June 14, 2011
The summer in college football means the onset of preview season, and previews mean an endless stream of lists beginning to trickle in. This year, any and all Heisman hype lists mean Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck at the top, in deference to both his status as reigning runner-up for the trophy last year and the the unanimous hosannas of NFL scouts who only seem to want him more now that he's turned them down.
Of course, no race in sports is official until you can bet on it. So as of today, courtesy of Bodog.com, you can bet on it. The site's early Heisman list includes 38 names, headlined by the usual suspects:
Odds to win the 2011 Heisman Trophy (Bodog.com)
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (9/2)
2. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (13/2)
3. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (7/1)
4. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (15/2)
4. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (15/2)
6. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama (12/1)
7. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (15/1)
7. Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State (15/1)
7. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas (15/1)
7. Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma (15/1)
As a public service to gamblers everywhere, I now advise you to excise half that list from the area of your beleaguered brain that stores "potential Heisman candidates." I'm not an oddsmaker or a scout (or a Heisman Trophy voter, for that matter), but I do know something about who wins the Heisman Trophy, and it's not just anyone who might happen to be the "most outstanding player": It's the outstanding offensive star of one of the two teams playing for the BCS championship. If you want to get even more specific, it's the quarterback of one of the two teams playing for the BCS championship.
Since 2000, nine of eleven Heisman winners have been scheduled to play in the title the following January. (The two exceptions: USC's Carson Palmer in 2002 and Florida's Tim Tebow in 2007, for a team that had won the BCS title the previous season and would win it again the following season.) Seven of those nine winners were quarterbacks. (The two exceptions: USC running back/return man Reggie Bush in 2005 and Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009, both of whom led top-ranked teams in the championship game.) In eight of those eleven seasons, the championship game featured both the Heisman winner and another finalist on the opposite sideline who finished second or third.
The last three seasons have all ended with a blockbuster Heisman showdown, between Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (winner) and Florida's Tim Tebow (3rd place) in 2008, Alabama's Mark Ingram (winner) and Texas' Colt McCoy (3rd place) in 2009 and Auburn's Cam Newton (winner) and Oregon's LaMichael James (3rd place) in 2010. In 2004, USC and Oklahoma contributed four of the top five Heisman finishers ahead of their championship clash in the Orange Bowl, including winner Matt Leinart; a year later, USC and Texas supplied the top three finishers before their epic shootout in the Rose Bowl. The last winner to play for a team ranked outside of the top 10 at the end of the regular season was Texas running back Ricky Williams in 1998, who was coming off a year in which he set the Division I career rushing record with 2,327 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground alone. The only other winner in the BCS era whose team wasn't slated for a BCS bowl game was Tebow in '07, which had at least something to do with the fact that there were no championship-caliber teams that season.
What you're saying when you list a player as a Heisman candidate on the kind of hype list that might actually make someone some money, then, is not just that a player is good. Dozens of first-rate stars whose talents are widely appreciated will always be widely ignored by the Heisman. What you're saying, beyond the requisite individual success, is one of two things: a) This guy is a high-profile star for a team with a serious chance to play for the BCS championship, or b) This guy is on the verge of a season of such outrageous proportions that it is essentially unpredictable.
Given that b) is kind of hard to pin down before anyone has taken a snap, the first criteria leaves us with a handful of legitimate frontrunners going into the year:
• 1. Landry Jones. Now that he's fully emerged from his , Jones comes with the right numbers and right hype, and more importantly, with the right team: Oklahoma is the best bet to open the season at No. 1 in the preseason polls, and Jones is a sure thing to put up even more absurd numbers as a third-year starter as long as he's healthy. With virtually Oklahoma's entire offense back, Jones' situation in 2011 looks a lot like the one that helped propel Sam Bradford to the Heisman in 2008 at the head of the highest-scoring offense in NCAA history. No other quarterback is more likely to land in the championship game with anything approaching those kind of numbers.
• 2. Andrew Luck. Terrelle Pryor's early exit from Ohio State removed any conceivable competition Luck may have had this fall as the most recognizable player in college football, thanks largely to his default status as runner-up and the most coveted player by the next level. Luck's All-America persona — soft-spoken, clean-cut quarterback passes up big bucks in the draft to finish his degree — will never go out of style with Heisman voters, either. As long as he leads Stanford past Oregon in its only really big game of the season on Nov. 12 to punch the Cardinal's ticket to the BCS Championship or Rose Bowl, no one has a wider margin error.
• 3. Trent Richardson. Richardson doesn't have superstar numbers to date, but finds himself in the same sweet spot that departed teammate Mark Ingram exploited en route to the trophy in 2009: He'll be the feature tailback for a national frontrunner, running behind a veteran offensive line and a new quarterback who won't tempt coaches to throw too much — all opposite a rocking defense that will make the forward pass a luxury in low-scoring slugfests. The main caveat to Richardson's candidacy is whether incoming backs Dee Hart and/or Brent Calloway will siphon off too many carries for his numbers to enter the stratosphere.
• 4. LaMichael James. Increased competition for touches could also slow down James' assault on the box score, which earned him a third-place finish in last year's voting as the national leader in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. James was also near the top of the list with just shy of 26 touches per game, a number that could come down with Oregon's bounty of blazing young backs in the wings and plenty of opportunities waiting in Chip Kelly's merciless, star-making spread scheme; quarterback Darron Thomas and multipurpose cornerback/kick returner Cliff Harris also have a chance to steal a little spotlight.
But James a known quantity and the go-to star for a high-profile team that will give him a great stage as the early favorite to three-peat as conference champion.
• 5. Brandon Weeden. All-everything receiver Justin Blackmon picked up more accolades last year in Oklahoma State's high-flying offense, and more interest from the pro scouts. But historically, prolific receivers who don't return kicks are inevitably overshadowed by the quarterback who's racking up big numbers throwing not only to them but to every other receiver. Few QBs put up bigger numbers last year than Weeden, who flew under the radar but should have more than enough profile to emerge as the face of an Oklahoma State title run.
And that's pretty much it. Kellen Moore? Unless he turns in a ridiculous effort against Georgia to start the season and Boise State's playing in the BCS title game to finish it, no. Marcus Lattimore? Unless he approaches 2,000-plus total yards for the surprise SEC champion, no. Denard Robinson? In a new, far less stat-friendly system, on a rebuilding team that lacks serious BCS ambitions? No. Baylor quarterback Ryan Griffin? On a team that's going to struggle again to break even with a bowl bid? No. Justin Blackmon? Unless his quota of eye-popping, acrobatic catches climbs into Larry Fitzgerald territory (and/or he adds big plays as a runner or return man), no. Ryan Broyles? Alshon Jeffery? Ditto.
All are good candidates to make it to New York as finalists, and the emergence of a darkhorse or two on a surprise contender (see: Mark Ingram and Cam Newton the last two years) is always a given. But the winner will almost certainly come from a contender, and if you're putting down money today, in mid-June, the disconnect between what the award says it is and what it actually is renders most of the hype wishful thinking before a ball is even snapped.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.