Perhaps equally important is a player's reputation before the season even begins. In the summer months, when preseason magazines roll out Heisman watch features, complete with a conference-by-conference breakdown of frontrunners and long shots, certain players gain a leg up on the competition without even playing a single snap.
Fair or unfair, the process begins well before week 1 in the fall. Building a credible campaign requires an established track record of success, for which a player must have provided flashes of Heisman potential in previous seasons. Perception, whether accurate or misplaced, can sustain a Heisman campaign, even if that player's on-field performance doesn't come close to his outsized reputation.
When a preseason frontrunner falters, there's usually a larger margin for error because the voters are more forgiving when a highly-touted favorite slightly taints an otherwise sterling track record. More often than not the award goes to the player who best personifies an equal mixture of past achievement and on-field success, reflected both statistically and in the win-column.
So it makes sense that Denard Robinson, who enters his third season as Michigan's starting quarterback after two consecutive seasons garnering regional and sporadic national support for the famous bronze trophy, is one of the odds-on preseason favorites to receive the honor this season.
If he leads the Wolverines to a second straight BCS Bowl appearance while posting passing and rushing statistics similar to the past two seasons—when he was among the nation's leaders in all-purpose yards—it's hard to believe he won't at least be in the conversation when the award is announced in December.
What came as somewhat of a surprise was the way Robinson so nonchalantly nominated another dual-threat Big Ten quarterback—from the same division, no less—for consideration. Unlike Robinson, this player doesn't carry the same type of high-profile reputation heading into this season.
In fact, this season will be his first as the full-time starter. And his team, unlike the Wolverines, most likely will not be in contention for a BCS bowl berth. Without several key preseason ingredients for a viable Heisman campaign, Kain Colter, Northwestern's starting quarterback, is the unlikely recipient of Robinson's praise.
"He is a guy in the Big Ten who I can see winning the Heisman," Robinson said, smiling as he searched for the appropriate words to support his claim. "I love the way he runs around, the way he throws and how he moves in the pocket." As the two-deep media contingent huddling around Robinson at Big Ten Media days friday listened in disbelief, the reverent words continued.
Robinson's praise was as much a reflection on Colter's game as it was a meta-portrait into the unsuspecting modesty of one of the nation's most hyped and idolized players. He paused and cracked a smile as he punctuated his description with a phrase short on length but loaded with meaning. "Dude's a phenomenal player," Robinson concluded.
The two dual-threat quarterbacks first met after Michigan defeated the Wildcats 42-24 in Evanston last season. Robinson and Colter shared a brief handshake amid the postgame tumult and reflected on the respect they share for one another. On that day, it was Robinson who stole the show.
In a Heisman-worthy performance, the Wolverines' signal-caller gutted the Wildcats for four touchdowns on 337 yards passing and 117 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Colter, sitting behind then-starter Dan Persa, recorded three receptions for 37 yards and two carries for 28 yards. The disparity in performance between the two players was stark, but Robinson's respect for Colter proved insightful later in the season.
A month later, Colter filled in for the injured Persa in NU's crucial Nov. 5 game at Nebraska. The Wildcats were coming off five consecutive losses, their three-year consecutive bowl-streak on life-support, when Colter, taking a page out of Robinson's transcendent performance at Ryan Field four weeks prior, almost singlehandedly led NU to a stunning victory at Memorial Stadium.
He rushed for two touchdowns and threw for one more in a masterly second half performance that provided a glimpse of what the future holds for the multitalented QB.
"It was probably the highlight of my career so far," Colter said, recalling his heroic performance in Lincoln. "It was like a sea of red. But just going out there and winning felt great."
The upset win was a seminal moment in Colter's young career. This season, as he takes over for Persa, he will need to replicate that performance on a more frequent basis to stake his claim alongside Robinson in the Heisman Trophy race.
Given the absence of an established track record and the unlikelihood that NU will compete for a Big Ten title this season, Colter's chances remain slim. But to receive that glowing praise from one of the award's early prohibitive favorites, it's clear that Colter's unique skill set is driving plenty of discussion, and not just among Wildcat fans.
"He's a real impressive player," said Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois' dual-threat quarterback. "We have similar playing styles, so that's a guy I watch quite a bit. I'm interested to see what kind of player he turns into this season."
Said Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray, another run-pass dynamo, "I think he's one of the most unique quarterbacks in the Big Ten. No doubt, he's a guy you have to watch whenever you can. I like what he brings, all the skills he has."
When Colter and Robinson reconvened Thursday at the Hyatt McCormick place in Chicago, they once again praised each other while reflecting on their similar playing styles. Colter admitted that Robinson, the starting quarterback for a division contender, was a player he looked up to in high school.
By endorsing Colter's Heisman candidacy, Robinson conceded a similar degree of respect. NU's starting QB may not rival the man affectionately known as Shoelace in this year's Heisman race, but Colter hopes to continue his friendly relationship with Robinson.
"We talked about getting together, hanging out," Colter said. "But it was hard to get his number, there are always so many cameras around him."
If he makes some noise in this year's Heisman race—giving credence to Robinson's audacious claim—it won't be long before the cameras shift their focus on Colter.