NCF Nation: Who to watch 2013 011513

It's way too early to be looking at Heisman contenders, but it's still fun to look into our crystal balls, so we are. And the SEC has some very qualified candidates for college football's most prestigious award. Who is the next Johnny Football? Is it still just Johnny Football?

1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: What will Johnny Football do for an encore? After becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, after setting the SEC record for total yards (5,116), all eyes will be on Manziel in his second year as the Aggies' quarterback. He'll be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and two big receiving targets. But Manziel will probably still be one of the slipperiest players in the country. If he grows more as a passer, watch out, because he'll be even more dangerous in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCan South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney put himself in position to win the Heisman next season?
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: It's safe to say that if we could have a do-over for all of those defensive awards, Clowney would have a much better shot at taking some hardware away from Manti Te'o. Clowney finished his sophomore season with 54 tackles, including 40 solo, a school-record 23.5 tackles for loss, and a school-record 13.0 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and recovered one. He tied for second in the country in tackles for loss and was tied for third in sacks. He will enter the fall as the top defensive player in the country and will give Manziel a serious run for the best overall player.

3. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: He didn't have the numbers Georgia's Aaron Murray had in 2012, but he won his second straight national championship and was the nation's most efficient passer with a QB rating of 175.28. He narrowly missed out on 3,000 yards and threw 30 touchdowns to just three interceptions. With Amari Cooper coming back and Chris Black and Kenny Bell returning from injury, expect McCarron to have an even bigger year in 2013. Making another national championship run won't hurt him, either.

4. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: Murray decided to come back and give college one last try. That just means that he'll have a chance to break even more records. Murray will be a part of a very explosive offense in Athens this fall and has a chance to put up some major numbers in his final year with the Bulldogs. He's second only to Danny Wuerffel when it comes to career touchdown passes in the SEC with 95. And Murray became the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in three straight seasons, and he's looking to make it four straight.

5. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Murray's return could cut into Gurley's production, but even while he battled for time with Murray and fellow running back Keith Marshall, Gurley still led all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards in his first year of college ball. He also had 17 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Gurley should be stronger and more comfortable in Georgia's offense in 2013, and that has to be a very scary thought for opposing defensive coordinators.

Who to watch for Notre Dame in 2013

January, 15, 2013
Notre Dame came as close as it possibly could have to boasting its first Heisman Trophy winner in 25 years, as Manti Te'o's historic campaign came up just short. Here are the Irish players with the best chance to follow the linebacker's run, however unlikely holding up that stiff-arm trophy may be.

[+] EnlargeStephon Tuitt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsStephon Tuitt had 12 sacks for Notre Dame during his sophomore season.
Stephon Tuitt, DE. As stated earlier, Tuitt is poised for a monster year. The 6-foot-6, 303-pound Georgia native has been consistently deemed by teammates as a "freak," an appropriate adjective for a player relatively new to football despite a 12-sack season for one of the best defenses in Notre Dame history. Expect him to take the next step and put up even bigger numbers in 2013, though South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney will likely dominate the national Heisman conversation from day one and give defensive players an even better chance at taking home the hardware a year after Te'o came as close as any of them in history (among one-way defensive players).

Everett Golson, QB. Despite first-year growing pains as a redshirt freshman, Golson made plenty of progress and became seasoned in a way few others have at his age. If he is to take the next step, fend off his quarterback challengers and become a consistent dual-threat QB who leads Notre Dame to another promising campaign, he will be in the spotlight more than anyone else on the Irish roster. Some already see him as a dark horse candidate.

Louis Nix, NG. Nix may be the best player returning to the Irish. And after passing up early entry to the draft, one more year of similar production to his 2012 output will make pro scouts fall in love with him even more. The only problem is his position, which is not conducive to the kind of big numbers that voters and everyone else have become accustomed to using in measuring one's impact. Still, look no further than the Nov. 3 Pitt game -- when Ray Graham rushed for 172 yards, the most against the Irish all season -- to see Nix's impact, as the redshirt sophomore was clearly not himself after being hampered by a virus that had kept him in the infirmary for two nights earlier in the week.

