The Big East did not have a serious Heisman contender last season. But there are certainly possibilities for this year. One betting website, Bodog.com, just came out with its Heisman odds for 2011 and one Big East player made the list: West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, with 90-to-1 odds.
Not the best odds, but hey, at least a Big East player is on the list. Smith is obviously a good candidate. When you look at his numbers from last season (2,763 yards, 24 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 64.8 completion percentage) and project out what he can do under Dana Holgorsen, he should be among the list of potential Heisman candidates.
But what about Tavon Austin, his go-to wide receiver? Expectations are high for him to break the 1,000-yard receiving mark in the high-octane Holgorsen offense. If you look back at Oklahoma State last season, it was Justin Blackmon who finished No. 5 in the Heisman balloting, not Brandon Weeden. Blackmon has talent in spades, and finished with 1,782 yards and 20 touchdown receptions last season -- after tallying 260 yards in 2010.
Austin and Blackmon are different types of receivers. Blackmon is bigger and more physical at 6-foot-1 and 207 yards. Austin is 5-9 and 173 pounds, more in the mold of Houston receiver Tyron Carrier, who had 1,029 yards and seven touchdown catches in 2009 -- the last year Holgorsen was with the Cougars. Still, Austin and Smith would seem to be tied together so I definitely list him as a player to watch.
Here are some other potential Big East Heisman candidates, in a perfect world. I am not saying these guys deserve to be on any Heisman lists right now. But I am saying they are potential players to watch should their teams get hot and make national headlines. Remember, chances are players get noticed when they are on 1) undefeated teams, 2) highly ranked teams, 3) put up sick video game numbers. I am not projecting any undefeated Big East teams this year, but you never know in this league.
Zach Collaros, Cincinnati. Hey, if Mardy Gilyard can finish No. 9 in the Heisman balloting in 2009, Collaros has a chance this year running the same system. There is a good shot Collaros will reach 3,000 yards passing this season. What he really needs is for the Bearcats to have a run like they had when Gilyard got noticed. Not sure that is possible this season because Cincinnati has a lot of questions and it is going to be difficult to win out.
Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. Maybe you think I'm crazy for putting him on this list because of the expectation that Pittsburgh is going to be throwing the ball all over the field. But Todd Graham's teams have done well rushing the ball, and Ray Graham could have a breakout year. Especially when you consider there is little established depth at the running back position right now. Strength and conditioning coach Shawn Griswold has been especially impressed with the strides Graham has made in the weight room, so he could be a dark horse.
Who are your potential dark horses?
Recent Big East players in the Heisman
2009: Gilyard, ninth
2008: Pat White, West Virginia, No. 7
2007: White, No. 6
2006: Steve Slaton, West Virginia, No. 4; Ray Rice, Rutgers, No. 7
2003: Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh, No. 2