Top contenders for the 2012 Heisman

From Denard Robinson to Matt Barkley, we're being brutally honest about the top contenders' chances to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

It's really, really hard to become a Heisman finalist, much less a winner.

Case Keenum threw for 5,631 yards, 48 touchdowns and five picks last season -- no one else cracked the 4,800-yard mark -- taking Houston to 12-0 and the Conference USA championship game, while also becoming the NCAA's all-time passing leader. He didn't get an invite to New York by the Heisman types.

Kellen Moore was a 2010 Heisman finalist throwing for 3,813 yards and 35 touchdowns with six picks. The Boise State quarterback became the winningest starting quarterback in major college football history last season while having an even better campaign, throwing to a no-name receiving corps for 3,734 yards and 43 touchdowns with just nine picks. He didn't get a whiff of Heisman consideration.
All August long, CFN and will get you ready for the season with these great features. But that's not all. Check CFN's 2012 preview page for even more coverage.
Aug. 1: Top coaches on the hot seat
Aug. 3: Meet the new coaches
Aug. 6: Teams that might surprise us
Aug. 8: Teams that might disappoint us
Aug. 10: Teams that could ruin your season
Aug. 13: Biggest unanswered questions
Aug. 15: Great programs heading nowhere
Aug. 17: Unknown programs on the rise
Aug. 20: Top Heisman Trophy candidates
Aug. 22: Best games of the regular season
Aug. 24: Toughest stadiums to play in
Aug. 27: Teams most likely to play in BCS
Aug. 29: Title game match-ups we'd love

Matt Barkley? Denard Robinson? Russell Wilson? The three never got to New York. LaMichael James wasn't part of the fun last season, even though he led the nation in rushing yards per game and was a 2010 finalist. Boston College tackling machine linebacker Luke Kuechly wasn't even close, because he plays on defense and, of course, defensive players don't really matter in the Heisman race.

Jordan White caught 140 passes for 1,911 yards and 17 touchdowns, but you probably have no earthly clue who he is.

Again, it's really, really hard to become a Heisman finalist, much less a winner.

To have a shot at getting the greatest individual award in all of sports, you have to 1) play on offense, 2) be a quarterback or a running back, and 3) put up extraordinary stats and/or be in the national title chase. Huge numbers are nice, but as Mark Ingram, Cam Newton and Sam Bradford proved, being in the hunt for the whole ball of wax is more important than just about anything else.

Forget about Alex Carder, the Western Michigan quarterback who threw all of those passes to White. Forget about Sammy Watkins, he's a receiver and his stats won't be good enough. Forget about Utah's Star Lotulelei, Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins or Alabama's Jesse Williams, three defensive tackles who'll almost certainly be taken somewhere high in the 2013 NFL Draft.

With all of that in mind, welcome to the brutally honest look at the 2012 Heisman trophy chase.

10. RB Le'Veon Bell, Jr., Michigan State

Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is a sleeper candidate to end up in New York.

Call this the one deep sleeper on the lot, but it makes sense. The 6-2, 238-pound Bell is going to be the key player on a strong Spartan team that's going to be in the Big Ten title chase all season long after starting out the year with a high-profile opening date against Boise State. Never the workhorse, he took off for 948 yards and 13 scores in a rotation, but now the job is all his. The MSU line should be the second best in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin's, while the defense should be a brick wall, meaning the O will go conservative and rely on the power ground game. If Bell stays healthy, don't be stunned if he cranks out over 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns while leading the team to the Big Ten title game.

Why He Won't Win It: Name recognition. He has to kick things off by blowing up on a Boise State team that's notorious for shutting down power ground games, and he'll have to come through in big games against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska teams with everyone trained to stop him, but more than anything else, he has to carry Michigan State to a Big Ten title.

9. QB Geno Smith, Sr., West Virginia

After finishing eighth in the nation in total offense, and with his 407-yard, six-touchdown Orange Bowl day against Clemson still fresh in the minds of the 47 people who bothered to watch the game, Smith is coming into the season as the hot shot passer ready to make the Dana Holgorsen offense blow up. Going from the Big East to the Big 12 will help his profile, and there's a chance he could be this year's Robert Griffin III stats-wise, putting up astronomical numbers in shootout after shootout. If he could throw for 463 yards and two scores against LSU's defense last season, he shouldn't have any problems ripping up the mediocre Big 12 defenses on a weekly basis.

