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Heisman Pundit’s 2010 Preseason Heisman Watch

August is upon us, camp is right around the corner and the games are a month away, which means it’s time for my annual preseason list of the players with the best chance of actually winning the Heisman.

This is not–repeat, not!–how I think the vote will fall.  The players listed here are the ones who I think can win and therefore they are listed in the order of their odds of doing so (if all things, including stats, are equal).  This means that there may be several players not listed here who will indeed finish in the top 10 of the voting but can’t actually win.  Conversely, some of the players listed below may not end up sniffing any Heisman votes, but could win if certain things go right .  

This list takes into account the strengths of the candidates and the traditional power of the teams involved, their level of name recognition entering the season, their statistical past, their statistical potential for 2010, their talent, their schedule and all the intangibles that could possibly come into play.   As the season goes on, we will whittle the list down.

I will say that 2010 does not feature a slam dunk preseason favorite.  There is not a whole lot separating the top 10 or so candidates.  But, if they were all perceived to have the same type of year, this is how it would go:

1. Terrelle Pryor, QB, Jr., Ohio State–Pryor gets the top spot on this list thanks to his superior name recognition, his rapidly blossoming talent and the fact that he is a junior quarterback for a traditional power expected to vie for the national title.  He helped the Buckeyes finish strong last year, culminating in an MVP performance in a win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl [note: always helps to be a bowl MVP].  He threw for 2,087 yards, 18 TDs and 11 interceptions while rushing for 779 yards and another seven scores.      If, as expected, he improves upon those numbers and Ohio State is in the thick of the national title hunt, he’s got a great shot at winning the Heisman.  An early showdown with Miami gives him the platform to launch his campaign.  A trio of games with Penn State, Iowa and Michigan is there at the end for him to seal the deal.  I think he’ll need minimum 2,500 passing yards with 25 TDs and at least 800 additional rushing yards in order to be deemed Heisman worthy.  If the Rose Bowl is any indication of his future potential, then it shouldn’t be a problem.      

2. Jacory Harris, QB, Jr., Miami–This could be the year of the ACC Heisman contender and in my eyes Harris leads the pack.  He’s a junior quarterback on a traditional power that has a chance to contend for the national title.  He’s got decent name recognition and is coming off a sophomore season where he threw for 3,352 yards and 24 touchdowns (plus 17 interceptions).  Obviously, he needs to cut down on his picks, but I think he’ll do that as he now has a full year in Mark Whipple’s system.  The compelling narrative in Harris’ favor is that he could be the guy who leads Miami back to prominence after about half-a-decade of mediocrity or worse.  He’ll have the showdown against Ohio State early to state his case, then tough road games at Pitt and Clemson to punctuate it.  And he’s got Florida State and Virginia Tech at home, which makes things easier.  If he can keep his rather rail-like body intact, he should have a big season and lead Miami to the ACC title.  That could mean a trip to New York.    

3. Christian Ponder, QB, Sr. Florida State–As with Miami’s Harris, Ponder’s appeal is that he could be the quarterback to lead his program back to national relevance.  He’s the senior quarterback for a traditional power that has a chance to have a really good season.  While he doesn’t have a huge amount of name recognition heading into the year, the FSU sports information office has done a masterful job getting the word out about Ponder in the offseason.  Last year, he threw for 2,717 yards, with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing nearly 69 percent of his passes.  However, he missed the last four games due to injury and wasn’t able to put up the kind of numbers you usually see from a Heisman candidate.  If healthy, he should do just that in 2010.  Early games at Oklahoma and versus BYU will help show he is back, while slaying the Gators at the end could be the key to his whole Heisman rationale.

4. Ryan Williams, RB, So., Virginia Tech–Yet another ACC contender.  The last three winners have been sophomores, so maybe Williams will keep the trend alive in 2010.  He was an absolute stud as a freshman, rushing for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry.  He played well against good teams, rushing for 71 yards and two scores on 13 carries against Alabama (in his debut), 107 yards and a score on 21 carries against Nebraska and 117 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl thrashing of Tennessee.  Due to his youth, Williams doesn’t have a whole lot of name recognition, but I expect that to change quickly in 2010.  He starts out with a Monday night prime time matchup against what will be a top three Boise State team, then hits a fairly soft schedule for the next seven games.  By the time the Hokies host Georgia Tech in a Thursday night game in early November, he may well be leading the nation in rushing and perhaps the Heisman race as well.  Late games against a tough North Carolina defense and a very good Miami team will make or break his final Heisman case.  If Virginia Tech is winning the ACC and Williams is racking up the yards, look out.

