NCF Nation: Heisman watch 081612

Big East Heisman hopefuls

August, 16, 2012
It has been a few years since the Big East went into the season with a serious Heisman hopeful. Had West Virginia stuck around, things would be a little different this season.

That does not mean all hope is lost. There are a few players who could emerge as the season goes on, the way surprise candidates always seem to pop up year after year. Who could they be?

Ray Graham, RB, Pitt. "From the Comeback Trail to the Heisman Trail!" I am a bit hesitant to put Graham on this list because he is coming off a major knee injury. Early reports out of practice show Graham is holding his own and perhaps even doing better than expected. Still, we really have no idea what we are going to see out of Graham when the season opens. If Graham starts the year the way he played before he got hurt, watch out. People around the country will definitely take notice.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. "Teddy Heisman." You guys know our good friend TxCardsFan has coined this phrase, so props to him for making it a catchphrase on this here blog. I think we may be a year premature on the Teddy Heisman campaign, but you never know. He has gotten some national notice on a few preseason watch lists, and he has more upside than any of other the starting quarterbacks in the Big East. With another year in the system and the continued development of his young receivers, there is a chance. I am just not sure Louisville will be passing for 3,000 yards this year, a near prerequisite for a Heisman Trophy contender.

Montel Harris, RB, Temple. "Give a Hoot for the Heisman!" A super dark-horse candidate right here, but ut;s really hard to overlook what Harris did when he was healthy at Boston College. He has run for more than 3,000 career yards, and Temple will no doubt rely on him in the run game. If he carries the Owls this season and they are better than expected, there is an outside chance. But Temple has to get to nine or 10 wins at least.

Big Ten Heisman campaigns

August, 16, 2012
Expensive and extensive Heisman Trophy campaigns are mostly a relic, as TV and Internet exposure has made lobbying voters less important.

But such campaigns still exist and can be fun to follow. The Big Ten, in my view, has two strong preseason Heisman candidates and one dark-horse contender as we enter the season. What should their trophy campaigns look like? Let's examine:

Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: The Badgers have already come up with a slogan for Ball's Heisman campaign: "This Fall Belongs to Ball." It's even more appropriate now than when the school dreamed it up. The spring and summer were not the brightest times for the 2011 Heisman finalist, who endured an arrest and an attack by five men who jumped him. But as long as he's healthy and scoring touchdowns this fall like he did during last season's record-setting march, Ball will be very much in the race.

Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: The stately Wolverines wouldn't deign to design a Heisman campaign for their star, so we'll come up with one for them. How about this: "Laces Out." Send every Heisman voter a pair of shoelaces to remind them of Robinson's signature look and capitalize on the fact that the quarterback has been far more outgoing and outspoken this year. A DVD of his stirring speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon wouldn't hurt, either. Ultimately, though, Robinson will simply need to turn in consistent performances and improve his passing numbers to be more than a half-season candidate.

Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska: If the Cornhuskers can win the Big Ten and Burkhead can lead the charge offensively as he did last year, he can be a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman. So what should his campaign look like? Our suggestion: "Vote for Superman." That's a nickname for Burkhead, though he's much too humble to publicly embrace it. And he's pretty super off the field as well, as he won a national award for his work with a young fan battling brain cancer. Burkhead has the perfect image for a Heisman golden boy; all he needs is a few more signature plays.

Early SEC Heisman Watch

August, 16, 2012
The SEC and the Heisman Trophy have gone together well in recent years.

Tim Tebow took home the coveted bronze statute in 2007, while Mark Ingram won it in 2009 and Cam Newton in 2010. Last year, the SEC had two Heisman finalists in Trent Richardson and Tyrann Mathieu. So, of course, that means the SEC will get a sniff at college football's most prestigious award yet again in 2012, right?

Well, there are a few worthy candidates, and there could be some guys lurking under the radar. Mathieu certainly didn't enter 2011 as a Heisman candidate, but he won over many voters with his game-changing plays throughout the year. Unfortunately for the Honey Badger, he won't have a chance to make another run at the hardware because he was dismissed from LSU last Friday.

Mathieu's absence does create a hole on our early list, but the SEC shouldn't have a problem filling his spot this fall.

