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The Countdown

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

The 2012 Heisman

P.S.R. 2012 Heisman Watch: Preseason

Remember when Andrew Luck was a lock for the Heisman? His Heisman campaign took off roughly midway through his sophomore season, when Luck led Stanford to its first major breakthrough, and then reached a fever pitch once he opted to return for one more season with the Cardinal. At this point a year ago, Luck was the odds-on favorite to not only win the Heisman but to win it with ease – going wire-to-wire unlike any Heisman winner in recent memory. That Luck didn’t was not a reflection on his own level of play, which was superb, but rather an illustration of just how hard it is to maintain your grasp on the top spot while dozens of other qualified candidates state their case over the three months of the regular season. Last fall, Luck’s early lead evaporated once Robert Griffin III led Baylor to its finest season in decades, if not the finest season in school history. A year later, Matt Barkley finds himself in a similar situation. Before getting to the leading contenders, the first installment of This Date in Heisman History:

Sept. 1, 2007 Tim Tebow only gained 38 yards on the ground, but he hit on 13 of 17 attempts for 300 yards and 3 scores in leading Florida to a 49-3 win over Western Kentucky to open the 2007 season.

1. QB Matt Barkley, U.S.C. (2011 final: No. 5)

Week 1 vs. Hawaii
2011 308 of 446 for 3,528 yards, 39 TD, 7 INT

We’ve been here before: Barkley, like Luck before him, enters the season opener firmly in the driver’s seat. As noted, there are no questions about Barkley’s production being strong enough to take home the Heisman; barring injury, he’s going to have the numbers to more than justify the award. What should worry Barkley’s supporters is the idea that there’s another Griffin lurking around somewhere in the F.B.S. – because it might take that kind of unprecedented performance to take Barkley out of the top spot. His year opens with Hawaii and Syracuse before U.S.C. opens Pac-12 play at Stanford on Sept. 15.

Week 2 vs. Syracuse (in East Rutherford, N.J.)

2. RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2011 final: No. 6)

Week 11 vs. Northern Iowa
2011 307 carries for 1,932 yards, 33 TD; 24 receptions for 306 yards, 6 TD

I mentioned during Wisconsin’s preview that Ball has nothing left to prove in terms of production – if you weren’t paying attention, his 2011 season was one of the finest by a running back in college football history. Where Ball can make his case is by leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and into title consideration while serving as the clear and undisputed centerpiece of this offense. If Ball can get there, even a step back in production won’t stop him from stealing much of Barkley’s thunder. But what if Ball replicates his junior season while Wisconsin takes a step back? One, he’d go down as one of the great backs to ever play this game; two, he might take home the Heisman just based off another round of jaw-dropping totals.

Week 2 at Oregon State

3. RB De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon (2011 final: N/A)

Week 11 vs. Arkansas State
2011 55 carries for 595 yards, 7 TD; 46 receptions for 605 yards, 9 TD; 36 KO returns for 983 yards, 2 TD

In terms of pure electricity, there’s no player who sniffs Thomas. And while his production won’t match up with Ball’s numbers, Thomas will give the Ducks – and the viewing public – more highlight-reel moments than anyone; he’ll be seen scoring on long runs, screens, kickoff returns and more, and for a player with his speed and athleticism, voters will look beyond the numbers and at his overall impact on the Ducks’ season. If Oregon is as good as advertised, Thomas is going to be a very heavy contender for the Heisman come December. But in a strange way, his Heisman campaign comes with tremendous pressure: Thomas won’t get the same touches as Barkley or Ball, so he needs to make each one count.

Week 2 vs. Fresno State

4. QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State (2011 final: N/A)

Week 11 Murray State
2011 203 of 311 for 2,666 yards, 18 TD, 8 INT; 109 carries for 156 yards, 4 TD

Voters love the starting quarterback on the best team in the country, if you hadn’t heard. Manuel is certainly standing at the center of one of the five or six teams with a very real shot at running the table, which automatically makes him a favorite for an invite to Manhattan in December. What stands in his way? Manuel’s own struggles with injury is a concern, albeit on that can be ameliorated by stronger play up front – unfortunately, Florida State’s offensive line is the lone weakness on an otherwise stacked roster. Manuel also needs to deliver more impressive numbers in the passing game, which will come with time and added comfort in the pocket. He’ll only win if the Seminoles run the table, but that’s a distinct possibility.

