The only thing that is more fun at this time of year for football fans to argue than who is going to make it to the Super Bowl is one thing—who is going to win the Heisman Trophy.
While the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of the professional game, the Heisman is the measuring stick for greatness for college stars. With so many players playing so many games at a wide range of competitive levels, the discussion on who deserves it never really ends till the Heisman Trust awards it to the winner in December.
This season the race should be just as close as any in recent years. There are favorites of course that everyone will pick, guys that could be in contention, dark horse candidates, and there is bound to be at least one guy emerges from out of nowhere.
The following players are ones that you will definitely be hearing about every time the word ‘Heisman’ comes up in conversation:
Matt Barkley (SR), QB, USC: The trophy is Barkley’s to lose. After throwing for 3,528 yards last season along with 39 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, he finished 6th in the Heisman voting. But in all fairness the field was pretty stacked last year.
His chances were hurt with the Trojans still facing sanctions for the whole Reggie Bush fiasco, but this season that will not be a problem. The AP ranked the Trojans number one in their first preseason poll, and almost all eyes will be focused hard on Barkley and company.
Barkley will definitely have a leg up on much of the competition thanks to the supporting cast around him. USC is returning 16 of 22 starters, including most of his offensive line. Barkley will also have a trio of wide receivers (Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, and George Farmer) who will be more than happy to help make him look good.
While his many weapons will make him look good, they could also be his downfall when it comes to voting. Is Barkley’s success due as much to the system and players surrounding him or is it because he is the most outstanding player in the country?
Landry Jones (SR), QB, Oklahoma: Like Barkley, Jones is a four year starter and someone that could have gone pro after last season. The fact that he didn’t will help endear him to voters; while signing a multi-million dollar contract is a heck of a carrot, it’s nice to see a player actually finish a career before starting the next one.
Jones has all the tools to get the job done on the field, something that he’s proven over the last three seasons by throwing for 12,379 yards and 93 touchdowns. Last season he threw for 4,463 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Only Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden threw for more last season. For Jones to be a serious contender he will have to at least match those numbers or improve them (while winning) and cut down on his interceptions by about half.
Matching his yards and TD numbers will be tough. Jones will not have as much talent around him this year. If he does manage to match them or best them, it could propel him to the front of the pack since he will clearly be the catalyst for Oklahoma’s success.
Geno Smith (SR), QB, West Virginia: Smith is high on the list for a lot of people after throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, while leading the Mountaineers to a 10-3 record and top 25 ranking. This year will be his third as the starter and if he can continue to progress he could slide to the top of the list.
Smith has always been an accurate passer (right around 65 percent); in 2010 and ’11 he threw only seven interceptions each season and that’s while throwing around a 100 more passes in ’11. It would not be hard to see him do better this year since he has his top three receivers coming back to help him out (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney).
It will help that he’ll be working under a coach that is known for high-flying offenses, head coach Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen helped make Houston QB and NCAA career passing leader Case Keenum who he is, as well as Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden. If the improvement Smith showed last year is only the beginning, then West Virginia has a solid chance at bringing home the trophy.
Montee Ball (SR), RB, Wisconsin: The senior running back ranked fourth with voters last year after rushing for 1,823 yards and 33 touchdowns and tying Barry Sanders single season TD record by adding on another six through the air. However, he will find the road to duplicating that success a lot tougher.
A running back (with the exception of the aforementioned Sanders) is often only as good as his offensive line. Ball will have a revamped one this season with three of them having to be replaced. He will not have the added benefit of defenses having to game plan for quarterback Russell Wilson either. Tack on having to learn a new system under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada and Ball has his work cut out for him.
The following players are also solid candidates, but will have to have incredibly years for them to overtake the above players:
Denard Robinson (SR), QB, Michigan: Robinson is a highlight reel waiting to happen, but it will take much more than athleticism to win the Heisman. He’ll need to cut down on his interceptions (15 in ’11) and increase his mediocre completion percentage (55). However, with the help of offensive coordinator Al Borges it would not be impossible to do just that.
Marcus Lattimore (JR), RB, South Carolina: Lattimore was in the midst of making a run at the trophy last season before a torn ACL ended his season after seven games. He’ll get the attention he needs to make a run at the Heisman again in the SEC, but he’ll have to continue to perform especially in tough road games against LSU, Florida, and Clemson.
Tyler Wilson (SR), QB, Arkansas: After leading the SEC in total offense last season it would not have been shocking to see Wilson move on to the NFL. With seven returning starters on offense he should have a solid chance to do even better this year. He’ll need better protection from his line though as well as a new No. 1 target after losing his top two to the NFL.
Also expected to be in Heisman conversations at the start of the season: Aaron Murray (JR), QB, Georgia; Sammy Watkins (SO), WR, Clemson; E.J. Manuel (SR), Florida State; Knile Davis (JR), RB, Arkansas; De’Anthony Thomas (SO), RB, Oregon; Tajh Boyd (JR), QB, Clemson