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Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Updated: December 9, 11:59 AM ET
Tight races for football awards

By Mark Schlabach
ESPN.com

Who is the best quarterback in the country?

Who is the best running back?

Who is the best defender?

It's time to hand out individual awards at "The Home Depot College Football Awards" show on Thursday night (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

Here's a list of the finalists for each award and which players should win -- plus who will win:

Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player)

Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Matheiu emerged as one of the nation's top cornerbacks and punt returners.

Finalists: Donta' Hightower, Alabama; Tyrann Mathieu, LSU; Devon Still, Penn State

Who should win: Mathieu

Matheiu, a sophomore from New Orleans, is the best player on the No. 1 team and No. 2 defense in the country. He's a tremendous cover cornerback and explosive punt returner. Mathieu -- who is affectionately known as the "Honey Badger" because he takes what he wants -- leads the Tigers with 71 tackles to go along with 6½ tackles for loss, 1½ sacks, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. He is tied for the lead among FBS players with five fumble recoveries and is tied for third with six forced fumbles. Mathieu averages 16.2 yards per punt return and has four touchdowns -- two on fumble recoveries and two on punt returns.

Who will win: Mathieu

Biletnikoff Award (best receiver)

Finalists: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State; Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma; Robert Woods, USC

Who should win: Blackmon

Blackmon, a junior from Ardmore, Okla., has been the country's best receiver each of the past two seasons. His numbers aren't as gaudy as they were a year ago, but he still finished with 113 catches for 1,336 yards with 15 touchdowns. His 113 catches were second most among FBS players (Western Michigan's Jordan White had 127) and his 15 touchdown catches were tied for third most. He ranks No. 2 nationally with 9.4 receptions per game and No. 8 with 111.3 yards per game. Blackmon helped lead the No. 3 Pokes to their first outright conference championship since 1948.

Who will win: Blackmon

Lou Groza Award (best kicker)

Finalists: Randy Bullock, Texas A&M; Dustin Hopkins, Florida State; Caleb Sturgis, Florida

Who should win: Bullock

Bullock, a senior from Klein, Texas, has been steady all season, setting a Texas A&M single-season record with 25 field goals. Bullock went 25-for-29 and made 11 field goals of longer than 40 yards. He kicked a season-long 52-yarder against Texas in the regular-season finale. Bullock has set a school record with 349 career points and ranks No. 2 in school history with 58 career field goals.

Who will win: Bullock

Ray Guy Award (best punter)

Finalists: Ryan Allen, Louisiana Tech; Steven Clark, Auburn; Jackson Rice, Oregon

Who should win: Allen

Allen, a transfer from Oregon State, has been a field-position weapon for the Bulldogs, helping them win their first WAC championship since 2001. Allen, a junior from Salem, Ore., ranks No. 3 nationally in punting, averaging 46.3 yards. He has placed 37 of his 78 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line, which leads all FBS players at 47 percent. He has put 20 of his punts inside opponents' 10-yard line and only five punts went for touchbacks. Allen had 29 punts of 50 yards or longer, including a 72-yarder against Mississippi State on Sept. 24.

Who will win: Allen

Maxwell Award (best all-around player)

Finalists: Andrew Luck, Stanford; Kellen Moore, Boise State; Trent Richardson, Alabama

Who should win: Richardson

Richardson is the country's best all-around player, rushing for 1,583 yards with 20 touchdown runs. Richardson, a junior from Pensacola, Fla., also caught 27 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns. Richardson played his best in No. 2 Alabama's biggest games, averaging 142 rushing yards in five games against foes ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll. In Alabama's 9-6 loss in overtime to No. 1 LSU on Nov. 5, Richardson had 80 rushing yards and 89 receiving yards in a game where every yard seemed to matter. He also hasn't fumbled since his freshman season, going 520 consecutive touches without losing a fumble.

Who will win: Luck

Luck, who will probably be the No. 1 pick in next spring's NFL draft, might be the most valuable player in the country. He completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,170 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Stanford coach David Shaw said Luck does more at the line of scrimmage than any other player, calling plays and making checks before the snap. He also has excelled despite playing without having premier skill position players around him.

Davey O'Brien Award (best quarterback)

Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin III led Baylor to upsets over TCU, Oklahoma and Texas.

Finalists: Robert Griffin III, Baylor; Case Keenum, Houston; Andrew Luck, Stanford

Who should win: Griffin

Griffin, who is widely known as simply RG3, might be the most electrifying player in the country. He has completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 36 touchdowns with six interceptions, while running for 644 yards with nine scores. Griffin guided the Bears to upset victories over TCU, Oklahoma and Texas (beating the Longhorns for the second straight season). Griffin set an NCAA single-season record with a passer rating of 192.3.

Who will win: Keenum

Keenum rewrote the NCAA record books after returning for his senior season from a knee injury that caused him to miss most of the 2010 season. Keenum, a senior from Abilene, Texas, broke NCAA records for career passing yards (18,312), total offense (19,217), touchdown passes (150), total touchdowns (173), completions (1,460) and 300-yard games (37). He is only 274 yards shy of becoming the first player in NCAA history with three career 5,000-yard seasons. Keenum helped lead the Cougars to an 11-1 record.

Outland Trophy (best interior lineman)

Finalists: David DeCastro, Stanford; Barrett Jones, Alabama; Devon Still, Penn State

Who should win: DeCastro

DeCastro, a junior from Bellevue, Wash., helped anchor Stanford's offensive line, which allowed just nine sacks in 386 pass attempts this season. The Cardinal ranked No. 5 nationally in scoring (43.5 points per game), No. 11 in total offense (480.9 yards) and No. 22 in rushing (207.9 yards). Stanford was No. 6 in sacks allowed, allowing only .75 sacks per game.

Who will win: DeCastro

Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back)

Finalists: David Amerson, NC State; Mark Barron, Alabama; Morris Claiborne, LSU

Who should win: Claiborne

As good as Mathieu has been, Claiborne is a better cover cornerback and has been more consistent. Tigers opponents have been just as reluctant to throw to Claiborne's side of the field. Claiborne, a junior from Shreveport, La., has 46 tackles, six interceptions and 12 passes defended. He also had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in LSU's 47-21 victory at West Virginia on Sept. 24 and is averaging 26.1 yards on punt returns.

Who will win: Claiborne

Doak Walker Award (best running back)

Finalists: Montee Ball, Wisconsin; LaMichael James, Oregon; Trent Richardson, Alabama

Who should win: Ball

Ball, a junior from Wentzville, Mo., has been a scoring machine for the No. 10 Badgers this season. He ran for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdown runs, while catching 20 passes for 255 yards with six scores. His 38 touchdowns are one shy of tying former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record of 39 set in 11 games in 1988. In five games against teams with top-25 defenses, Ball averaged 143.4 yards per game with 11 touchdowns.

Who will win: Ball

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.