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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The 2011 Heisman

P.S.R. 2011 Heisman Watch: Preseason

What a bore. Quarterback, quarterback, running back, quarterback, quarterback, running back, quarterback. That was the case in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, and that’s how it’s going to go in 2011: barring injury or an unforeseen slide, Stanford’s Andrew Luck will take home the Heisman Trophy. But the anticipation is the most exciting part of the race towards the Heisman, in my opinion, and remember that few – if any – thought Cam Newton would take college football by storm a year ago. Luck may be the front-runner today, and yes, the Trophy is his as long as he delivers. But there’s a Cam Newton out there somewhere; there’s a Heisman finalist – if not a winner – who has yet to make his mark. That’s what I’m excited to see.

1. QB Andrew Luck, Stanford

Week 1 San Jose State, Saturday
2010 totals 263 of 372 for 3,332 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT; 55 carries for 453 yards, 3 TD

Last year’s runner-up – a pretty distant second, to be fair – is the clear leader for a reason: consistent, productive, a leader, the best quarterback in the country and the clear top piece on a national contender. More than anything, however, what really boosts Luck’s candidacy is the fact that he’s in the driver’s seat as we head into September. Don’t discount that fact, as all Luck really needs to do is take care of business; easier said than done, but Luck has done nothing but live up to expectations thus far. What Luck can’t afford is injuries, first and foremost, but one thing that could derail Luck’s quest is the arrival of a yet-unknown commodity: the next Cam Newton, for example.

Next at Duke, Sept. 10

2. QB Kellen Moore, Boise State

Week 1 vs. Georgia, Saturday (in Atlanta)
2010 totals 273 of 383 for 3,845 yards, 35 TD, 6 INT

Like clockwork – tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. Take out a B.C.S. conference foe to start the year, commit no turnovers, pick apart the secondary, what have you. Roll through the rest of September. Roll through October and November. Do everything right, make dangerously few mistakes, clean up, sit out most of the second half. If Boise State played like the rest, Moore would throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns. The Broncos don’t, which is one of the most commendable things about this great program, but Moore’s numbers do take a hit. People should still pay attention. I also think the move to the Mountain West, with the beefed-up schedule, will help Moore’s candidacy.

Next at Toledo, Sept. 16

3. RB LaMichael James, Oregon

Week 1 vs. L.S.U., Saturday (in Arlington, Tex.)
2010 totals 294 carries for 1,731 yards, 21 TD; 17 receptions for 208 yards, 3 TD

James is going to put some major numbers, barring injury. It was lower-body ailments that slowed him down over the final month of 2010, which prevented James from cracking the 2,000-yard mark. And injuries are the only thing that could stop James from doing so in 2011, which is a bit of a magic number for running backs on national powers. What James needs to overcome, however, are two very important factors: one, while Oregon’s system put James on the map, it also causes some to discount his numbers as a result of a prolific offense – this is nonsensical, but some discount James for this reason; and two, he’ll have to beat Stanford and Luck in November to be considered the best player in his own conference, let alone in the country.

Next Nevada, Sept. 10

4. QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma

Week 1 Tulsa, Saturday
2010 totals 405 of 617 for 4,718 yards, 38 TD, 12 INT

Hey, the Heisman is probably, based on history, going to go to the starting quarterback on the best team in the country. Big surprise, I know. If Oklahoma runs the table and plays for the national title, Jones is going to be right there with Luck in the final tally. Why? Because he produces as well as anyone, throwing for 4,718 yards as a sophomore after being thrust into the starting lineup ahead of schedule in 2009. Based on his development between 2009 and 2010, you can see why Jones is going to rank among the most prolific passers in the country in 2011 – he was already there last fall, so he may stand heads-and-shoulders above the rest come September. Best quarterback, best team. But the Sooners can’t finish worse than 11-1 for Jones to take home the award.