Why He Won't Win It: West Virginia will have to win the big games, and that's hardly a given for a team that struggled so much to get through a Big East schedule without a fight. RG3 won the Heisman because he came through in the clutch in brilliant wins over TCU and Oklahoma, but the bar is set higher for Smith because more is expected out of the Mountaineers. Being in the Big 12 doesn't guarantee anything; Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden lit up the stat sheet and had his team in the national title chase, but he didn't get anywhere near the Heisman debate.

8. RB Marcus Lattimore, Jr., South Carolina

Before suffering a knee injury midway through last year, Lattimore was on his way to having a massive season, running for 818 yards and 10 scores, highlighted by a 176-yard day in the 45-42 win over Georgia. On pure talent, when 100 percent healthy, he's the best running back in college football with top five overall NFL draft pick potential. Not just a power back at 6-0 and 216 pounds, he has speed, quickness and great hands for the passing game -- he can do it all. Playing in the SEC will help his cause and makes the stats almost immaterial. If he's the best player on a team that wins the SEC East, and if he comes up big in at least two of the big battles against Georgia, LSU, Florida and Arkansas when the whole world is watching, the Heisman might be his for the taking.

A healthy Marcus Lattimore would be a major factor in the Heisman race.

Why He Won't Win It: Health. Lattimore is only a junior, but he has a lot of hard miles on his 412 carries and 48 catches. He has been beaten, battered and bruised from the second game of his career, handling the ball 38 times against Georgia in his true freshman season. It's next to impossible for a knee injury like Lattimore's to be fully back to normal without at least a year to heal, and he's not going to get that.

7. RB Knile Davis, Jr., Arkansas

While Marcus Lattimore hasn't had a full season to get his injured knee right, Davis injured his ankle before the 2011 season started and has had more than enough time to get ready for this year. He's back to normal and should be back to form after destroying everyone in the back half of the 2010 season, running for 1,201 yards and 16 touchdowns over the last nine games. While there are other weapons on the loaded Hogs, he'll be the key cog for a great offense that should put up huge numbers and will have big game after big game in the spotlight. If he's fantastic in home wins over LSU and Alabama, and if Arkansas gets to the SEC title game, he'll get an invite to New York.

Why He Won't Win It: Alabama and LSU. Arkansas might be great, but it will still be a major stretch to think Davis, or anyone, can run for big yards on the Tigers or Tide. Throw in tough-as-nails Mississippi State, Auburn, Texas A&M and South Carolina defenses, and he might not have the big stats needed to be in the Heisman hunt if the Hogs don't win the SEC West title.

6. QB Tyler Wilson, Sr., Arkansas

The NFL buzz is starting to grow. He's bigger than Matt Barkley, steadier than Landry Jones, and extremely careful with the ball, throwing just six picks last season with 24 touchdowns. While pro potential doesn't matter much in the Heisman voting -- just ask Andrew Luck -- there won't be an issue when it comes to hype and attention. Of course, his candidacy will all come down to his performances in the huge games on the SEC West schedule, needing to come up with wins over LSU, Alabama, Auburn and the rest of the great teams on the slate. If the Hogs don't get to the SEC championship, Wilson can't win the Heisman.

Why He Wont Win It: The Hogs don't have the receiving corps they enjoyed last season, and more of the offense will rely on Knile Davis and the ground game. If Arkansas rocks, Wilson and Davis will likely split all the attention and votes. The chances will be there, but can he come up with wins over LSU and Alabama? 

5. QB Denard Robinson, Sr., Michigan

Super-talented Denard Robinson should definitely be a factor.

Everyone's midseason Heisman winner has been the star of the Michigan offense for the last three years, and now he knows what he's doing. Ready to be more of a passer and even more of a leader, he's coming into the year as the biggest of the big names and, along with Matt Barkley, the season's preseason signature star. If he's as good as expected, and if he can be the leader in wins in some of the highest profile games of the 2012 season -- starting with Alabama, finishing with Ohio State, and getting Notre Dame, Michigan State and Nebraska in between -- he'll get every chance to at least go to New York. If he's merely decent against the Tide and Michigan comes up with the win, it's his Heisman to lose.

Why He Won't Win It: Nick Saban. If you liked what Alabama did to LSU in the 2012 BCS championship with six weeks to prepare, you'll love what's coming with an entire offseason to focus on Robinson and the Michigan offense. He can still be a finalist after a loss to the Tide if he and the Wolverines are terrific on the way to a Big Ten championship, but he won't win.

