The race for the Heisman Trophy is a marathon, not a sprint. And nothing proves that fact more than the 2012 battle for the statue.
To wit, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell was the early frontrunner. The 245-pound bruiser wowed pundits and fans alike with his combination of power and agility. A run where he hurdled a Boise State defender early in the season was the college football play of the year to that point. But Bell slowly faded back into the woodwork.
As Bell's presence diminished, that of West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith swelled. A legitimate preseason Heisman candidate, Smith rocketed to the top of the heap with a miraculous performance against Baylor. It is doubtful any college quarterback has played a better game than Smith as he led the Mountaineers to 70 points. The media swooned and basically declared the Heisman race over. "Just give it to Smith," they said. "Nobody else need even apply."
But a funny thing happened on the way to Manhattan. Smith ran into a Texas Tech Red Raider defense that totally befuddled him and stripped away his Superman cape. Kansas State followed suit the next week. And now, after having lost five straight games, Smith will be lucky to garner 2nd-team All Big 12 honors, let alone the Heisman.
As Smith and the Mountaineers disintegrated, the unlikely Collin Klein and the Kansas State Wildcats put it all together. The hardnosed, old-school Klein, a combination of Johnny Unitas and Vince Young, put the no-names from Manhattan, Kansas on his shoulders and led them to the pinnacle of college football. Bill Snyder's club rose to No. 1 in the BCS rankings and Klein became the undisputed Heisman frontrunner.
KSU's march to the national title game and Klein's run to the Heisman seemed almost a formality. The Wildcats were simply the class of the Big 12. But then, amazingly, unbelievably, the Baylor Bears, the same Bears that boosted Geno Smith to demigod status, shook off their rigor mortis and petrified Klein and the Cats. Baylor destroyed the No. 1 team in the land, knocking it from national title contention, and in the process severely undermined Klein's Heisman candidacy.
Baylor's late-season torpedo job on Klein has thrown the Heisman race into disarray. The KSU signal-caller is still in the picture, but now, instead of being the presumptive winner, is merely one of six players who have a shot at the hardware. Meanwhile, a marginal quarterback recruit from Kerrville, Texas, has taken charge of the Texas A&M Aggies, and captured the imagination of Heisman voters. He's the player creating the buzz right now. But could a freshman actually win the most illustrious award in college sports? If so, it would be a historical first.
Johnny Manziel: Statistically, Manziel is the strongest Heisman candidate. He is No. 24 in passing yards per game, No. 22 in passing efficiency, and an amazing No. 30 in rushing yardage with 1,114 yards. Manziel also averages 6.5 yards per carry. He is Fran Tarkenton with an extra gear. Manziel will hawk his Heisman wares against a poor Missouri team and then likely take his show to a BCS bowl. In an age where dual-threat quarterbacks are all the rage, Manziel could well follow in Robert Griffin's footsteps and snag the Heisman.
Odds of Winning: 50%
A.J. McCarron (Alabama): If it's true that the Heisman usually goes to the best skill position player on an elite team, the Alabama quarterback A. J. McCarron is a serious threat to win the trophy. His stats are not gaudy, but his quarterback efficiency rating is third best nationally, and his intangibles are superior. McCarron leading the Tide to a comeback win over LSU in Death Valley was a bona fide Heisman moment. And McCarron will have two more chances to make his case: in the SEC championship game and a BCS bowl, if Alabama is not in the national title game. One black mark: McCarron lost in a head-to-head match with fellow Heisman candidate, quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Odds of Winning: 40%
Manti Teo (Notre Dame): Notre Dame football has woken up the echoes. The Irish are ranked No. 1 and are poised for a berth in the national title game. What's more, Notre Dame has a prime Heisman candidate, and he plays on the defensive side of the ball. Should linebacker Manti Teo win the Heisman, he will be the first player to win the award based solely on his defensive exploits. In addition to playing for perhaps the best, and certainly the most storied program in the nation, Teo has a great stat line. He leads the Irish in tackles with 98, and passes defended with 10. But most impressive, Teo has six interceptions, which is second best in the nation. That is an unheard of statistic for a linebacker.
Odds of Winning: 25%
Collin Klein (Kansas State): If the Heisman went to the grittiest, toughest player in college football, Klein would win the 2012 award in a landslide. But there's more to it than that. Klein's stats are very good but not spectacular. He's No. 21 in passing efficiency, No. 67 in passing yards per game, and has rushed for 792 yards. Those stats are on a similar level as A. J. McCarron's, but Bama has a much better shot at playing for all the marbles than Klein. But if Klein leads the Wildats to a blowout win over Texas in Austin, and some other cards fall KSU's way, Optimus Klein could still win this thing.
Odds of Winning: 20%
Kenjon Barner (Oregon): Kenyon Barner—he just sounds fast. And he is. This Oregon Duck is definitely not lame, although his Heisman candidacy is wounded following last week's loss to Stanford. Still, Barner is No. 6 nationally in rushing yardage, tied for No. 30 in yards per carry, and is fourth among all running backs in touchdowns with 19. He and the Ducks still have a prime time matchup with Oregon State, a possible spot in the PAC 12 title game, and a likely BCS tilt. In other words, Barner still has plenty of time to cement his spot in New York.
Odds of Winning: 20%
Marqise Lee (Southern Cal): It seems as though the Southern Cal Trojans have been all hype in 2012. They were the preseason favorites to win the national title, but four losses have covered Lane Kiffin's team in ignominy. Quarterback Matt Barkley was the preseason favorite to win the Heisman. But he got off to a rocky start and has never recovered. Through it all, however, dynamite receiver Marqise Lee has persevered and could well get an invitation to the Heisman ceremony. He leads the nation with 100 receptions, is No. 3 in touchdown receptions with 14, and averages an impressive 15 yards per catch. And he'll have one last golden opportunity to make his case when the Trojans take on No. 1 Notre Dame this Saturday.
Odds of Winning: 15%