Let's take a look at some players from the SEC who should be on everyone's Heisman radar heading into the 2012 season:

1. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas: No one would have blamed Wilson for leaving school early for the NFL this spring, but the senior quarterback opted to stay one last year in Fayetteville. That's good news for the Hogs, as Wilson returns as the SEC's top all-around quarterback. He's not only technically sound but also has a cannon for a right arm. He also knows how to take a hit or two. He can make the tough throws and manage a game like a pro. As a first-year starter in 2011, Wilson completed 63.2 percent of his passes, led the SEC with 3,638 passing yards and tossed 24 touchdowns to just six interceptions.

2. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina: He's coming off a season-ending injury to his anterior cruciate ligament, but he's operating at 100 percent in camp and is expected to be fine this fall. He might be the nation's top running back with the power, speed and agility he possesses. Before he went down with his knee injury, Lattimore was leading the SEC in rushing, and in just seven games he rushed for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns. He rushed for more than 100 yards in four of those games, including 246 yards and three touchdowns against Navy. Lattimore is the ultimate workhorse, and his coaches expect him to come back even better this fall.

3. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas: A fractured ankle sidelined Davis for the 2011 season, but that doesn't mean he isn't a Heisman candidate to start this one. Davis burst onto the scene during the second half of 2010, when he rushed for 1,119 yards and 12 touchdowns in the season's final eight games. Davis actually led all SEC running backs that year with 1,322 rushing yards and finished the season with 13 rushing touchdowns. He rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the final five games. Davis says his ankle is 100 percent, and when he's at his best, he's one of the most complete backs around. He's not only a home run threat with speed and elusiveness but also packs a punch and can grind out the tough yards.

4. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: The record-setting quarterback returns after leading the SEC with 35 touchdown passes last year. He was also second in the league with 3,149 passing yards. Murray can make the tough passes and benefits from being able to make plays with his feet as well. Where he needs to improve is not pressing during big games. Working on developing better chemistry with his receivers was one of his main goals heading into the fall, and it sounds as though he has more command on the field.

ACC's 2012 Heisman hopefuls

August, 16, 2012
The ACC has legitimate Heisman contenders this season. It has experienced quarterbacks. It has one of the nation’s top receivers. It has one of the country’s best defensive backs. And it has a preseason top-10 team in Florida State.

The question is who will emerge as the lead candidate to represent the ACC in the Heisman conversation? History says we start with players who will likely be leading winning teams. Here are my top three preseason choices:

1. Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. No, I don’t think he is the best quarterback in the ACC. But I do think he’s playing for the best team, and that goes a long, long way -- especially if the Noles live up to the hype this year and maintain their position in the top 10 and win the ACC. If Florida State wins its first league title since 2005, Manuel would be deserving of consideration -- unless the offense struggled the way it did last year, while the defense and special teams was the difference in many of the games. Manuel, though, is definitely one of the best players in the ACC. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes last year for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. He missed one game and parts of two others with injuries. His health will again be critical to the Noles’ chances this year.

2. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. Historically, the Heisman candidates play for winning teams, and once again, the Hokies have been picked by the media to win the Coastal Division. There’s not as much national buzz around this team, though, as there is around Florida State. Thomas could help change that. He has a better understanding of the offense now that he’s in his second season as a starter, and he is much more comfortable. Thomas racked up 3,482 yards of total offense last year, a school record. He also accounted for 30 touchdowns. The bigger questions are in his surrounding cast. We’ll get plenty of answers on Labor Day, when the Hokies face Georgia Tech in the season opener.

3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. The only reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is because he is suspended for the first two games. Not only will that hurt his production, but it will also hurt his public perception. Watkins, though, is still one of the most talented all-around players in the country, and he has said he has no idea what a “sophomore slump” even is. Watkins broke both the Clemson AND ACC records for most receptions by a freshman last fall. He ended the season with 82 catches -- 30 more than the previous record set by DeAndre Hopkins in 2010. He also had 826 kickoff return yards for a total of 2,288 all-purpose yards. If Watkins plays as well as he did or better this year -- and Clemson is able to defend its Atlantic Division title -- Watkins should be on everyone’s Heisman list.

Pac-12 Heisman candidates

August, 16, 2012
It's campaign season, and across the blog network we're looking at college football players around the nation who will be officially announcing their Heisman candidacies. Here's a look at the top three Pac-12 players in the mix.

Matt Barkley, QB, USC

2011 numbers: Completed 308 of 446 passes for a 69.1 completion percentage. Tossed 39 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and totaled 3,528 yards.