4. RB Montee Ball, Sr., Wisconsin

Seriously, did you really notice exactly what Ball did last season? If your season is in the same on-screen graphic as Barry Sanders' 1988 tour de force, that would normally mean an automatic Heisman. Remembering that he sat out long stretches when he wasn't needed, he was still able to crank out 1,923 yards with 33 rushing scores to go along with 24 catches for 306 yards and six touchdowns. The Wisconsin O line is the Wisconsin O line, and the Wisconsin schedule is the Wisconsin schedule -- the stats will be great once again. The first Badger Heisman finalist since Ron Dayne won it in 1998, he broke through the stigma of Bucky backs simply being a part of a system. If he can come anywhere near the production of last season, he'll be back among the finalists.

Why He Won't Win It: Something doesn't seem quite right. From an offseason dust up, being at the wrong place at the wrong time at a Madison block party, to being attacked and hospitalized, he has had a rough last few months. He wanted to be off to the NFL, and he would've been had he received a first or early second-round grade from the NFL advisory board, but he says his focus is 100 percent on the season. Even if everything is fine, he'll still end up sharing the workload with Melvin Gordon and James White. If he couldn't win the Heisman last year with those stats, what chance does he have this year when the numbers probably won't be as strong?

3. QB Landry Jones, Sr., Oklahoma

If Landry Jones produces as expected, he should end up in New York.

In the great recent history of Oklahoma passing quarterbacks, Jones is about to be the statistical best of the bunch by a ton. He's already the school's all-time passing leader with 12,379 yards, and he's about to put the numbers through the roof. While he struggled over the second half of last year when star receiver Ryan Broyles went down, and he throws way too many interceptions, there's no complaining with the receiving corps this year thanks to the addition of Penn State transfer Justin Brown and the expected emergence of super-frosh Trey Metoyer. There might be some eligibility/team rule problems with a few of his potential targets, but the passing game will be more than fine and OU should be in the Big 12 championship chase all season long.

Why He Won't Win It: The offensive line. Jones isn't exactly Cam Newton when it comes to escaping the pocket, and this year he's going to have to work behind a potentially leaky line that lost two starters to injury this offseason. The bigger problem might be backup quarterback Blake "Belldozer" Bell, who might steal most of the headlines and spotlight as a sure-thing pounder of a goal line runner. Jones might put up huge stats, but Bell will take away some of the luster with a bevy of rushing scores.

2. QB Matt Barkley, Sr., USC

There might not be an easier guy to root for in the Heisman chase. Barkley went through the rough patches at USC, was the ultimate leader last year, and then put off NFL millions to come back in an attempt to take the Trojans to a national championship. Along with being a genuinely likeable guy, he has the talent and the team around him to put up Heisman-caliber numbers after coming up with 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions last year. He has Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd to hand off to, Robert Woods and Marquise Lee to throw to, and a loaded defense to help take the pressure off. After years without anything at the end of the rainbow, now Barkley has everything to shoot for.

Why He Won't Win It: There's almost no margin for error considering all the expectations. If USC doesn't win the Pac-12 title, Barkley won't win the Heisman. If he doesn't put up astronomical numbers considering the talent level he gets to play with, he probably won't win the Heisman. Now he and USC will be the hunted and the pressure is on.

Georgia's Aaron Murray is on the short list of other players who might bring home the Heisman.

1. The Field

There's one mortal lock going into the 2012 Heisman race; a few of the finalists, and possibly the winner, are nowhere near making the above list.

Andrew Luck was a sure-thing Heisman finalist going into last year, but Montee Ball and Tyrann Mathieu, while good players, weren't predicted by anyone to be among the top five in the voting. So while you might not see your guy, like Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, or Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle, that's probably a good thing considering the recent history of the award.

Watch out for Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel. He has all the tools for a team with no running game and enough overall talent to be in the ACC title chase and possibly the national title hunt. If the Noles don't roll to the ACC title, then Virginia Tech could do it with Logan Thomas, one of the key stars of the 2012 season.

Go ahead and throw out any big name for the Heisman hunt -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron or running back Eddie Lacy, one of the bulky LSU running backs, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez or running back Rex Burkhead, Oregon speedster DeAnthony Thomas -- and you might be right.

Why The Field Will Win It: Good luck trying to find Robert Griffin III in any 2011 preseason Heisman articles that weren't trying to be wacky. Cam Newton wasn't on the 2010 Heisman radar until the middle of the season, much less before Auburn's national title campaign began, and Mark Ingram wasn't more than an afterthought at the beginning of the 2009 Heisman chase. Who's the new legend going to be? He'll probably come from out of the blue.

E-mail ... Pete Fiutak
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