Week 2 vs. Savannah State

5. QB Aaron Murray, Georgia (2011 final: N/A)

Week 11 vs. Buffalo
2011 238 of 403 for 3,149 yards, 35 TD, 14 INT; 87 carries for 111 yards, 2 TD

The SEC only has two strong contenders, as of today: Murray and Marcus Lattimore, as you can see below. As with Manuel, Murray’s hopes are improved greatly by the idea that Georgia is going to be extremely successful during the regular season. In addition, Murray is set to put together another banner season statistically, perhaps even the greatest season by a quarterback in the Bulldogs’ history. So what’s the issue? Even if Murray is the SEC’s leading contender – and that’s just my opinion, and I know it’s not shared nationally – he’s not playing for the league’s best team; that would be either L.S.U. or Alabama. But playing in the SEC certainly doesn’t hurt, and if Georgia heads into December without a loss, Murray’s numbers are going to keep him well within the top five.

Week 2 at Missouri

6. RB Marcus Lattimore, S. Carol. (2011 final: N/A)

Week 1 W 17-13 at Vanderbilt (23 carries for 110 yards, 2 TD; 3 receptions for 21 yards)
Year to date 23 carries for 110 yards, 2 TD; 3 receptions for 21 yards

So far, so good. When did Lattimore look his old self? Not on his opening carry, when his fumble gave Vanderbilt possession well inside of South Carolina territory, but later in the same quarter: Lattimore took a handoff, moved into the line, set up the hole to his right and then planted, on his rebuilt left knee, and zoomed up into the hole and into the end zone. Yeah, he looked good. Lattimore also looked steady, not tentative, and as many running backs coming off of injury will tell you, it’s getting hit the first few times that provides the biggest hurdle to a comeback. As he continues to prove himself during SEC play, Lattimore will move up right alongside of Ball among running backs angling for the Heisman.

Week 2 vs. E.C.U.

7. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan (2011 final: N/A)

Week 1 vs. Alabama (in Arlington, Tex.)
2011 142 of 258 for 2,173 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT; 221 carries for 1,176 yards, 16 TD

The question: Can Robinson’s Heisman candidacy survive a loss to Alabama? It can, be only to a point – only if he doesn’t vomit up multiple turnovers, suffer a 28-point loss, or fail to lead Michigan into the Rose Bowl hunt during conference play. You can make a strong case today, before the Wolverines even play a game, that Robinson must lead Michigan to either the Big Ten title game or another B.C.S. bowl to be included among the top three or four contenders for the Heisman. Why? Because as great as he is – and he’s pretty damn great – there are simply too many top candidates for Robinson to vault ahead of Barkley, Ball and the rest should his team not experience another successful season. After last fall, a successful season for Michigan means a run to the Rose Bowl.

Week 2 vs. Air Force

8. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State (2011 final: No. 10)

Week 1 vs. Missouri State
2011 161 of 281 for 1,918 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT; 317 carries for 1,141 yards, 27 TD

How many Big 12 quarterbacks have a shot at the Heisman? Better yet, how many don’t? You can make a case for several, but Klein’s value to his team gives him the edge ahead of Landry Jones, Geno Smith and Casey Pachall. He put the Wildcats on his back a year ago, carrying the program to its first double-digit win season since 2003 and contention for a B.C.S. bid – and you can only imagine where Kansas State would have been without him. And all I’ve heard during fall camp is how much more confident Klein is as a passer; the Wildcats have surrounded him with speed on the outside, so more comfort and improved mechanics might find Klein putting together a wholly unexpected season as a passer. As a runner, there are few better. Like others, he needs to lead Kansas State to another run at the conference title.

Week 2 vs. Miami (Fla.)

9. QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma (2011 final: N/A)

Week 1 at UTEP
2011 352 of 562 for 4,463 yards, 29 TD, 15 INT

For now, this is a safe spot for Jones. He finished last season terribly, clearly struggling without Ryan Broyles, and Oklahoma enters September facing a drought of proven options at receiver – Penn State transfer Justin Brown helps, but he’s also new to this system. Jones’ ability to win the Heisman does depend on his team’s success, but there’s no doubt that O.U. is going to rebound after last fall’s slide. It’ll be on the senior to avoid interceptions and develop a rapport with his new-look receiver corps, perhaps relying heavily on Brown and true freshman Troy Metoyer as his favorite targets. Jones will leave Norman with every meaningful school record as a quarterback; will he leave with a Heisman, joining predecessors like Jason White and Sam Bradford?