5. John Clay, RB, Jr., Wisconsin–The more I looked at Clay, the more I liked his viability as a Heisman candidate.  He’s coming off a 1,517-yard, 18-touchdown sophomore season and the Badgers return 10 starters on offense, including all five linemen.  Good yardage is an almost certain guarantee for backs in the Wisconsin system, but Clay has the kind of talent that reminds one more of Ron Dayne than P.J. Hill–he’s a powerful bruiser with a fair bit of nimbleness in his step.  Noteworthy in looking at his stats last year is that he did not pad his numbers against Northern Illinois or Wofford, though his two worst games were against Iowa and Ohio State–both Badger losses.  But he finished strong with 801 yards and 11 scores in his last six, with 121 and a couple scores against Miami in the bowl.  To me, the likely path for Clay to win the Heisman is a 2,000-yard season as I don’t think the Badgers will get out of the Big Ten unscathed.  But considering the history of Badger backs, I don’t think 2,000 is out of the question and it may even be a decent possibility if he can stay healthy. 

6. Ryan Mallett, QB, Jr., Arkansas–As I wrote earlier, there is very little separating the top 10 or so candidates on this list.  Mallett could very easily be in the top three here, but one has to take into account how his team will finish in the SEC.  The Razorbacks could very well make a run at the conference crown [I actually have them in my top 10 preseason list nationally], but that is not a given.  This is where Mr. Mallett comes in, as his play must elevate the Hogs into that upper echelon in order for his Heisman hopes to take sail.  I don’t think we need worry about his numbers.  He is coming off a 3,624 yard season with 30 scores and seven picks.  He’s a major talent with a howitzer for an arm and he plays in one of the best offensive systems in college football.  So, he’s going to have an outstanding season individually.  But how Arkansas does in a four game stretch against Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn will determine the resiliency of his candidacy.  The regular season finale against LSU and a possible SEC title game appearance would help a possible late run at the trophy.  He’s the SEC’s No. 1 Heisman candidate.     

7. John Brantley, QB, Jr., Florida–To understand why a player who has never started a game could be seen to have a shot at the Heisman, you have to look at a few underlying factors.  Namely, Brantley is taking over at quarterback for a college football legend and therefore many eyes will be surveying his progress.  Given the past success of Urban Meyer quarterbacks in their first years starting and the obvious talent that Brantley possesses, it is not far-fetched to assume he will do quite well.  And if Brantley has a very good season, he will be widely perceived as the guy who kept a good thing going, the next in line, etc., and he could emerge as a legitimate Heisman contender.  As a sophomore in mop-up duty for Tim Tebow in 2009, Brantley threw for 410 yards and seven scores with no picks.  Obviously, he’ll blow those numbers away in 2010.  There’s the usual high-profile SEC slate that includes a game at Alabama, which could be a boon…or it could sink him fast. 

8. Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Jr., Oregon State–Rodgers is one of the most versatile backs in college football and has been a well-known commodity since the fourth game of his freshman season.  He’s coming off a sophomore season where he rushed for 1,440 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also catching 78 passes and another score.  He’s on pace to break a slew of school and Pac-10 records.  The key for Rodgers is going to be how his team fares.  If the Beavers can once again challenge for the conference crown and he has another huge season, he’ll be in the Heisman conversation.  An opener against TCU will help make an early case, as will playing at Boise State.  As always, marquee matchups with USC and Oregon later on in the year will be critical.  I think Rodgers needs 1,800-plus yards to really contend.

8. Case Keenum, QB, Sr., Houston–Keenum is on track to become the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards.  He finished eighth in the Heisman vote last year after a brilliant season in which he had 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes.  There will be much well-deserved consternation this year about why Keenum is not in the thick of the race and unfortunately this issue will not be resolved as long as there is a two-tiered system called the BCS in place.  As it stands, it is very difficult for a player from a non-BCS team to win the Heisman.  The last player to do so from a non-power conference was BYU’s Ty Detmer in 1990.  Keenum just won’t get many chance to showcase his abilities against top level teams.  I think Keenum’s best chance to win is for the rest of the contenders to have lackluster years, while he sets the NCAA single-season AND career marks for yards and touchdowns.  I think that’s what it will take and I don’t rule it out, but it’s a longshot.

9. Noel Devine, RB, Sr., West Virginia–Devine has excellent name recognition and is a human highlight reel.  Voters love exciting highlights.  He had a good junior year, rushing for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he’ll need to light it up as a senior to have a chance at the Heisman.  Unless West Virginia captures the Big East and lands itself in the top 10, that means approaching the 2,000-yard mark in spectacular fashion.  Coming up big at LSU in late September would help, as would production against Cincy and Pitt, but the schedule isn’t highly conducive to a serious Heisman run.  However, this could be overcome by pure numbers and Devine is the kind of back who would do it with style.

