It's his trophy to lose
Matt Barkley is the best player in the nation and, based on preseason polls, he plays for the best team. Toss in the fact that USC superstars tend to do well in Heisman Trophy races, and there is every reason to view Barkley as a heavy preseason favorite to capture the bronze, stiff-arming statue.
So best player on best team -- perhaps college football's most storied program -- in a big media market. For a Heisman campaign, that's called a "good start."
Further, Barkley has a good backstory. Entering his fourth year as a starter without ever redshirting, he's led the Trojans back from the oblivion of severe NCAA sanctions. He could have entered the NFL draft last spring and almost certainly would have been a first-round selection. Instead, he opted to return for his senior season to take care of, he said, "unfinished business."
Sure, some of that was about individual desires. Barkley wants a crack at the Heisman and being the top pick in the draft. He liked the idea of a college football season without Andrew Luck playing in the same conference. But a bigger part was about team, about Barkley's stewardship of and belief in the USC tradition.
Off the field, Barkley, who has already graduated with a degree in communications, is an articulate, opinionated guy, which is fun in our age of homogenized, tightly controlled college athletes. If you follow him on Twitter, you get some substance and humor instead of mundane observations about reality TV or the weather. Consider his tagline: "I play quarterback, but that doesn't define me ... "
You want community service? He's done mission work in South Africa and Haiti, where this past summer he brought along 15 Trojans teammates.
Party guy? He's known his girlfriend for 17 years. They plan to marry after this spring's NFL draft.
As for the football stuff, Barkley earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2011 -- Luck! -- and third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press after leading USC to a final top-five ranking and 10-2 finish. He ranked eighth in the nation in passing efficiency, and his 39 TD passes ranked first in the Pac-12. Over the season's final four games, he completed 72.7 percent of his passes with 17 TDs and just two picks, ending Oregon's 21-game winning streak in Eugene along the way.
Barring injury, he is almost certain to write his name atop the Pac-12 record book for career passing yards and TD passes. He needs 2,765 yards to eclipse former USC standout Carson Palmer's 11,818 yards, and 20 TD passes to beat former Trojan Matt Leinart's 99 career scoring tosses.
Both Palmer and Leinart won the Heisman Trophy. It would be an upset if Barkley didn't follow in their footsteps.
A number of contenders
You can have your fair-haired, Southern California quarterback. Even though USC senior Matt Barkley enters the 2012 season as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate, I'll take my chances with the rest of the field.
I'll take rugged Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, a returning Heisman finalist who tied an NCAA season record in 2011 with 39 touchdowns. If Ball runs as well as he did last season, he might lead the Badgers to a third consecutive Big Ten championship.
I'll also take the top three spread quarterbacks in the country: Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas and Michigan's Denard Robinson. Give me Boyd's electrifying teammate, sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins, too. Together, they helped the Tigers set a school record for total offense in their first season in coordinator Chad Morris' fast-paced offense.
Last season, Robinson led the Wolverines with 2,173 passing yards and 1,176 rushing yards. He accounted for 36 touchdowns and helped Michigan to a Sugar Bowl victory in coach Brady Hoke's first season. Thomas was on the wrong end of the Sugar Bowl scoreboard, but he passed for 3,013 yards with 19 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. Some NFL scouts believe he might be among the first quarterbacks taken in next spring's NFL draft if he leaves Virginia Tech after his junior season.
Speaking of quarterbacks, I'll take Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, West Virginia's Geno Smith and Georgia's Aaron Murray. Each of them is capable of leading his team to a BCS bowl game -- if not the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Jones threw for 93 touchdowns the past three seasons combined, Murray had 59 over the last two seasons, and Smith has thrown for 55 since the start of the 2010 season. Smith might be on the verge of a record-setting performance in his second season in coach Dana Holgorsen's high-paced spread offense.
If the Heisman is supposed to go to the most valuable player in the country, I'll take my chances with South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. He ran for more than 2,000 yards over the past two seasons before tearing his ACL last year. Arkansas running back Knile Davis is coming back from a broken ankle that caused him to miss all of the 2011 season, after he ran for 1,322 yards in 2010.
While the Heisman might be Barkley's to lose, he'll have to beat out a crowded field of contenders to win it.