Next at Florida State, Sept. 17

5. RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

Week 1 vs. East Carolina, Saturday (in Charlotte, N.C.)
2010 totals 249 carries for 1,197 yards, 17 TD; 29 receptions for 412 yards, 2 TD

Lattimore’s impact on South Carolina in 2010 was large, significant and immediate: right from the start, the then-freshman dictated the tempo on the ground and provided a finesse team with a strong, physical mentality. And that’s why, above all else, the Gamecocks took home the SEC East, beating Florida on the road along the way. What you’d like to see from Lattimore is a bit more production: if the sophomore rushes for 1,200 yards while James knocks off 2,000, it won’t matter if U.S.C. takes home the SEC East once again. But if Lattimore rushes for 1,500 yards and 20 scores in helping the Gamecocks go 10-2 in the regular season, he’s going to be a Heisman finalist.

Next at Georgia, Sept. 17

6. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan

Week 1 Western Michigan, Saturday
2010 totals 182 of 291 for 2,570 yards, 18 TD, 11 INT; 256 carries for 1,702 yards, 14 TD

My only fear is that it takes Robinson a few weeks to grow accustomed to an offense not well-suited to his athletic gifts. It’s not like Michigan, Brady Hoke and Al Borges are going to prevent Robinson from moving the ball with his legs, but it’s clear that the junior was a perfect fit for Rich Rodriguez’s spread attack. How will he fit into a more pro-style system? I think the passing numbers will improve; I think the running totals will take a slide, thanks to his fewer carries and the added carries for the Michigan running backs. Most importantly, however, I think the Wolverines are going to be vastly improved. That will offset any statistical decline Robinson undergoes in the new system.

Next Notre Dame, Sept. 10

7. WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State

Week 1 Louisiana-Lafayette, Saturday
2010 totals 111 receptions for 1,782 yards, 20 TD

It could easily be quarterback Brandon Weeden here, but let’s not get into the chicken-or-egg argument. Blackmon’s here, not Weeden, for one reason: other quarterback match Weeden’s production; no other receiver duplicates what Blackmon does statistically. You know the story: at least 5 receptions for 105 yards and a score in each of his 12 games last fall. That’s scary production, and the sort that lifted Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree into the Heisman conversation a few years ago. One worry is that Oklahoma State has changed offensive coordinators, replacing Dana Holgorsen with Todd Monken, but Blackmon and Weeden are too strong, too productive and have too solid a rapport to not continue last season’s success.

Next Arizona, Sept. 8

8. RB Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M

Week 1 S.M.U., Sunday
2010 totals 200 carries for 1,133 yards, 12 TD; 34 receptions for 251 yards, 1 TD

Texas A&M is on the map nationally, and not just because the Aggies are SEC-bound. A&M ended the 2010 regular season with six straight wins, a period that, not surprisingly, coincides with Gray’s six-game streak of 100-yard performances. The Aggies have great weapons at their disposal – great line, best receivers in program history, a nice quarterback – but one thing that may detract from Gray’s candidacy is the presence of junior back Christine Michael, who will share carries nearly down the middle with the senior. That’s going to keep Gray from doing much more than matching last year’s production. But if A&M plays as well as some suspect it will – say, goes 10-2 or 11-1 in the regular season – the Aggies will have one player in the mix, and here’s guessing it’s Gray. It could very well be Michael, to be honest.

Next Idaho, Sept. 17

9. QB Dan Persa, Northwestern

Week 1 at Boston College, Saturday
2010 totals 222 of 302 for 2,581 yards, 15 TD, 4 INT; 164 carries for 519 yards, 9 TD

I think Northwestern could make a run towards the Rose Bowl, but all those hopes hinge on Persa’s health. As of today, there are some lingering questions about his ongoing recovery from last season’s Achilles tear, which ended his year in Northwestern’s win over Iowa. After hearing for most of the spring and summer that he was ahead of schedule in his recovery, Northwestern is now saying that Persa might not start this Saturday in the season opener. That’s a concern for the Wildcats, most notably, but any missed games will really hurt Persa’s chances at the Heisman. Well, maybe it won’t: more than anything, Persa needs to make plays – and win games – during Big Ten play, especially against the marquee conference teams on the schedule. Even if it takes him a week or two to get his legs under him, I still think Persa is in the Heisman conversation.