10. Jake Locker, QB, Sr., Washington–Locker has come a long way, both as a quarterback and as a potential Heisman candidate.  The last year has seen him transform from a fantastic athlete who happened to be playing behind center into a consensus high NFL draft pick…which in turn has propelled his Heisman talk.  For those Heisman voters who place a high premium on NFL talent, he will be very attractive.  There’s no doubting his value to his team as Washington went from 0-12 when he was hurt in 2008 to 5-7 when he was healthy in 2009.  But for Locker to have a real shot at the Heisman, he’s got to push Washington to heights not seen in a decade.  Last year, he threw for 2,800 yards, with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, while rushing for 388 and another seven scores.  He needs to do all that and much more while leading the Huskies to at least nine wins–and hope that other candidates screw up–in order to be in serious consideration for the Heisman.  Early games against BYU, Nebraska and USC will test his campaign.  A late season run will be difficult unless Washington has a chance at the conference crown.  In short, Locker will need to pull off a miracle to take home the trophy. 

The Rest:

11. Kellen Moore, QB, Jr., Boise State

12. Garrett Gilbert, QB, So., Texas-

14. LaMichael James, RB, So., Oregon

14. Andrew Luck, QB, So., Stanford

15. Dion Lewis, RB, So., Pittsburgh

16. Jerrod Johnson, QB, Sr., Texas A&M

Waaaaait a second.  Where’s Mark Ingram?

Nothing personal Tide fans.  Ingram is merely a victim of Heismandment No. 9, which states there will never be another two-time Heisman winner.  Since starting this site, here are the returning Heisman winners who have failed to make my preseason list the following season:  Jason White, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford.  So Ingram will end up being the latest player to fall prey to the repeat curse.  Can he finish 2nd?  Sure.  But he won’t win and the list above is about who is most likely to win.

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Heisman Academics

As a comment down below noted, I was remiss in forgetting to mention that FSU’s Christian Ponder has a 3.7 GPA, got his bachelor’s degree in two-and-a-half years, received an MBA this past spring and is now working on his second Master’s Degree.

Last year, one of the more alluring elements of the Toby Gerhart candidacy was his very strong academic standing.  If I recall correctly, he took something like 18 credit hours (maybe more) during the very same fall that he was pummeling defenses to the tune of 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns.  It’s not easy taking that many units when you are a regular Joe Blow student pounding beer bongs in your spare time, much less hapless defenders.

It’s refreshing to see collegians excel on the field and in the classroom.  We are to the point now where even the pretense of being a student-athlete is roundly ignored.  Look at the Seantrel Henderson saga.  Here it is, mid-July, and he still doesn’t know where he’s going to school.

Putting aside for a moment the obvious and legitimate issues surrounding his previous signing, it’s clear that college life and academics have zero bearing on his decision making.  By mid-July, most college students have not only picked a school (many did so a year ahead of time), but have been to orientation, have their dorm assignments and their roommates, have met with counselors about their majors and reserved their class schedule.  Wherever Henderson goes, he will not only be behind the curve when it comes to football (as he will have missed the opportunity to attend summer workouts), but also in regards to getting ready to be a student.  But I guess all that is unimportant when the only clear goal is to stay nominally eligible for three years in preparation for the NFL.

I won’t pretend that every athlete is cut out to be a scholar.  Many of these guys would never get into the colleges for which they play and, truth be told, would probably end up delivering pizzas–or worse–if not for their physical gifts.  I’m certainly a realist on the issue and have long called for athletes to be able to major in their sport–if a musician can major in cello, why shouldn’t an athlete major in a subject related to his future profession?  Why are we pretending that 220-pound running backs with 4.3 speed should be sociology majors?

But whatever the case, as long as you are going to college, you might as well at least try to be a real student and actually take part in college life and not act like a mercenary biding his time until the NFL–and adulthood–beckons.

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Ponder Ready For Heisman Campaign, FSU Resurgence

Here’s the scenario:

A quarterback with the initials C.P. almost single-handedly leads a struggling, wayward, traditional power back onto the national scene.  Meanwhile, said quarterback finally fills his considerable potential as a senior after overcoming a shoulder injury and coaching changes.  An inconsistent career filled with flashes of brilliance culminates in a dominant, Heisman Trophy-winning campaign, a BCS bowl and a resurgent program.

