- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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No conference starts out the 2011 season as well-positioned to produce a Heisman Trophy finalist as the Pac-12, considering the conference produced two in 2010.
Here's a look at the candidates, from front-runners to dark horses.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford: The 2010 runner-up to Auburn's Cam Newton -- Wow, talk about a contrast in character studies -- Luck is the decided front-runner heading into the season. He ranked third in the nation in passing efficiency last fall, passing for 3,338 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 70.7 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 453 yards and three scores. Stanford finished with a 12-1 record and a dominant Orange Bowl win against Virginia Tech, in which Luck threw four touchdown passes and earned MVP honors. He would have been the No. 1 overall NFL draft choice in the spring. He will be the No. 1 overall NFL draft choice next spring. The biggest cautionary tale to his Heisman campaign: Peyton Manning.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon: James, a Heisman finalist last season, led the nation with 1,731 yards rushing-- 144.25 yards per game -- and ranked second with 21 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He also caught 17 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He was Oregon’s first unanimous All-American and he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back. He's set Ducks freshman and sophomore records for rushing.
Not to get caught up in that "college" part of college football or anything but James was first-team All-Pac-10 and Luck was second-team -- All-Academic.
Chris Polk, RB, Washington: Polk ranked second in the Pac-10 with 1,415 yards rushing -- his 108.9 yards per game ranked 13th in the nation -- and he scored nine touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 180 yards. He also closed the season strong during the Huskies' four-game winning streak to end the season, rushing for 138 yards against UCLA, 86 yards at California -- including the winning fourth-and-1 plunge on the game's final play -- and 284 yards at Washington State, the second-best rushing total in school history. Then, in the Holiday Bowl against a good Nebraska defense, he rushed for 177 yards on a career-high 34 carries and was named the offensive MVP. The rising junior's second-consecutive 1,000-yard season pushed him to No. 6 on the Huskies all-time rushing list with 2,561 yards. And with quarterback Jake Locker gone, Polk won't have to share the spotlight.
Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon: What if Oregon, with a rebuilt offensive line, ends up passing more in 2011? Thomas, a sophomore, first-year starter, completed 61.5 percent of his throws for 2,881 yards with 30 touchdowns. He also rushed for 486 yards and five scores. He ranked second in the Pac-10 and 17th in the nation in passing efficiency. He threw for 363 yards and two touchdowns in the national championship game.
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Barkley is a big-time talent playing on a high-profile team that has done well in the past when it comes to the Heisman. He ranked 31st in the nation and third in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency in 2010. He completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He's got an outstanding crew of young receivers who might help him put up big numbers.
The dark horses
Nick Foles, QB, Arizona: Foles led the Pac-10 with 290 yards passing per game. He ranked fourth in passing efficiency -- 34th in the nation -- completing 67 percent of his passes with with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. With one of the best crews of receivers in the nation, he figures to be throwing a lot in 2011. If the Wildcats win early -- see a rugged early schedule against ranked teams -- he could start to generate some buzz.
Robert Woods, WR, USC: Heisman winners often come from surprising places. But not too surprising. As a true freshman, Woods caught a team-high 65 passes for 792 yards with six touchdowns. He also averaged 25.6 yards on 38 kick returns, with a 97-yard touchdown. What if he -- instead of Barkley -- becomes the captivating star of a resurgent USC team?