One person’s take on the top Heisman contender in each automatic-qualifying conference and among the Independents.
Logan Thomas, QB
Virginia Tech, Jr.
I would like to go with Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, but the dynamic receiver’s recent off-field issues call into question his availability for early in the season. Thomas, though, is in position to break loose. As a sophomore last season, his first as a starter, he threw for more than 3,000 yards and totaled 30 touchdowns with 11 coming on the ground. This time around Thomas has to deal with a number of first-year starters, especially on the line, and the departure of multiple key receivers. Thomas also will not have the pleasure of handing off to David Wilson. Still, there is plenty to like about his chances especially with how he is maturing. Instead of feeling the pressure from the loss of so much talent, he has embraced the situation, which he demonstrated during spring drills. Thomas’ leadership put everybody at ease and left no question as to who is the field general. Frank Beamer is smiling because he knows he has a special player in charge.
Ray Graham, RB
The feeling here is a couple of QBs, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and USF’s B.J. Daniels, could easily be the conference’s top Heisman hopefuls when all is said and done. Graham is coming off a season-ending knee injury that occurred at a time when he was the nation’s second-lead rusher with an average of 135 yards per game. New coach Paul Chryst feels Graham will be ready to roll when the curtain rises on the 2012 campaign. That is great news for the Panthers and Graham, who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry for his career.
Denard Robinson, QB
Robinson may have less highlight-reel plays than he did each of the last couple of years simply because he will not have to run as much. We saw that trend the second half of last season thanks to the emergence of a legitimate running game led by Fitzgerald Toussaint. Consistency with the passing game has been a problem (55% comp., 15 INTs in 2011) for Robinson, though he should improve in his second season under OC Al Borges. Improvement through the air combined with yardage Robinson should still churn out with his legs will resonate throughout the land as the Wolverines charge toward a conference title and perhaps much more. Robinson, a special player who brings much electricity to every snap, totaled more than 7,500 total and 68 TDs the last two seasons. A little refinement in the passing game could yield some serious hardware to go with a gaudy set of stats…..Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, my choice for Heisman last season, has some heavy numbers as well. He is coming off such a phenomenal year (1,933 yards rushing, 39 total TDs) that it is hard to imagine his coming close to that output again given the number of new starters the Badgers have to break in on offense. Ball’s pounding game usually does not elicit many true highlights – or at least the vote-swaying type of highlights that Robinson and others produce.
Geno Smith, QB
West Virginia, Sr.
I am tempted to go with Smith’s teammate, receiver and return specialist Tavon Austin. He is that good. Still, the QB gets more attention and Smith is coming off a season in which he was fourth nationally with 4,385 yards passing with 31 touchdowns and only 7 picks in 526 attempts. He capped his exceptional year with a monster game (6 TD passes) against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Duplicating last year’s numbers is not out of the question in the pass happy Big 12, where the Mountaineer now reside leaving the Big East. With respect to the aforementioned Austin, Smith has a target and playmaker he can depend on. That is a problem in Norman these days where Oklahoma’s Landry Jones has to take inventory on who he will play catch after the NFL (Ryan Broyles) and off-field issues (Jaz Reynolds, etc.) claimed key receivers.
Matt Barkley, QB
Barkley decided to return for his senior season and is the favorite on many Heisman lists. He had an exceptional junior year throwing for 3,528 yards with 39 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions in 12 games. (Because of NCAA sanctions the Trojans were ineligible for postseason play.) With Barkley and a cast of talented receivers back in the fold, USC could at least be Rose Bowl-bound. If so, you can only imagine the hype in SoCal surrounding the Trojans and their potential Heisman-winning QB as the season marches on. That’s why Barkley opted to return.
Aaron Murray, QB
Through two seasons the junior-to-be has thrown for 6,198 yards and 59/22 with 35 of those TD passes coming last year. The Dawgs will certainly be the favorite to win the SEC East and, if so, Murray needs a performance significantly north of the pedestrian effort he had against LSU in last season’s conference title tilt. Of course, not many QBs shine against the Bengal Tigers. But if a Heisman is on the line, which it often is in the SEC, then it all could come down to the conference championship and perhaps another early December date with LSU. By the way, due the conference’s East/West schedule rotation, for the third straight year LSU and Alabama are nowhere to be found on Georgia’s regular season slate.
Cierre Wood, RB
Notre Dame, Sr.
Wood is truly a dark horse, but the best among what the Independents have to offer after rushing for 1,102 yards (5.1 ypc) and 9 touchdowns last season. Given the Irish’s daunting schedule that includes Miami and Oklahoma in addition to Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford and USC, it will be a challenge for Wood to match last year’s numbers. Then again, given the schedule and the usual ND hype, everybody will know it if he shines brightly.
With graduation (Kellen Moore, Boise State) and conference re-alignment (TCU and QB Casey Pachall moving from the MWC to Big 12) there really is not a player that stands out among the non-automatic qualifying programs.