Why he'll win: He's arguably the best quarterback in the country -- and the Heisman folks love quarterbacks -- with the best wide receiver duo in the country to throw to. USC checks in as a preseason top-five team and is expected to have one of the best offenses in the nation. Pair that with an emotional declaration of "unfinished business" and a potential national championship run and you have the perfect candidate wrapped up in a 6-foot-2, 230-pound package. The expiration of USC's postseason ban will also help Barkley get a little more exposure after the Trojans were an afterthought for much of last season.

Why he won't: It seems like being the preseason favorite is the kiss of death these days. Right, wrong or indifferent, Barkley is going to draw comparisons to another preseason favorite who came up short two years in a row: Andrew Luck. Both had comparable numbers and both surprised folks a bit when announcing they'd return for another year. The hype machine went into overdrive for Luck -- as it has for Barkley -- and by the middle of November, voters were looking for something fresh and different.

Campaign slogan: "Back to Business."

De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon

2011 numbers: Rushed for 595 yards on 55 carries and seven touchdowns. Caught 46 balls for 605 yards and nine touchdowns. Returned 36 kicks for 983 yards and two touchdowns.

Why he'll win: Thomas might be the most electrifying player in college football with his versatility as a back, receiver and returner. Every time he touches the football he's a highlight waiting to happen. He led the Pac-12 in kick returns, and when you factor in whatever contributions he'll make in the running and passing game, he has a good chance to gain more than 3,000 total yards. Tough to argue with that kind of production.

Why he won't: Heisman voters love to organize players into neat and tidy packages -- something that can be defined. Thomas is tough to define. Is he a running back? A wide receiver? All of the above doesn't typically sit well with voters. While his overall numbers might be staggering, his individual rushing or receiving numbers alone might not be enough to sway some folks. Being a sophomore doesn't help, either.

Campaign slogan: "Catch me if you can. (But you can't)"

Keith Price, QB, Washington

2011 numbers: Completed 242 of 362 attempts for a 66.9 completion percentage. Tossed 33 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and totaled 3,063 yards.

Why he'll win: If he manages to keep pace statistically with some of the other top quarterbacks in the country through a grueling six-week stretch to start the season, he'll make it awfully tough for people to ignore him. The last time folks saw him, he was upstaging Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. While the game was defensively nauseating, it was a veritable Smorgasbord of offense. Price made quite the impression. Now it's up to him to keep it going.

Why he won't: That same schedule that could propel him from dark horse candidate to legitimate contender could also sink his candidacy before it ever really gets off the ground. Three top-five teams in the first six weeks, and a potential top-15 team in Stanford means Price will have to be at his best early to make any sort of impression. Plus, he's going to have to prove he's the best quarterback in the conference (not easy with Mr. Barkley lingering) before he can prove he's the best player in the nation.

Campaign slogan: "Like RG3, but don't call me KP1."
We're finally talking Heisman this week on the ESPN blog network, and we've been asked to put together Heisman campaigns and slogans for our conference's candidates.

I'm no advertising exec, but I'll give it a shot.

Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia

Geno Smith: He's in the Big 12 now, so it's time to take him seriously.

I can't be the only one who thinks being associated with the quality quarterbacks in the Big 12 and having to outgun them from time to time will benefit Smith. He simply had no peer in the Big East, where he racked up 1,700 more passing yards and nine more touchdowns (with two fewer interceptions) than anybody else in the league. WVU will be on TV more and be featured in plenty of prime-time games against ranked opponents. That's been all too rare in Morgantown lately.

Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma

Landry Jones: I'm not Sam Bradford, but I'm still pretty stinkin' good.

Bradford brought home Oklahoma's fifth Heisman, and Jones was charged with following up the Sooner legend. Poor guy. Yes, he throws too many interceptions, and has struggled in a few high-profile games. He's still the league's second-best quarterback and may have a case as the league's best by season's end. All Jones has done in his career is throw for more than 12,000 yards and 90 touchdowns with a season still to play. Give the dude a break.

Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State

Collin Klein: College football's real (and only) Honey Badger

Klein's the last Badger left standing after Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from LSU's team. He was obviously overshadowed by the SEC star last season, but Klein's already proved he'll take what he wants, even if his elbows are gushing blood. Kansas State mounted a marketing campaign last season around Klein's nickname, and this year, it'll be a lot more effective if Klein scores anything close to the 27 touchdowns he had last year and K-State keeps racking up wins.

Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia

Tavon Awesome: Catch him if you can.

I had to borrow the nickname from a noted West Virginia video man for this campaign. It's too good to pass up and fits the league's most electrifying player. Fans will want to catch him on TV if they haven't seen him yet, and defenders will want to catch him if they don't want him embarrassing their squads.