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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. Heisman Watch: 2012 Watch List

Perhaps the only surprising aspect of Robert Griffin III’s Heisman win was that he won the South region, garnering 303 points to Trent Richardson’s 256 in an area easily labeled as SEC country: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. That Griffin won at all is far from surprising, nor is that fact that he won by a fairly comfortable margin. His coronation complete, we can close the book on the race for the 2011 Heisman Trophy. And begin looking towards 2012, as it’s never too soon to handicap an award ceremony 12 months away, right?

I’ll revisit this list after would-be seniors and juniors announce their N.F.L. intentions, but here’s a quick list of 10 leading contenders — and I realize that the Heisman Trust has yet to etch Griffin’s name into a plaque, let alone begin sketching his portrait.

The list comes with a slight catch. While nothing is official, it’s easy to see at least a few of next year’s leading candidates foregoing their final season of eligibility in favor of the N.F.L. Draft. Here are the players who I’m not considering due to a feeling that they’ll be playing on the next level in 2012; some have already made their decision clear:

QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma
WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
RB LaMichael James, Oregon
LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
CB Morris Claiborne, L.S.U.
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin

Blackmon’s as good as gone: he was introduced on Oklahoma State’s senior day, which sends a pretty clear signal. Luck has intimated many times that he’ll leave Palo Alto once he gets his degree, which he’ll earn before the end of the academic year. Griffin, Ball, Richardson, James and Jones will strike while the iron is hot, even if Jones ended the regular season on a sour note. Now, the early contenders:

1. QB Matt Barkley, U.S.C.

2011 totals 308 of 446 for 3,528 yards, 39 TD, 7 INT

Like his Pac-12 neighbor at Stanford, Barkley will enter 2012 as the leading Heisman contender — that’s if he returns to U.S.C. instead of throwing his hat in the ring for the N.F.L. Draft. I have a feeling Barkley returns; with his return comes the return of U.S.C.’s swagger, as the Trojans should enter next fall as the top-ranked team in the Pac-12. Barkley needs to duplicate Andrew Luck’s 2011 season while hoping no Griffin-like meteor swoops into the mix midway through the year and takes home the hardware. If this past fall is any indication, Barkley should again rewrite the U.S.C. record books as a senior. Again, if he opts to return for one last fall at the Coliseum.

2. QB Denard Robinson, Michigan

2011 totals 133 of 237 for 2,056 yards, 18 TD, 14 INT; 208 carries for 1,163 yards, 16 TD

Michigan continues to grow and improve, and there’s little reason to believe the Wolverines won’t be better than this year’s 10-win version come next September. Robinson lies at forefront of the program’s rejuvenation: with another year of experience under his belt, look for him to be far more comfortable in Al Borges’ more pro-style offense come 2012. What Robinson never lacks is highlight reel-worthy moments; it would just be nice to see more Heisman-level plays as a passer.

3. CB Tyrann Mathieu, L.S.U.

2011 totals 70 tackles (6.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 2 INT, 4 FR; 26 PR for 420 yards, 2 TD

Can lightning strike twice for Mathieu? Forget twice, how about three times, four, five, six? Mathieu was a Heisman candidate in 2011 because of his unparalleled ability to make game-changing plays — this we saw against Oregon, Arkansas and Georgia, to name a few. One thing: Mathieu will need to continue to score touchdowns, drop your jaw returning punts and the like, as it’s extremely hard to see any true defensive player — one who only plays defense, basically — win the Heisman. But if any defender, even one who makes hay on special teams, is going to win the award, it’ll be Mathieu. He’s a special player; he just needs to make plays. And keep his nose clean, as that was an issue in October.

4. RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

2011 totals 163 carries for 818 yards, 10 TD; 19 receptions for 182 yards, 1 TD

Remember this guy? Any concerns over Lattimore’s heavy workload as a true freshman are assuaged by his midseason injury, which may have hurt South Carolina’s traditional running game this fall but will yield a far fresher and less bruised junior in 2012. And with the SEC now Richardson-free, it’s Lattimore’s time to claim — or reclaim, perhaps — his perch atop the conference’s offensive power rankings. In Connor Shaw, he’ll find a quarterback capable of sharing the load, not to mention one far more likely to not lose games for the Gamecocks; you couldn’t say the same when discussing Shaw’s predecessor, Stephen Garcia.

5. QB Geno Smith, West Virginia

2011 totals 314 of 483 for 3,978 yards, 25 TD, 7 INT

Year two is going to extremely kind to Smith, who put up an impressive amount of yardage but struggled putting the ball in the end zone over the final three games of West Virginia’s regular season. Like Robinson — more so, in fact — Smith will be far more comfortable in his second season in Dana Holgorsen’s system, and his numbers, already solid, will take a proportional leap forward. Throw in the fact that West Virginia will either be the favorite in the Big East or the newest member of the high-flying Big 12, and it’s easy to see Smith making a run to the Heisman next fall.

