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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Big Ten 2013 Heisman Watch

By Brian Bennett

The season has been over for only a little more than a week, but it's never too early to start talking about the next Heisman Trophy race.

The leading contender in the Big Ten is obviously Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who finished fifth in the 2012 Heisman voting. Miller has one big advantage over reigning winner Johnny Manziel: Unlike the Texas A&M quarterback, he did not win the award this past season.

Of course, no one has won two Heismans since another Buckeyes backfield star did it -- Archie Griffin. The weight of expectations will make it extremely tough for Manziel to repeat, and there is already talk of concern about the way he is handling his sudden fame after becoming the first freshman to claim the statue.

Braxton Miller
Braxton Miller will look to improve upon his fifth-place finish in the 2012 Heisman voting.
In that sense, Miller may be in a better position to win in 2013 than Manziel. He will have an experienced offensive line back in Columbus along with 1,000-yard back Carlos Hyde, a healthy Jordan Hall and what coach Urban Meyer hopes will be an improved receiving corps. Miller must make a leap from his sophomore year to junior year that's comparable to his progress from 2011 to 2012, especially as a passer.

The Buckeyes almost certainly will start the season as a top-five team, and if they can keep winning and stay in the national title mix, then Miller will have a great chance to be in the Heisman conversation all year long. But for him to actually take the trophy home from New York City likely will require a great jump in stats. For as productive as the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year was in 2012, it pales in comparison to the two most recent Heisman winners. See:

Baylor QB Robert Griffin III (2011): 4,293 passing yards (72.4 percent completion rate), 699 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns (37 passing, 10 rushing)

Manziel (2012): 3,706 passing yards (68 percent completion rate), 1,410 rushing yards and 47 total touchdowns (26 passing, 21 rushing)

Miller (2012): 2,039 passing yards (58.3 percent completion rate), 1,271 rushing yards and 28 total touchdowns (15 passing, 13 rushing)

Miller's numbers simply don't compare to the historic numbers put up by the those two Texas gunslingers, seasons that were so good that RG III and Johnny Football won the Heisman on teams with multiple losses that weren't in the national title hunt. Another 12-0 season could help Miller make up for that, but there's little doubt that he needs to become a more complete quarterback if he wants to win his sport's most prestigious prize.

Just because Miller is the preseason favorite among Big Ten Heisman candidates doesn't mean he will finish that way. The race has been full of surprises the past couple of years; Phil Steele's great preview magazine listed nearly 60 possible Heisman contenders last summer, and Manziel's name was nowhere to be found.

So here's a quick look at some other potential Big Ten candidates, starting with the two most obvious ones:

Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: He was the coaches' choice for first-team All-Big Ten quarterback, and he led the league in total offense while rushing for more than 1,000 yards and completing a career-best 62 percent of his throws. Martinez will have the weapons around him in a high-powered Huskers offense to be even better as a senior. But he simply must cut down his turnovers, and Nebraska would have to play better in spotlight games.

Michigan QB Devin Gardner: Denard Robinson was on this type of preseason list in years past. Could Gardner actually finish higher in the race? He doesn't have the type of explosive wheels that Robinson possessed, but Gardner is a much better passer who's also an exceptional athlete. While starting Michigan's final five games, Gardner compiled 18 total touchdowns, which projects to 47 over a 13-game season -- the same number as Griffin and Manziel in their Heisman-winning years. Hmmm ...

And how about some long shots (in alphabetical order):

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: He rushed for 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore, filling in for the injured Rex Burkhead. He has terrific speed and can make plays on special teams.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Simply being a Badgers tailback gets you into the conversation most years. Gordon has unlimited potential, though he will be in his first year of being the main ball carrier, assuming he beats out James White. And if Montee Ball couldn't finish higher than fifth after his insane 2011 season ...

Northwestern RB Venric Mark: He ran for 1,371 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season. He won't be a complete unknown going into 2013, and the Wildcats should be ranked to start the season. He's also an All-American return man who can gain notice with special-teams highlights.

Penn State WR Allen Robinson: Why: He led the Big Ten with 1,013 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore. Why not: Receivers almost never win the Heisman and can't even gain much traction in the voting with ridiculous stats (see: Marqise Lee and Tavon Austin). And Penn State will have a first-year starting QB.

Iowa RB Mark Weisman: In a four-game stretch last season once Weisman became the main Hawkeyes running back, he ran for 623 yards and eight touchdowns. Unfortunately, he was never really healthy again after that. Projected over a 12-game season, Weisman would have had 1,869 yards and 24 touchdowns if he could have somehow maintained that phenomenal early pace. He is no doubt the longest of long shots on this list, but he's got the best backstory and the easiest, ready-made marketing campaign: Weisman for Heisman.