Of course, the scenario above describes USC and Carson Palmer in 2002, but it could also turn out to be the storyline for Florida State and Christian Ponder in 2010.

That’s what FSU hopes as, for the first time in its history, it is pushing a player for the Heisman. [Check out Ponder’s new website]

That player is Ponder, a 6-3, 228-pound senior, born in Tampa and raised in Dallas, who grew up the son of a ‘Nole and often envisioned being in the very spot he is in right now.

“As a little kid, you always dream about trying to win the Heisman,” said Ponder, who threw for 2,717 yards in 2009 before being sidelined for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.  “I remember following the Heisman growing up.  Those guys were prolific game changers…guys like Weinke and Ward.  So it’s crazy to think this is happening.  It’s surreal.”

But his talent is very real.  And Ponder’s 301-yard-per-game passing average, his 68.8% accuracy and superb mobility (318 gross rushing yards) last season convinced FSU that the time had finally come for a Heisman campaign.

“During the spring we started talking about it,” said Ponder, who might be the most gifted Seminole quarterback since Charlie Ward.  “They asked me if I was comfortable with it and I am.  Then Coach Fisher approved it and so they put together the web site.  I see it as a great opportunity, since in high school, I got very little attention, both in recruiting and in the media.”

Ponder prepped at Colleyville Heritage High in Dallas, where he passed for 2,214 yards and rushed for 911 while totaling 32 touchdowns as a 2005 senior.  He received scholarship offers from Baylor, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, North Carolina and Texas Christian, but there was little doubt where he was going to end up.

“I was always an FSU fan,” said Ponder, whose father, David, played defensive line for the Seminoles from 1980 to 1983.  “I grew up on it.  I remember my dad telling me about going to play all those crazy road games in the early 1980s…they called it ‘Octoberfest’.  They played at Ohio State, at LSU, at Notre Dame and at Pittsburgh all in a row.  It’s what put them on the map.  They played anyone, anywhere.”

For a while, Florida State dominated that map.  The last decade hasn’t been so kind, however.  Ponder knows he will be key in turning things around but, like a good quarterback, he’s not feeling the pressure.

“We’ve underachieved these last 10 years,” said Ponder.  “We have the opportunity to change that.  I don’t feel the pressure–I’m lucky to have this opportunity.”

Change is the operative word for the entire FSU program, which feels revitalized under new head coach Jimbo Fisher.  As much as players loved former coach Bobby Bowden, it was clearly time to head in a different direction, to bring in some new energy.

“It’s very different under Coach Fisher,” said Ponder.  “He brought in a nutritionist and we are eating healthier.  There are new strength coaches.  We are being more disciplined in the classroom and on the field.  Our whole focus is on discipline.  These are good changes.

“However, I grew up a Bobby Bowden fan and I will always treasure getting the chance to play for him.”

It was under Bowden that Ponder took over the starting job as a 2008 sophomore and struggled at times.  Then he went on a passing tear as a junior before getting hurt.  Now he’s ready to put it all together as a senior.

“I expected to play well last year,” said Ponder, whose career game involved torching North Carolina’s NFL-laden defense for 395 yards and three touchdowns.  “We had a lot of offensive weapons.  I didn’t play well as a sophomore, so I really worked hard at it and watched a lot of film.

“Coach Fisher has been a big help and he’s very knowledgeable.  His playbook is huge–it’s a two-inch binder and we’ve probably only learned three-quarters of it.  He’s always adding plays, depending on the opponent.  I had a good handle on it last year, but I feel even more confident this year.”

It helps that Ponder has past FSU quarterbacking greats like Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke, Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson around to remind him what it takes to follow in their footsteps.

“They just tell me to stay humble and to not forget what got me here,” said Ponder.

If Ponder plays as well as those guys, Heisman voters won’t forget.  In fact, they’ll remember FSU’s storied tradition and reward Ponder for bringing it back.

That reward could be a trip to New York…or maybe more.

“That would be fun,” said Ponder.  “It’d be an unbelievable dream, to go to New York.  This whole process is just amazing and hasn’t sunk in yet.”

For those who say the Heisman Trophy doesn’t matter, consider this:  In a sport where perception is everything, the Heisman is usually the best indicator of a program’s status on the national stage.  If a school isn’t consistently producing players who are in the Heisman conversation, it probably isn’t a national power.

True to form, the last time Florida State played for the BCS title (2000-2001), it had a Heisman winner at its helm. Since then, no BCS title berths and no Heisman candidates.

So if we’re still talking about Christian Ponder and the Heisman in November, you can also bet that the big, bad ‘Noles of yore will finally be back, too.

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