Early Big East Heisman watch 2013

January, 15, 2013
The Big East should start 2013 with a legitimate Heisman contender: Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsLouisville's Teddy Bridgewater gained national attention for his effort against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Those who have followed the Big East blog over the past year know that Matt Fortuna and I had Bridgewater on Heisman watch for the 2012 season. We got to see him first-hand every weekend. There were plenty of folks who did not. But that all changed in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, when his performance got talking heads, well, talking.

Bridgewater essentially did what he wanted against what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the country. That performance was about what we have seen out of him all year, but because he did it on a national stage against the No. 3 team, it is fair to say Bridgewater had a breakthrough moment. And that is what he needed to get people to start paying attention in 2013.

As I wrote earlier this month, his 2013 Heisman campaign began with that game. Now we will see whether he will be truly considered as the year goes on and he faces competition that is not as tough as the other would-be contenders out there. I think it is going to take the Cardinals going undefeated and Bridgewater improving on already terrific numbers to get an invitation to New York.

Here are two stats I am going to be watching from him for 2013: Can he reach 4,000 yards passing, and he can complete 70 percent of his passes? In 2012, Bridgewater threw for 3,718 yards and completed 68.5 percent of his passes.

Coach Charlie Strong preaches balance, and the Cardinals should have a healthy Senorise Perry back in the lineup, so that may prevent Bridgewater from reaching 4,000 yards. But given the talent around him at receiver and how close he came this year, he may very well have a shot.

Big 12 players to watch in 2013

January, 15, 2013
As we finish wrapping up the 2012 season, it's time to look forward today. Here's a look at a few players you need to keep an eye on in 2013:

Casey Pachall, QB, TCU: If Pachall returns to form, you can bet on TCU as the Big 12 favorite in 2013, especially after Joseph Randle left Oklahoma State. He's officially back on the team after spending last fall in a treatment facility for drug and alcohol addiction, and we'll see what reports are out of spring in Fort Worth. He'll have to prove he's the same player and earn his job back, but if he is and he does, and TCU's defense does what it did in 2012 ... look out. Pachall was completing 66 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and a pick before his season ended following a DUI arrest in early October. The entire Big 12 race could very well shift on Pachall's return and subsequent development.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Michael C. Johnson/US PresswireJohnathan Gray rushed for 701 yards and three touchdowns during the 2012 season.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: Gray emerged as the most consistent back for the Longhorns this past season, becoming the second consecutive true freshman to lead the Longhorns in rushing. Gray rushed for more touchdowns than any back in high school football history, and if he can build on his 700 yards on fewer than 150 carries from 2012, he'll look more and more like the player Texas hopes he can be. He also might help Texas look like a real Big 12 title contender.

Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor: No player in the Big 12 was hotter at the end of 2012, and Seastrunk already made a well-publicized statement that he's planning on winning the Heisman Trophy in 2013. We'll see about that, but Seastrunk began November with fewer than 200 yards rushing. He ended the season as one of three Big 12 backs with at least 1,000 rushing yards. Craziness.

Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia: West Virginia's defense got all kinds of heat from critics and opposing offenses last year, but Joseph was the bright spot and a piece to build around for the future. He and fellow true freshman Isaiah Bruce showed real promise, but Joseph was sixth in the Big 12 with 102 tackles, forced three fumbles and had a pair of picks and seven tackles for loss. He's a stud.

Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State: Stewart takes my title as the Big 12's most underrated player entering 2013. He doesn't have the same reputation as an elite receiver, but he has put up the numbers to support the idea that he's exactly that. He caught 101 balls for 1,210 yards and will be the Big 12's leading returning receiver in 2013 by more than 150 yards. Only three Big 12 receivers hit triple-digit receptions last season, too. No returning receiver had more than 82.

Jake Heaps, QB, Kansas: Heaps is a wild card, but if KU is truly going to get out of the Big 12 basement (or win a game in Big 12 play), it needs Heaps' transition after transferring to go better than Dayne Crist's. The BYU transfer, who signed on with the Jayhawks and Charlie Weis after Weis' hiring, threw 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in almost two seasons as the Cougars' starter. He very nearly quarterbacked BYU to a win at Texas in 2011, too.

