By: Al Burke
With the football season just around the corner, the talk will soon turn to who the top Heisman contenders are for the coming year. For a slightly cynical (and amusing) but rather accurate article regarding the requirements for Heisman candidacy, check out the Heisman Pundit, but I`ll give a potential top 10 of likely candidates and a few dark horses. With Mark Ingram, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III recently popping up out of relative obscurity to win the statuette, don`t go betting the house on any of the top guys. To start, I`ll list the returning players from last year`s top 10 ballot, then add some promising looking players for this year. Feel free to offer opinions, objections and abuse.
RB Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Credentials: Well, for starters he came fourth in the voting last year, and he plays for a Badger team that should be in the thick of the Big 10 title race all season. He`ll also be the feature back in an offense that likes to run the ball, then run some more. Last season he racked up 1923 yards rushing, 33 TDs and also caught 24 passes for another 6 scores. He even threw a TD pass. Most importantly, he performed in the biggest games, something that always catches voters` eyes.
Why he can win: Wisconsin looks strong again this year and regularly fields one of the top offensive lines in the country. He probably won`t match last year`s stats, but barring injury, he should be good for 1600+ yards and 20+ TDs.
What`s holding him back: He won’t have QB Russell Wilson for a dynamic 1-2 punch this season, and the loss of other key players could cause the Badgers to fall short in the important games. While he wasn`t even in the running at the start of last season, he`ll be watched from day 1 and under intense scrutiny. He`s also chasing the pack already.
CB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
Credentials: He`s a defensive player who was good enough to crack the top 5 in the voting in 2011. He made a lot of key plays last season, often inspiring his Tiger team to raise their game when they looked flat. Last season he had 76 tackles, with 7.5 for loss, intercepted two passes and recovered 4 fumbles, 2 directly for TDs. Throw in his punt return skills (15.6 ypr, 2 TDs), and he`s the kind of player who`ll earn the respect of those voters who want to buck the trend and see another defensive player (Charles Woodson) win the Heisman.
Why he can win: He was popular last season as an outsider, and this year he`ll be on the watchlist from the start. LSU look poised for a return to the National Championship game, and they`ll need Mathieu to be a big part of that with Morris Claiborne gone.
What`s holding him back: History - he`s a defensive player. Also, LSU have that tough SEC schedule to navigate. A couple of losses and Mathieu`s chances go with it. Finally, he could be an even better player this season and not have the highlight real plays that made him a national hero.
QB Matt Barkley, Southern California
Credentials: The anointed one! The pre-season favorite this year, he may have been even better that Andrew Luck last season. He made the top 10 in 2011, but mostly as an afterthought. He threw for 3528 yards with 39 TDs and a mere 7 interceptions. He checks all the boxes - playing for a national title contender; playing for USC; he`s a pre-season favorite; and he`s the type of kid you root for – he spent part of the summer doing charity work in Haiti.
Why he can win: He`s got most of his offense back, including his 2 top receivers. He earned a lot of respect leading USC through the sanction period and sticking around for his senior season. His schedule is manageable with Stanford the biggest challenge as an away game, and the Trojans are eligible for the PAC 12 title game this year. He should manage comparable stats again this year.
What`s holding him back: I`m not so sure USC can run the table, the defense has yet to convince me. He`ll also be under massive pressure, not just as a Heisman contender, but a potential #1 pick.
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Credentials: He’s a stat monster who plays for a potential national title contender. He was on the watchlist early last year, but inconsistency and sloppy play down the stretch (not all his fault) dropped him out of sight. He’s a decent player who threw for 4463 yards and 29 TDs, although firing 15 interceptions isn’t great. If he can tidy up his act as a senior, he has a fine bunch of receivers to make him look even better, and the running game should be much improved.
Why he can win: He’s the key part on a team laden with talented juniors and seniors, who have the look of a #1 team. If he can lead the Sooners to the promised land, he should be a shoo-in for the trophy. The schedule should be simple apart from Texas at home and team-to-watch West Virginia away.
What’s holding him back: He sucked last season when Ryan Broyles went down for the season, so a replacement for Broyles must be found. He also earn his place again after his slip last season; and doubts cast at all and he can probably forget winning the statuette.
QB Geno Smith, West Virginia
Credentials: He was outstanding on a team that didn’t always play up to its talent level in 2011. He had the odd off-day, but he was easily the most consistent player on the team, and showed his mettle by throwing for 463 yards against LSU, almost as a one-man army. He had 4385 yards passing, with 31 TDs and just 7 interceptions. Consider him a good outside bet.
Why he can win: He has most of his key offensive weapons returning, and an improved running attack will help take the attention off him. The conference schedule is tougher than the Mountaineers are used to in the Big East, but the team has the talent to win the Big 12.
What’s holding him back: His team – how will they hold up under the glare of the Big 12 spotlights where every game will be a challenge? He has been inconsistent, although not greatly so, but will the tougher opposition cause him to press more?
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
Credentials: The defense may have got most of the plaudits, but Murray was the driving force behind the Bulldog’s SEC East-winning season. Despite playing in the toughest of conferences, Murray has been prolific, throwing for 3149 yards and 35 TDs, although his 14 interceptions need to be tidied up. With most of his team coming back, the Bulldogs have to be considered the East favorite and therefore a potential SEC winner; almost a guarantee for a national championship spot.
