When thinking about Heisman favorites for 2012, a couple of returning seniors will receive heavy consideration. With a good number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft prior to expiration of their eligibility, there have not been many seniors that have stood out as legitimate pre-season candidates in recent years. There are only three seniors below and two of them, USC’s Matt Barkley and Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, are among the heavy pre-spring favorites virtually everywhere you look. With apologies to Geno Smith, Tajh Boyd and a few others, here is my top 10 in alphabetical order. A player's class is what he will be when the new season kicks off.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC
2011: 3,578 Yards | 39 TD, 7 INT | 69.1 Comp % | 8th in pass efficiency
When Barkley announced in December that he was returning to the Trojans for his senior season, he immediately became the front-runner in the eyes of many pundits. And for good reason. During a season in which NCAA violations resulted in a post-season ban for USC, Barkley stood tall. While he had many standout performances in 2011, the most memorable was a 323-yard and 4-TD effort in a win at Oregon. When looking at the above stats, keep in mind he played only 12 games thanks to the sanctions. In Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Barkley will have two of the nation’s top receivers with which to play catch. The numbers, a marquee victory and team success were rolled into a wonderful body of work that equates to Barkley being a heavy favorite as he prepares to lead the Trojans from under the NCAA black cloud and into a BCS bowl.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin
2011: 1,923 Yards | 6.2 YPC | 33 Rush TD | 39 Total TD
Ball was overshadowed early last season by teammate Russell Wilson, who was generating ample Heisman hype. While Ball was piling up the numbers all along, it was his play in the second half of the Big Ten schedule that propelled him to NYC as a Heisman finalist. In those four games, plus the B10 championship and Rose Bowl, Ball ran for 1,070 yards and 15 TDs. Can he run for 2,000 yards in 2012 like former Badger Ron Dayne did twice? It’s hard to imagine Ball maintaining his pace given a new – and inexperienced – QB will be broken in and three horses from the O-line have moved on. At least early, opposing defenses can focus on Ball. It will be a challenge for the player that tied Barry Sanders’ single-season mark for total TDs, but don’t bet against Ball having another Heisman-worthy season even if the numbers are not as awesome.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
2011: 4,463 Yards | 29 TD, 15 INT
As a senior with a tradition-laden program, Jones has a couple of key ingredients heading into next season. Now, if he can just find the next Ryan Broyles. Truth is the Sooners should not miss a beat at receiver with Kenny Stills and Jaz Reynolds heading into their junior seasons. There is also plenty of depth. However, it is hard not to notice how Jones performed after Broyles tore up his left knee against Texas A&M on Nov. 5. In the final three regular-season games without his star receiver, Jones threw five interceptions without a touchdown pass. Then again, who would not miss Broyles? Spring ball and fall drills will get everybody on the same page. Perhaps most critical is that a veteran O-line returns mostly intact.
2011: 3,149 Yards | 35 TD, 14 INT
Murray has plenty of skill players returning, though the line loses a couple of horses. Murray could also use some help from a running game that sputtered much of 2011. What I like most about Murray’s chances is that he threw 35 touchdown passes as a sophomore and he resides in the SEC. The Bulldogs again avoid LSU, Alabama and Arkansas on the schedule. In other words, there is little that can get in Murray’s way of building Heisman credentials before meeting one of the West big boys in the SEC championship, should the Dawgs indeed make it there.
Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
2011: 2,921 Yards | 25 TD, 7 INT | 12th in pass efficiency
Pachall had an exceptional season as a first-year starter that led off with a national-spotlight win over Baylor and Robert Griffin III. Pachall will bring his game to the Big 12, a conference that will still be known for big-time passing even as it changes. Pachall will be surrounded by top-level returning players. Coupled with the elevated stage of the Big 12, Pachall’s profile on the national level can only surge. Sure, fans and pundits will be watching closely with respect to how the Horned Frogs fare against a schedule that offers much more beef than the Mountain West ever could. But who in Oklahoma, Kansas and elsewhere in Texas is anxious to face Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs?
Keith Price, QB, Washington
2011: 3,063 Yards | 33 TD, 11 INT | 7th in pass efficiency
For fans not familiar with how strong a season Price was enjoying, his 7-TD (4 passing) performance in the Alamo Bowl served as a grand introduction. Until that astounding shootout against RGIII and Baylor, Price had only one 300-yard passing game. Including the bowl, he did not have more than 37 pass attempts in any one game. That makes his streak of six games at the start of the season with at least three touchdowns passes all the more remarkable. To place Price’s efficiency and productivity in better perspective, he had one TD pass for every 9.1 attempts, a figure that leads the nation among quarterbacks returning for 2012. Without the big-time running of Chris Polk, who decided to go pro, Price may have to go to the air more. In the three regular-season games he had at least 35 attempts, Price had 7 TDs against 5 INTs before he went 4/0 versus Baylor.
Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
2011: 2,176 Pass Yards | 20 TD, 15 INT | 1,176 Rush Yards | 16 Rush TD
With a staph infection on his throwing arm and other ailments, Robinson was far from 100 percent for most of 2011. He dropped statistically from the previous season, yet Michigan went from 7-6 to a BCS bowl in its first season under Brady Hoke. The team returns largely intact, so it’s easy to see how it could all come together for Robinson and the Wolverines in 2012. The electrifying Robinson was at his best in the final two games of the Big Ten schedule when he totaled 600 yards and accounted for 9 TDs in wins against Nebraska and Ohio State. As for a completely healthy Robinson in 2012? Well, get the DVR ready because it could be quite a show.
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
2011: 2,235 AP Yards | 18 Total TDs | 27.3 KR Avg
When you look at the numbers above and realize that they came from a freshman, you can’t help but wonder what is next for the Dynamic Duck. With LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner in the backfield, there were not many carries left over. Thomas had only 55 attempts, but averaged an astounding 10.8 yards per carry. Thomas, who averaged 16 yards per touch, put an exclamation point on his freshman campaign with a memorable Rose Bowl in which he had touchdown runs of 91 and 64 yards – on his only carries. With James gone, Thomas will certainly carry more of the load in addition to remaining a major threat returning kicks.
Sammy Watkins, WR/KR, Clemson
2011: 1,219 Rec. Yards | 176 AP Yds per game | 13 Total TDs
Watkins is likely to be the only receiver that has a shot at Heisman glory and that is in large part because of what he can do as a return specialist. In fact, he very well may be the most exciting player in the country. If not, he’s right there with Robinson and Thomas. Watkins has the quarterback (Tajh Boyd) with which to work and there is no telling what kind of numbers the duo can put on the board as they head into Year 2 together. For Watkins, the ACC Offensive Player of the Year as a freshman, it’s also about his ability to break a game open -- or at least provide excellent field position -- returning kicks.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
2011: 3,638 Yards | 24 TDs, 6 INTs
A first-year starting quarterback on a team that lost the SEC’s leading returning running back in fall drills would seem to lead to chaos. Think again. Wilson’s calm leadership in running Bobby Petrino’s offense coupled with only 6 interceptions in 438 attempts in the toughest conference was the major reason why the Hogs finished fifth in the polls with hopes of bigger and better for 2012. With Knile Davis (1,322 yards in 2010) returning from a devastating knee injury, how will Wilson not be part of the Heisman conversation?