following the departure of backfield mate Edwin Baker to the NFL. But I’m not sure anyone expected him to morph into the kind of workhorse he became in the Spartans’ 17-13 win over Boise State on Friday night. The 6-foot-2, 244-pound junior battered BSU’s defense to the tune of 210 yards and two touchdowns on 44 carries. He also caught six passes for 55 yards. That’s 50 touches, for those keeping score at home.
As a result, he is our Heisman Player of the Week for week one.
This kind of running back workload isn’t completely foreign to the Mark Dantonio era. In 2008, Javon Ringer averaged 30 carries per game and twice that season hauled the ball over 40 times for Sparty. The difference is that Bell is much more talented than Ringer and actually has the ability to break runs. If Bell comes through with another huge game against Notre Dame two Saturdays from now, it will be time for Michigan State to start pushing him for the Heisman.
A closing thought…
Baylor’s Nick Florence is to Robert Griffin III what David Klingler was to Andre Ware.