Why he can win: He’s the figurehead for an SEC contender, and the team should be in the mix again at the end of the season. His toughness and moxie make him effective in any game, and he could post even better stats with an okay schedule.
What’s holding him back: He struggled in a few games last season, particularly against Boise State and LSU, and threw 2 picks in the bowl loss to Michigan State, a game they dominated statistically. He’s got to at least be competitive in these kind of games and if he doesn’t get the Bulldogs to title game at the very least, he can forget about it.
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
Credentials: Another successful SEC QB, Wilson led the Razorbacks to an 11-2 record, losing only to national title teams Alabama and LSU. This year he has some pieces in place, including star RB Knile Davis, to take down the big boys in his division and make the SEC title game. He threw for 3638 yards with 24 TDs and only 6 interceptions. If he can keep up this kind of production and earn the Hogs another #3 ranking, he could earn some serious Heisman love.
Why he can win: Both Alabama and LSU are “reloading”, so there is a chance for Arkansas to sneak up on them. They should be able to run the rest of the table again, although there are a couple of trap games. If he can play better against the top 2, starting with Alabama in week 3, then he could serve notice to voters early on.
What’s holding him back: Most of his top receivers went to the NFL, so the new crew is untested but talented. The defense isn’t quite up to SEC standards, but isn’t bad. The biggest loss is in the coaching ranks. HC Bobby Petrino (for those who didn’t know) is gone, as are both of the coordinators. I think Wilson is a long shot.
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Credentials: Sammy Watkins is getting all the credit, but Boyd spearheaded Clemson’s ACC title-winning run. After being considered a question mark heading into the season, he roared out of the gate tearing up defenses en route to a 9-1 start. He threw for 3828 yards and 33 TDs, as well as a worrying 12 interceptions. His ability to run also contributed 5 scores on the ground. He has a lot of returning talent at his disposal too.
Why he can win: He was a sophomore last year, and should be even more prepared for what’s to come. Most of the key contributors from last season are back and he also has the easiest schedule of all the players mentioned so far.
What’s holding him back: His team - in typical Tiger fashion they tanked when the pressure was on and lost 4 games by at least 14 points. Losses don’t kill Heisman hopes, but he’s got to play a lot better than he did in those games last year. The Clemson defense was bad last season despite its talent.
Okay! No more QBs!
RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Credentials: He’s the most talented RB in the NCAA and a future star in the NFL, and he’s a load for any defense to stop. The Gamecocks keep feeding him the ball and he keeps producing, much of it with the inconsistent Stephen Garcia at QB. He had amassed 818 yards and 10 TDs in just 7 games last season before a knee injury cut his season short. He should be ready to go in week 1 and the emergence of backup Brandon Wilds and QB Connor Shaw means he’ll no longer have to carry the load, keeping him fresh.
Why he can win: He’s the best. He was the top RB recruit out of HS and nothing has changed since. Despite having other options, Lattimore is the bell-cow and will see enough of the ball to get to around 1500 yards and a plethora of TDs.
What’s holding him back: Well, his knee for one. No-one knows how his ACL will hold up until he gets on the field. Three new offensive linemen won’t help either. The Gamecocks also have enough tough games on the schedule to knock them out of the title race almost before it starts.
RB D’Anthony Thomas, Oregon
Credentials: After a slow start last season (2 fumbles against LSU); the freshman went on an absolute tear scoring 18 TDs on just 140 touches. He did it in many different ways, rushing for 595 yards and 7 scores (on just 55 carries), leading the team with 46 receptions for 605 yards and another 9 TDs and returning 2 kickoffs for scores. He’s just scratching the surface of his potential and should be a super star for the next couple of years.
Why he can win: He’s in an explosive offense that will feature him even more next season, especially with a new QB starting. He won’t be expected to carry the load either, and will again see the field in all manner of ways, all designed to get him the ball where he can do the most damage. Also, PAC 12 defenses are certainly not “all that”.
What’s holding him back: He’s a sophomore, for starters. Secondly, he plays in a “gimmick” offense that’s designed to rack up the stats. Just look at the lack of attention the outstanding LaMichael James got.
Ten more to watch:
QB Denard Robinson, Michigan: Shoelace is a stat monster in an offense that features him, and the Wolverines should play for the Big Ten title this year.
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson: If he can keep his nose clean, he should build on excellent freshman season where played like a senior as he tore up the ACC.
RB Rex Burkhead, Nebraska: Just a fine all-round player who may not have the tangibles of other backs, but plays like every play is his last.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Urban Meyer made Tim Tebow a star; Miller’s potentially a better runner and passer.
QB Collin Klein, Kanas State: I thought he deserved more plaudits last season, but he was ignored despite his impressive production and leading a mediocre K-State to great heights.
RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon: 939 yards and 11 TDs as a backup? Let’s see what he can do as the featured back in the fastest offense in the game.
WR Robert Woods, Southern Cal: He’s been gimpy so far this offseason, but once he’s 100% he’s an outstanding talent who makes plays all over the field as the featured receiver, whether on deep balls or bubble screens.
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas: If he’s over his reconstructed knee, he could give Lattimore a run for his money as the SEC’s top back.
RB Eddie Lacey, Alabama: A Crimson Tide running back. That is all.
QB Derek Carr, Fresno State: I had to throw in one non-BCS guy, and Carr’s my pick for the darkest of horses. He has an amazing arm and is smart with the football on what should be one of the Mountain West’s finest offenses.