Aaron Green, RB, TCU: Green is another high-impact transfer this year, or at least could be. The San Antonio native sat out last year after transferring in from Nebraska. He was the No. 3 running back in the 2011 recruiting class and No. 11 on the ESPN 150. We saw this year the kind of impact a super recruit like Seastrunk can have, and TCU needs a big hitter in the backfield. We'll see what Green can do after rushing for 105 yards and two scores on 24 touches at Nebraska in 2011.

Michael Brewer, QB, Texas Tech: Brewer followed in Garrett Gilbert's footsteps in high school with a huge career at Lake Travis in Austin, but here's guessing his college career will be much more impressive. Brewer earned a little time this year behind Seth Doege, but I love what I saw from him in spot duty, and he'll be responsible for what kind of a start the Kliff Kingsbury Era gets off to in Lubbock. Here's guessing it'll be a good one.

2013 Heisman watch: Pac-12

January, 15, 2013
Let's take a look at who from the Pac-12 could potentially win the Heisman in 2013 and be the league's first winner since 2004.

Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA

  • 2012 numbers: Posted 83 tackles. He also had 21.5 tackles for a loss and 13.5 sacks -- both in the national top 15. He also broke up five passes, forced four fumbles, blocked a kick and notched a safety.
  • Why he could win: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o reminded people that yes, defensive players also are eligible for the Heisman. And Barr proved to be one of the most dangerous linebackers in the country in 2012. He's already viewed as a potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft, so the fact that he's coming back should allow him to refine his skills.
  • Standing in his way: He's a defensive player -- which means he will have to have out-of-this-world production to even get his foot in the door. Of all the Pac-12's returning defensive players, he probably stands the best chance.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona

  • 2012 numbers: Rushed for 1,929 yards on 303 carries (6.4 average) and 23 touchdowns. He also caught 36 balls for 303 yards and a touchdown.
  • Why he could win: He comes in with a name -- having been the leading rusher in the nation last year. He's a big-play back who should continue to produce plenty of highlights. Some off-field issues are a distraction, but those figure to be settled by the time 2013 rolls around. With similar numbers, he'll be right up in the conversation.
  • Standing in his way: Arizona has to break in a new quarterback, and if the threat of the pass isn't there -- or the threat of a running quarterback -- Carey could see his numbers decline. Also, team success plays a role, so as Arizona goes, Carey's candidacy may go as well.
[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee
Kirby Lee/US PresswireUSC returns Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Marqise Lee.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

  • 2012 numbers: He completed 318 of 478 passes (66.5 percent) with 29 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. He also ran for 355 yards (he netted 702, but was sacked 52 times, second worst in the league) and nine touchdowns.
  • Why he could win: He's one of several redshirt freshmen quarterbacks who showed they have the maturity and gumption to lead an offense. He's a phenomenal athlete who should have his team back in the Top 25 next year. He turned some heads in 2012.
  • Standing in his way: The fact that there is another explosive young quarterback in his league (see below) and another explosive young quarterback already has won the Heisman. He won't have Johnathan Franklin next year either to carry some of the load, so for as good as he was, he'll have to take a big step forward to stay relevant in the Heisman conversation. Some better pass protection coupled with him knowing when to throw it away should help, too.
Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

  • 2012 numbers: He completed 241 of 359 pass attempts (67.1 percent) for 3,039 yards with 29 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He also rushed for 516 yards and a score. He ranked ninth nationally in passing efficiency.
  • Why he could win: If Kelly can lead his team to a 5-0 start, which would include wins over Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame, you can bet people are going to take notice. If he does it producing similar numbers to the 2012 season, he'll get the recognition that an efficient and talented quarterback deserves.
  • Standing in his way: The same schedule that could propel him as a contender could also knock him right out of the running. He's in a similar spot as Washington's Keith Price was last year. Lots of potential, but a brutal first half of the schedule seemed to set him back for the season. If Kelly can overcome the front end, expect him to be on the radar.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC

  • 2012 numbers: Caught 118 balls for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was second nationally in receptions per game, receiving yards per game and third in all-purpose yards.
  • Why he could win: He's the reigning Biletnikoff winner -- so he already returns as one of the best at his position. And the fact that he might be the most explosive and dynamic player in the country helps, too. There isn't much he can't do with a football in his hand.
  • Standing in his way: Like Arizona, the Trojans have to break in a new quarterback and they'll need to win more than seven games next year. Lee was associated with USC's epic slide and that cost him dearly, because on merit alone, he should have been the winner in 2012 -- or at least a finalist. Perhaps the expectations won't be so high at USC next year, so similar numbers will carry more weight.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

  • 2012 numbers: He completed 230 of 336 pass attempts (68.5 percent) for 2,677 yards with 32 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He also carried 106 times for 752 yards and 5 touchdowns -- including a season-long 86-yarder. He finished seventh nationally in passing efficiency.
  • Why he could win: Oregon will be hanging around the top two for a while next year -- and if Mariota can improve on already stellar numbers, he'll get noticed. The fact that Chip Kelly returns is a big plus because Mariota's development and maturation won't be interrupted. He's a true dual threat with a team that will contend for the national title.
  • Standing in his way: That guy who won the Heisman will probably be at the top of a lot of lists going into next year. Mariota will have to impress to get moved above him in the pecking order. Also, much like USC last year, expectations will be high for the Ducks. Bad performances will be scrutinized harder than great ones.
De'Anthony Thomas, WR/RB, Oregon

  • 2012 numbers: Carried 92 times for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also had 45 catches for 445 yards and 5 scores. As a returner, he averaged 17.1 yards per punt return and returned one for a score and he averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return including one for a touchdown.
  • Why he could win: Have you seen this guy run? He's arguably the most explosive player in college football and his reputation precedes him. He'll already be on a lot of watch lists. He's a highlight reel waiting to happen every time he touches the ball. The punt return against Colorado was, in a word, sick.
  • Standing in his way: He has to have more touches if he's going to make a serious run. Kelly will use him how he sees fit. And if that means sporadic touches throughout the game, so be it. I'm certainly not going to tell Chip Kelly how to run his offense. But if Thomas is going to be taken seriously as a Heisman contender, he needs the numbers.

ACC's 2013 Heisman hopefuls

January, 15, 2013
The truth: The ACC has one good shot at the Heisman Trophy this year. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is a legitimate candidate, and if the Tigers beat Georgia in the season opener, get ready for the hype to skyrocket. It’s unfortunate for the ACC that former UNC running back Giovani Bernard and Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins decided to leave school early and enter the NFL draft because there’s no question they’d both be on this list. Without Bernard and Hopkins, Boyd stands alone as the ACC’s most legitimate contender.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Paul Abell/US PresswireClemson quarterback Tajh Boyd threw for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns this past season.
Boyd isn’t the only player worth watching in the ACC this year, though, who has an outside chance at sneaking into the conversation for college football’s most prestigious individual award. Here are the ACC’s top Heisman hopefuls entering spring ball:

1. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd: He finished No. 10 in the country in total passing yards with 3,893. He threw for 36 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. He completed 67.2 percent of his passes. He finished No. 14 in the country in passing yards per game and No. 5 in the country in passing efficiency.

2. Miami RB Duke Johnson: The ACC’s rookie of the year finished with 2,060 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns, and he broke Clinton Portis' 13-year-old school freshman rushing record with 947 yards. He ranked third nationally with a 33.0 yards per kick return average. His 892 kick return yards were a single-season school record, and he also tied the school single-season mark with two kick returns for touchdowns.

3. Clemson WR Sammy Watkins: With Hopkins gone, Watkins should emerge from the shadows again. Hopkins was the best receiver on the team last year, but Watkins, who made a name for himself as a true freshman in 2011, is still one of the most talented receivers in the country. He played in 10 games and was injured on the first play against LSU, but still finished with 1,073 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns.

Don't forget about: Miami QB Stephen Morris, Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Big Ten 2013 Heisman Watch

January, 15, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireBraxton 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 playing quarterback in 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.