College football is just around the corner. That makes this the perfect time to put together a Heisman Trophy watch list. There are those not on this list who will emerge as Heisman contenders as the season progresses. There are those on this list who will drop off as the season rolls along. But here's our first look at who we believe will be in the Heisman conversation in 2012.
Matt Barkley, QB, Southern Cal
The favorite. Barkley turned down a chance to enter the NFL draft in the spring and, instead, returns to start his fourth year with the Trojans. He threw for a Pac-12 record 39 touchdowns last season and being at USC doesn't hurt his Heisman hopes. The Trojans have produced seven Heisman winners if you count Reggie Bush, who was forced to vacate his award. In addition, playing for the Men of Troy means plenty of high-profile games. This season, that includes games against Oregon, Stanford and Notre Dame. He is surrounded by an outstanding receiving corps, including junior Robert Woods, who might be a Heisman candidate himself. Same goes for Penn State transfer Silas Redd, who should provide a running game to take some of the heat off of Barkley. The biggest issue he faces is meeting high expectations.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
The senior was a Heisman finalist last year after leading the country with 1,923 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns, which tied the single-season NCAA record. In fact, maybe Ball should be considered the favorite, seeing as how no active college player had more Heisman votes in 2011. If he can score 18 touchdowns, he will become college football's all-time touchdown king. That and the fact that he is probably going to end up among the NCAA's all-time top 10 rushers would make it pretty difficult for voters to deny him the Heisman. But, alarmingly, he sustained a concussion after being beaten up in an on-campus attack last week. He is, however, expected to be ready for the season opener.
De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Maybe pound-for-pound, the best all-purpose running back in the country. He can run and catch and might end up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays more than any player in the country. He scored 18 touchdowns (seven rushing, nine receiving, two kick returns) last season in Chip Kelly's high-powered, go-go-go offense. He has two things that could hurt him. One, he's a sophomore, although that didn't hurt Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford. The other problem is, believe it or not, a West Coast bias. (Yes, it is real.) Oregon is a high-profile team, yet those in the East don't watch Oregon when it is not playing a big game against, say, a USC or Stanford. Needless to say, Thomas needs huge games against those two programs.
EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State
Actually, we should be listing someone else in this spot, someone like Arkansas RB Knile Davis, Kansas State dual-threat QB Collin Klein or Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, who threw for 33 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards last season. We could even list sophomore QB David Piland, who will put up video game numbers playing in Houston. But we have to at least mention the state of Florida's best chance at a Heisman, though we're not sure Manuel has much of a chance. Here's what the redshirt senior has going for him: FSU should be good, maybe even in the national title hunt. He also has become more consistent. He threw only eight interceptions last season, none in his last 121 passes. On the downside, he wasn't well protected, being sacked 33 times. So his protection must get better. Also, FSU's schedule, overall, is weak. That bodes well for putting up big numbers, but a lack of marquee opponents might not impress Heisman voters.
Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
Heisman voters love dual-threat quarterbacks, and there's probably no better dual-threat QB in the land than Robinson. Last season, he threw for more than 2,100 yards and rushed for more than 1,110, while accounting for 36 touchdowns. The schedule is hard — Michigan opens with Alabama and closes with Ohio State — and that could throw a wrench in his Heisman hopes. Then again, success in those games could give him the upper hand. As with any spread-offense QB, the senior might have a tough time staying healthy, especially considering he's only 6 feet and 190 pounds. Meantime, when you're talking about dual-threat QBs, it would be wise to keep an eye on Michigan's rival and Ohio State sophomore QB Braxton Miller. His new coach — that would be Urban Meyer — knows a thing or two about building good quarterbacks.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Lattimore is off the radar a bit because a knee injury cut his 2011 season short in October. But he rushed for nearly 1,200 yards as a freshman and was on pace for 1,500 yards before last season's injury. All reports are that he is back to 100 percent. The upside is the junior plays for offensive guru Steve Spurrier, who loves to run the football way more than his gunslinger reputation suggests. The downside is Lattimore plays in the ultratough SEC.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Maybe you don't realize the monster season Smith had in 2011: 4,379 yards passing with 31 touchdowns. You might think West Virginia leaving the Big East for the Big 12 would make things tougher on the senior, but actually, playing in the defensively porous Big 12 might be an advantage. Plus, the Big 12 will give him a few more games that will be noticed by the national media. What might work against him is the Mountaineers likely won't win the conference. Then again, maybe he can be like last year's Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III. RG3 didn't win a conference title, but his numbers were so impressive that they couldn't be overlooked.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
Jones has had a superb career at Oklahoma with more than 12,000 yards passing and 93 touchdowns. He plays for a top 10 team and any quarterback in the national championship race will get a long look from Heisman voters. The key for the senior is playing well in an intriguing nonconference game against Notre Dame. If he can do that, in addition to playing well against Big 12 rivals Texas, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and TCU, he has a shot. But one bad game in a loss could sabotage his changes.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
The Plant High grad is an interesting Heisman candidate. The junior likely would have to put up incredible numbers to be in the conversation. That's because Georgia is good, but probably not good enough to win the SEC. And because Murray likely won't get any extra hype by playing on a national championship contender, he will have to put up monster numbers. You wouldn't think that would be easy in the SEC, but, actually, Georgia's schedule might not be overwhelming. There's no LSU, no Alabama and no Arkansas, unless they get to the SEC title game. They do have Florida and Tennessee, but the Gators and Vols aren't the Gators and Vols from 10 years ago.