Next Eastern Illinois, Sept. 10

10. LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State

Week 1 U.C. Davis, Thursday
2010 totals 90 tackles (8.5 for loss), 2 FF

Some think Arizona State are a nationally-ranked team. I don’t. But I do think the Sun Devils could make a run towards a division crown in a wide-open Pac-12 South, earning a berth against Oregon or Stanford in the conference title game. A.S.U. needs to do at least that for Burfict to factor into the mix, and if the Sun Devils can get that far, it’ll be on his back. And that’s why he’s probably the leading contender for the Heisman on the defensive side of the ball, ahead of all-American defenders like Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower and Florida State’s Greg Reid, among many others. Again, his chances hinge on Arizona State’s ability to exceed my own expectations. But there’s no doubting Burfict’s talent, which is immense, and he’s only getting better as the mental side of things catch up with his physical gifts. Most important: Burfict can’t afford to be suspended for a game or two for either on-field errors or off-field missteps.

Next Missouri, Sept. 9

Just off the debut list

In absolutely no particular order, a long list of players who were strongly considered for the preseason list. Don’t be surprised if the majority of these players make a least a week-long appearance throughout the season. I see a few who just missed the cut for one reason or another: Ryan Broyles, Geno Smith, James White, Jake Heaps, Case Keenum, Trent Richardson and Taylor Martinez, among others.

QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State
RB David Wilson, Virginia Tech
QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor
QB Kirk Cousins, Michigan State
WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma
QB Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
QB Zach Collaros, Cincinnati
CB Greg Reid, Florida State
DE Brandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh
DE Bruce Irvin, West Virginia
QB Geno Smith, West Virginia
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska
RB Silas Redd, Penn State
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB James White, Wisconsin
QB Case Keenum, Houston
QB Jake Heaps, B.Y.U.
LB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame
WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame
WR Eric Page, Toledo
QB Tim Jefferson, Air Force
RB Doug Martin, Boise State
RB Ed Wesley, T.C.U.
RB Matthew Tucker, T.C.U.
QB Darron Thomas, Oregon
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
QB Nick Foles, Arizona
QB Matt Barkley, U.S.C.
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
LB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
RB Vick Ballard, Mississippi State
QB Bryant Moniz, Hawaii
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas

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  1. Bill condon says:

    Aaron Murray is Georgia’s QB.

  2. jjtiller says:

    Every “Heisman debut” list should include Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech QB), who easily could be this year’s Cam Newton

  3. Nick Coston says:

    Don’t overlook Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a formidable technician and inventor of the DDT whose 1986 rookie year in the WWF saw him challenge Ricky Steamboat for the Intercontinental Championship. Expect to see Roberts in New York if Ravishing Rick Rude stumbles during conference play.

  4. RB says:


    I’m surprised that you have Trent Richardson so low. As you said on the Landry Jones page, the QB (or best offensive player as it may be) of a BCS team is usually in play for the unimaginative Heisman voters. I’d certainly say Richardson is at least top 5. I’d put him ahead of James or any of the other RBs and probably would only put Luck as “definitely” ahead of him.


    Paul: The list below the top 10 isn’t in order at all. Just names at random. Honestly, I’d have Richardson as the next player off the board. Only questions are his ability to stay healthy. He’ll factor into the mix at some point once he produces on a weekly basis, something he’ll definitely have the opportunity to do.

  5. Gimber says:

    This list is incomplete without Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd, as he will presumably play in all games this year, he should put up some great numbers. Your inclusion of Manti Te’o is a good start, but Michael Floyd is going to have a hell of a season.

    Paul: In hindsight, should at least be on the list of guys outside the top 10. But I was a little scared off by his off-field shenanigans, to be honest. Probably not fair to penalize him for that. Thanks, adding him above.

  6. gtwrek says:

    Still find it hard to believe that the HonkeyTonk man was able to take that title from Steamboat. And hold it for a year…

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