The HP Heisman Watch: Week 7

We’re at the halfway point of the college football season and the player with the best chance to win the Heisman is still West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.

A rash analysis of the race overweighs the signficance of Texas Tech’s 49-14 upset smashing of the Mountaineers on Saturday. Yes, it was an embarrassing loss and it will hurt Smith a bit in the short run, but the fundamentals favor him in the long run.

Keep in mind that the strength of Smith’s candidacy heading into this past weekend was not just based on his raw headline numbers. Burrowing a little deeper, remember something I mentioned a few weeks ago:

1. Throwing for so many yards and touchdowns against Baylor gives him some statistical wiggle room as the season progresses. Smith essentially crammed two games worth of numbers into one. It’s almost like he’s playing 13 regular-season games now instead of the 12 on West Virginia’s schedule. He could theoretically miss a game due to injury and not suffer much when his final stats are calculated.

2. The meme surrounding his candidacy is now centered squarely on his impressive stats. Because of the shakiness of the West Virginia defense, no one really expects the Mountaineers to go undefeated. As long as they win at least nine games and his stats remain undebatably superior to the other candidates, then he should win the Heisman.

Smith has cashed in one of his chips on the first point. In other words, his amazing day against Baylor a few weeks ago has buoyed his ‘bad day’ against Texas Tech right now. Average the two out and you still get remarkable numbers.

Even the day itself, in objective terms, wasn’t horrible. Smith went 29 of 52 for 275 yards and one touchdown while once again staying interception free. Compare those numbers to what Matt Barkley did in his team’s loss to Stanford (20 of 41, 254 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 picks), how Montee Ball fared in his team’s loss to Oregon State (15 carries, 61 yards, 0 TDs) and what Aaron Murray produced in a loss to South Carolina (11 of 31, 109 yards, 0 TDs, 1 pick) and you get a clearer picture of why he’ll be able to survive this loss.

And, once again, West Virginia’s defense showed its true colors. This is a defense that is going to give Smith very little aid and comfort as the season wears on. Voters are well aware of this dynamic and won’t hold a loss like this against Smith as much as they would other candidates.

That all said, it’s not going to be smooth sailing for Smith. He’s going to have to earn the Heisman by playing very well the rest of the way against a challenging slate.

Meanwhile, Collin Klein of Kansas State and Braxton Miller of Ohio State continue to hone their Heisman resumes. As they reach the threshold of Heisman worthiness, voters will take a second look at them and compare their accomplishments to Smith’s. Remember that the Heisman ballots go out at the end of November, so voters at that point will have an entire season’s worth of data to compare and contrast the candidates.

It is my contention that Smith remains on pace to have the best case at that time, but that Klein, Miller and possibly one other surprise candidate will also have strong competing cases to make.

The second half of the season kicks off with perhaps the most important Heisman game of the year, as K-State travels to Morgantown to take on West Virginia. There will be no better opportunity for Heisman voters to compare and contrast two very strong candidates.

So, on to this week’s Heisman Watch. Remember that the goal of this Watch is not just to track who is playing well from week to week. This is not a college football version of Kasey Casem’s top 40. The goal here is to figure out who will ultimately win the trophy. We take a long view of the race, factoring in not only individual performance, but also schedule, team success and the historical voting trends of the Heisman electorate.

These are the players who currently stand the best chance of actually winning the Heisman Trophy in 2012.

Keep in mind that some players not listed here will undoubtedly finish in the top 10 of the final Heisman voting. That’s all well and good, but this Watch does not exist to gauge their prospects.

1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia – His team’s rout at the hands of Texas Tech weakens his candidacy somewhat, but not enough to knock him from the top spot. Keep in mind that he still has a ridiculous 25-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and remains on pace to have 4,542 yards and 50 touchdown passes (with an absurdly-low interception total, maybe even zero) by the time Heisman ballots are due. Those numbers should easily lock down the trophy as long as West Virginia doesn’t collapse. While future games against K-State and Oklahoma are potential pitfalls, they are also opportunities for Smith to strengthen his case. Can he rebound mentally from the debacle in Lubbock in time to come up big this Saturday?

2. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State – Klein continues to impress and is the most immediate threat to Smith’s Heisman hopes. He’s on pace to finish with 2,158 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, plus 1,030 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. If Kansas State knocks off West Virginia on the road next week and Klein plays well, he could wrench control of the race away from Smith. Because his numbers are very good, but not overwhelming, it’s likely that K-State will have to go undefeated for him to win the trophy over Smith.

3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State – The argument that Miller is hurt by Ohio State’s probation doesn’t hold a lot of water at this point. He’ll play 12 games before the Heisman vote is due, but so will the other top candidates in this race. As with Klein, Miller’s numbers aren’t out of this world, but they will likely be good enough to be considered Heisman worthy when also paired with an undefeated season. Miller is on pace to have 2,179 passing yards and 19 touchdowns (with seven picks) plus 1,560 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Outside of the season-ender againstMichigan, he doesn’t have any spotlight games left in which to make his case, so he’ll need to close out strong to have a shot at the trophy.

4. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M – I’ve always been on record that a freshman will never win the Heisman. I still stand by that notion, but I’m also open to the possibility that I may one day be proven wrong! Manziel looks to me to have the capability to mount a once-in-a-lifetime run at the trophy. ‘Johnny Football’ already has two games of 550-plus yards of total offense this season and he’ll likely end up a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher in his first campaign–and in the SEC, no less. He is on pace for 48 combined touchdowns on the season, which approximates what the last four Heisman-winning quarterbacks produced. The schedule is set up perfectly for a late charge, as he takes on No. 6 LSU next Saturday and then Alabama on November 10. Call it a long shot, but here it is: Beat LSU and‘Bama and this freshman might win.

Others to watch: De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon

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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