Oregon and USC seem destined for a collision course in 2012; for the conference championship; for a spot in the Rose Bowl; maybe even the national championship. But there is an intriguing sidebar to the looming USC-Oregon showdown, and it has to do with a pair of marquee offensive players. USC's Matt Barkley has already picked up the ominous title of preseason Heisman favorite. Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas is one of the most explosive players in the conference. Both will get votes. But will one of them hoist the trophy? We make cases for each player.
Ted Miller: The Heisman Trophy is attracted to flashiness. And winners. And not necessarily to preseason favorites.
That's why, even though USC QB Matt Barkley heads into the 2012 season as everyone's Heisman front-runner -- from the Pac-12 and nationally -- I'm tapping Oregon's do-everything offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas as the conference's player most likely to be grinning in New York with that iconic bronze statue.
Barkley is a likely top-five pick in the 2013 NFL draft, and we expect him to put up big numbers and get invited to New York. But we also expect him to suffer a case of the Andrew Lucks, in which being the heavy favorite in August actually works against him. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, Barkley's strong supporting cast, including receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, might dilute the credit he gets.
Thomas? He's a human highlight reel who does his best work with little help from others. Give him a crack, and he goes yard. Heck, he not only has a cool nickname -- "The Black Mamba" -- but it was given to him by Snoop Dogg. That's a story that invites interest. Then folks will see the are-you-kidding me plays, like the two TD runs that covered 155 yards in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. Thomas' speed is so special it makes fast defenders look like they are knee-deep in sand.
Thomas has enough name recognition that folks will put him on preseason Heisman lists and keep track of him. But while Barkley could face some "USC & Barkley are so awesome!" exhaustion, Thomas probably won't get the same treatment.
What does the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year need to do? Well, it seems fairly simple. What about 1,000 yards receiving and 1,000 yards rushing? And perhaps a couple of TDs on special teams? Don't discount that as impossible: Last year, he was the only player in the nation with at least 400 yards rushing, receiving and kick returning.
Expect Thomas to get the numbers and to provide the highlights playing for a top-10 team, and that could win him the Heisman.
Kevin Gemmell: Ted's not wrong. Flash, panache, the "it" factor, whatever you want to call it, is a big part of crowning the Heisman winner. And yes, it's hard not to look at last year's runner-up (and 2010 for that matter) as an example of preseason hype gone astray and start drawing conclusions. But the Heisman voters are also very attracted to quarterbacks. That's why 10 of the past 12 winners have been slingers. This is a quarterback-driven game. And fair or not, the guys under center usually get the looks.
Barkley has a lot of things going for him that Luck didn't. He plays for a traditional powerhouse. He's in a large media market. Voters on the East Coast want to stay up to watch USC. Not many stayed up past their bedtime to watch Stanford. And Barkley plays in a system that is going to visually showcase his talents. Luck's abilities were on display, but they were far more understated and vastly under-appreciated.
But I don't want to draw this out into a comparison between Barkley and Luck. Actually, just the opposite. With Luck gone, Barkley no longer has to contend with the "is he even the best quarterback in his conference?" questions and comparisons. The fact that Luck didn't win -- after choosing a similar path and returning for another season -- I think plays in Barkley's favor. There won't be the week-by-week comparisons: "Through five games last year, Luck had x-amount of touchdowns and Barkley has y-amount." With Luck's departure, he's comparison-free.
Ted, you had Barkley at No. 2 in the Pac-12 blog postseason Top 25 -- behind Luck. Since Barkley is no longer restricted by what Luck does, does that mean he's the preseason No. 1? I'm sure you and I will talk about it, and I think it will be a very short conversation.
The statistics will be there -- aided no doubt by that aforementioned monster wide receiver duo. I actually believe they will help his cause, not hinder it. It's been more than 20 years since a wide receiver won the trophy. Woods and Lee will enhance Barkley's chances, not dig into them. His 39-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio seems like a good place to start. If he hovers right around there, he'll be one of the top two or three quarters in both of those rankings. He was a tick shy of completing 70 percent of his passes last year. If he gets that up to the 72-73 percent range, he'll be fine.
We always have to keep an eye out for the out-of-nowhere candidate. (Is that Keith Price this year?) But those aren't going to come along every season. Barkley's biggest enemy is regression. Any perceived step backwards will draw questions of whether he made the right choice to return. But forward progress, which is expected, should lead him to the Trophy.