Week 2 vs. Florida A&M

10. RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (2011 final: N/A)

Week 11 vs. Southern Mississippi
2011 283 carries for 1,357 yards, 15 TD; 21 receptions for 177 yards, 2 TD

A dark horse candidate to round out the list, but it’s not as if Burkhead’s inclusion isn’t warranted. For one, Nebraska could be very better than most think – not national-title good, or undefeated good, but definitely good enough to win 11 games during the regular season and earn a Rose Bowl or at-large B.C.S. bid. And if the Cornhuskers do make hay in their second year in the Big Ten, it’ll be solely as a result of Burkhead’s wonderful play as the centerpiece of this offense. Without Burkhead, Nebraska’s a very weak team. With him, this is a team that can leapfrog past Michigan State and Michigan to the top of the Legends division. The issue for Burkhead will be numbers, as the voters will see another back setting N.C.A.A. record in his own conference – Ball. To move into the mix, Nebraska must have a monster season. There’s a chance, but not a great one.

Week 2 at U.C.L.A.

Just off the debut list

Two things popped out when compiling the preseason list. One, with Tyrann Mathieu gone, there are really no defensive players worthy of being included among the leading contenders. I could have stretched it out to include a game-changer like Manti Te’o or an interception-crazy cornerback like David Amerson, but neither really deserves to be mentioned alongside players like Barkley or Ball – or deserves to push someone like Klein or Jones off the back end of the list. Two, the number of realistic contenders is longer than ever, perhaps because of the way the offseason has extended college football into a year-round sport. You can think of five or six contenders with a very strong case to be included among the leaders, such as Logan Thomas, Geno Smith, Tyler Wilson and more. Now, in something resembling alphabetical order, the many players just off the top list:

WR Keenan Allen, California
QB Ryan Aplin, Arkansas State
WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia
WR Stedman Bailey, West Virginia
CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon
RB Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee
LB Arthur Brown, Kansas State
RB Malcolm Brown, Texas
DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas
RB D.J. Harper, Boise State
QB James Franklin, Missouri
DE William Gholston, Michigan State
QB Mike Glennon, N.C. State
QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame
RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
C Barrett Jones, Alabama
LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia
S Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama
DT Star Lotulelei, Utah
QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama
S T.J. McDonald, U.S.C.
QB Zach Mettenberger, L.S.U.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State
DE Sam Montgomery, L.S.U.
QB Riley Nelson, B.Y.U.
QB Danny O’Brien, Wisconsin
QB Casey Pachall, T.C.U.
WR Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech
QB Keith Price, Washington
RB Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
DE John Simon, Ohio State
LB Shayne Skov, Stanford
QB Geno Smith, West Virginia
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
QB Tyler Tettleton, Ohio
QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
QB James Vandenberg, Iowa
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
RB John White IV, Utah
DT Jesse Williams, Alabama
WR Marquess Wilson, Washington State
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
WR Robert Woods, U.S.C.

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  1. Lane says:

    A tough call.
    Thank you for the analysis, Paul.

  2. Andrew says:


    I’m joking…. sort of

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    In the tradition of Kendall Hunter and Bobby Rainey, I am adopting Jahwan Edwards of Ball State as this season’s overlooked running back who may not deserve the Heisman but merits some love. The goal is to badger Paul into listing him tenth on the Heisman watch list at some point. Since he is a sophomore, there could be three full seasons to accomplish this objective. So here we go – against Eastern Michigan – 20 carries, 200 yards, 3 TDs.

  4. michael says:

    Michigan State’s Bell needs to be on a list like this. His game against Boise State was pretty ridiculous, and shouldn’t go under the radar.

  5. David Caple says:

    Geno Smith must have seen your rankings before the Marshall game. Is he top five after one week?

  6. Kyle says:

    FYI, says “Week 11″ rather than “Week 1″ on several of the players.

    Paul: Noticed that after I cut and pasted this list into the week 2 post. Will go back and fix after I complete the post for tomorrow. But didn’t see it last week, obviously. Thanks for the heads up.

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