6. RB David Wilson, Virginia Tech

2011 totals 266 carries for 1,627 yards, 9 TD; 21 receptions for 126 yards, 1 TD

Wilson needs to score more touchdowns. While he was equally vital to his team’s success as was Richardson and Ball, Wilson’s scoring totals paled in comparison: he scored nine times, while Richardson scored 23 times and Ball a jaw-dropping 38 times — Ball was responsible for 39 touchdowns, counting his one touchdown pass. Wilson’s second problem is that come 2012, he may find himself playing second fiddle in the Virginia Tech offense to quarterback Logan Thomas, who really grew as a passer over the final month of the regular season. Wilson will still carry a heavy load, but he likely needs to do even more to break into the top slice of the Heisman race.

7. QB Casey Pachall, T.C.U.

2011 totals 213 of 314 for 2,715 yards, 24 TD, 6 INT

Joining the Big 12 is the best thing that could have happened to T.C.U., which will now find equal B.C.S. footing in a geographically relevant conference. The move will also impact Pachall, who will now have a chance to go up against some of the best teams in the country on a weekly basis. Kellen Moore would have loved to take a shot at a B.C.S. conference foe eight times a year; that he didn’t crippled Moore’s Heisman hopes in each of the last three seasons. After a sterling sophomore campaign, look for Pachall’s name to be bandied about for the Heisman.

8. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

2011 totals 67 of 134 for 997 yards, 11 TD, 4 INT; 144 carries for 695 yards, 7 TD

When your just-hired coach mentions you by name before the inks dries on his contract… well, there’s reason to be excited. And when that coach is Urban Meyer, and you’re Braxton Miller… there’s reason to be really excited. Miller has already shown the makings of a future star: there’s work to be done as a passer, but Miller’s touchdown-any-minute running style may be unmatched in college football. Miller will be given the keys to the castle in Meyer’s offense, which will play to his strengths — his vision — while working to amend his flaws. If the Heisman doesn’t come calling in 2012, it’s easy to see Miller making a national run as a junior or senior.

9. QB Collin Klein, Kansas State

2011 totals 145 of 251 for 1,745 yards, 12 TD, 5 INT; 293 carries for 1,099 yards, 26 TD

Klein flew in under the radar in 2011, like his team, and will have to fend off hungry challengers in 2012, like his team. Next year’s schedule will be a bit less kind to the Wildcats, who will take on Baylor, Missouri, Oklahoma and Iowa State away from home. And while the schedules haven’t been set in stone, I imagine that the Wildcats will take on T.C.U. on the road. That grants Klein several marquee opportunities to impress the masses, but after winning eight games by a touchdown or less this fall, Kansas State may again need to pull out some close games to further Klein’s candidacy.

10. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson

2011 totals 78 receptions for 1,159 yards, 11 TD; 31 carries for 229 yards; 26 KR for 683 yards, 1 TD

It’s a new year, but the story remains the same: Watkins could go here, but so could his quarterback, Tajh Boyd. I’ll put the former here for now, thanks to his ability to make plays in three different ways — receiving, running and on special teams — but Boyd also has his case, and both should be more productive in their second season under Chad Morris. Fresh off being named the national freshman offensive player of the year by several publications, Watkins should enter 2012 as one of the leading figures in the A.C.C. regardless of position. There are other wide receivers putting up sizable numbers, like Keenan Allen and Robert Woods, but is either more important to his team’s success?

Also under consideration

RB DeAnthony Thomas, Oregon
QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State
RB Bernard Pierce, Temple
QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
QB James Franklin, Missouri
QB Blake Bell, Oklahoma
RB Silas Redd, Penn State
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
QB Connor Shaw, South Carolina
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas
OL Barrett Jones, Alabama
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama
DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
WR Robert Woods, U.S.C.
RB Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
QB Mike Glennon, N.C. State
RB Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State
QB Zach Mettenberger, L.S.U.
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
RB John White IV, Utah
QB Kiehl Frazier, Auburn
QB Jeff Tuel, Washington State
WR Keenan Allen, California
RB Marcus Coker, Iowa
QB Keith Price, Washington
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
QB Darron Thomas, Oregon
RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon
LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia
RB Michael Dyer, Auburn
RB Chris Polk, Washington

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  1. Andrew says:

    It is not Barner, or Thomas, or even LMJ That should be on this list from Oregon, but DeAnthony Thomas

    Paul: Bad miss on my part. Wouldn’t put him in the top 10, but he should definitely be on the second list. Putting him on there now.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Griffin might just surprise you. Though I do not see how he can pass up the money, there is something extraordinary about him aside from his athletic talents. As I mentioned before, there is some talk from pretty reliable Baylor sources about him trying to qualify for the Olympics in the 400 hurdles. The Olympics end around August 10. An Olympian and the first two time Heisman winner since another Griffin? Where would that place him on the list of all time greatest American athletes – that is Jim Thorpe like stuff.

  3. #BarrettJones4Heisman

  4. Hokieshibe says:

    I really hope Wilson comes back after this year. I feel like he and Logan Thomas really complement each others’ styles. We’d definitely miss him if he goes.

  5. Nick says:

    Stepfan Taylor is a lock to take second place.

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