2012 Heisman Trophy: The 7 Most Important Games That Will Determine the Winner

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2012

2012 Heisman Trophy: The 7 Most Important Games That Will Determine the Winner

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    The Heisman Trophy is college football's top individual prize, and the race to win it begins almost before the first kickoff of a new season.

    Already we're talking about the top contenders for the award, but in the end, it comes down to performance on the field of play.

    With so much focus lately on the “Heisman moment” for each potential winner, we decided to take a look at the biggest games of the season for some of the contenders—games that could turn out to contain that “Heisman moment.”

    Here are the seven most important games in the race for the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

Michigan vs. Alabama

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    We open the season—and the Heisman Trophy race—with a humdinger.

    Easily the top game of Week 1 will be the neutral-site meeting between the resurgent Michigan Wolverines and the defending BCS champion Alabama Crimson Tide at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

    While Alabama doesn't have any Heisman front-runners that we currently know of, that doesn't mean one won't emerge at some point during the season.

    After all, if you recall 2010, no one was talking about Auburn's Cam Newton in June.

    With the talent that Nick Saban attracts and retains in Tuscaloosa, don't be surprised if there's a Crimson Tide player rising up the Heisman watch list at some point in 2012.

    What better way to get that Heisman campaign under way than with a dynamite performance against a better-than-you-think Michigan squad?

    As for the Wolverines, the easy Heisman selection is Denard Robinson.

    Over the past few years, he has begun the season at or near the top of many Heisman hopeful lists. He has amazing speed, amazing agility, amazing run vision, amazing escapability, amazing...OK, we get the idea.

    But the thing that has kept him from ever really being a late-season contender for the Heisman Trophy has been his definite lack of true quarterbacking ability.

    He don't possess tremendous (or even above-average) arm strength, and his throwing accuracy leaves much to be desired.

    If Robinson can somehow figure out a way to become a serviceable passing quarterback, his chances at taking home the hardware from New York increase dramatically.

    We'll know right out of the gate if he's done that when he faces a staunch Alabama defense.

Oregon at USC

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    Isn't it great that we won't have to wait until December to see if the Ducks can hang on to the throne in the Pac-12?

    While USC was the dominant power in the conference for what seemed like forever, Oregon has emerged recently as the team to beat out west.

    After three successive BCS game appearances, Oregon will now have to contend with a USC team that's finished with its postseason ban—and very, very hungry.

    On top of that, USC has an early Heisman favorite taking the snaps.

    The prospects for the Trojans in 2012 got a huge shot in the arm when Matt Barkley decided to forgo his first season in the NFL to return to Southern California for his senior campaign.

    Now, we could insert your favorite “not willing to take the pay cut” joke here, but it's entirely possible Barkley is focused on being the catalyst for the re-emergence of the Trojans as a national power.

    There's no question that Barkley was good last season. With more experience—not to mention something meaningful to play for this season—it's entirely possible Barkley could lead his team back to the BCS, with a side trip to New York on the way.

Michigan State at Wisconsin

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    Sorry Sparty, but we're going with Wisconsin in this year's October 27 showdown in Madison.

    Not only is Wisconsin due for a regular-season win over Michigan State, but MSU probably suffered as much as any team in the nation this season when it comes to talent depletion.

    While Mark Dantonio may be able to reload his Spartans, the fact still remains that MSU will be losing a lot in terms of experience and leadership—two things that aren't easily replaced overnight.

    Wisconsin, on the other hand, returns Heisman hopeful Montee Ball.

    This senior ball-carrier is the quintessential Big Ten running back; he's tough, he's strong and he's very difficult to bring down.

    Wisconsin has won a share of two straight Big Ten titles (sharing it with MSU in 2010 and beating MSU in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in 2011) but has fallen short in each resulting Rose Bowl game (losing to TCU in 2011 and Oregon in 2012).

    The Badgers need to shake off that specter of “almost but not quite” when it comes to recognition as a national power. If Ball can propel his team to not only a third consecutive Big Ten title but also a long-awaited BCS bowl victory, Wisconsin may finally be able to say it has arrived.

    And Ball might be able to bring home the program's third Heisman Trophy.

Notre Dame at Oklahoma

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    Last season, Oklahoma's Landry Jones began the year on a lot of Heisman watch lists.

    But after a few midseason letdowns, he quickly became irrelevant in the realistic talk about the Heisman Trophy.

    This season, Jones is back in Norman with the primary goal of recapturing the Big 12 title—and accompanying BCS berth—for the Sooners.

    If he's successful in doing so, he may find an invitation to New York as a side effect.

    Oklahoma hosts Notre Dame on October 27—about the same time of the year when OU ran into real trouble in 2011—giving Jones an opportunity to showcase his abilities to a national audience and against a program that is touted to be improving year over year.

    This late in the season, we'll know a lot about Jones—and Notre Dame—and should have a better handle on exactly what a top-tier performance would mean, but right now this game is shaping up to be a dandy.

    Before you go thinking we're not giving Notre Dame its due attention, we'll throw in a brief mention about the Irish.

    While there are plenty of good players for Brian Kelly, there is as yet no single star we can point to as a legit Heisman candidate. Defensive stars like Manti Te'o would need crazy-good seasons to come within spitting distance of the trophy, and that's just not likely to happen with Notre Dame's tough schedule in 2012.

    It's also not insane to think that an offensive star—perhaps an improved, matured Tommy Rees?—could surprise everyone and find his name added to a late-season short list.

    If said surprising player had a solid season leading up to a stellar performance against a top team like Oklahoma, it's entirely possible we could finally see a Notre Dame player back on the list of Heisman hopefuls come November.

Oklahoma at West Virginia

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    We're back with Oklahoma, but this time the Sooners will be on the road visiting Big 12 newcomer West Virginia.

    This game will feature easily the two best quarterbacks in the conference—the aforementioned Landry Jones from Oklahoma and West Virginia's Geno Smith.

    Both players appear on Bankroll Sports Picks' blog of Heisman odds' top five (Jones at 6-1 is fourth, Smith at 7-1 is fifth), and both have a solid shot of winning the Heisman if they can guide their team to the Big 12 title.

    The odds of winning that Big 12 title improve dramatically with whichever team wins this game. And the chances of winning this game improve dramatically with whichever quarterback has a stellar game.

    Ergo, winning this contest with a stellar game dramatically improves the chances of that quarterback of winning the Heisman Trophy.

    Simple, eh?

South Carolina at Clemson

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    Clemson surprised everyone last season with its amazing 8-0 start.

    The Tigers again surprised the nation by collapsing against what seemed to be an overmatched West Virginia team out of the overmatched Big East in the 2012 Orange Bowl.

    But it's a new season, and the slates are wiped clean for everyone.

    This year, however, Clemson won't be sneaking up on anyone, and the Tigers should be prepared to get the best effort from every team they face in 2012.

    While it's not impossible for a sophomore to win the Heisman, it's still an unlikely prospect. That being said, Clemson's best hope for a major individual trophy in 2012 is sophomore wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

    As a freshman, he showed an amazing ability not only to catch the ball, but to pick up extra yardage once he did.

    His continued growth under the tutelage of Dabo Swinney is certain to lead to bigger and better things, not only for Watkins, but for the Tigers as a whole.

    It might be too soon to hope for a Heisman for Watkins, but a strong 2012 could earn a ticket to New York in December, setting him up for a possible win in 2013. Who knows? A highlight-reel season finale against what should be a very good South Carolina team could provide him a few extra votes needed this season...

    Realistically, though, it's a certain someone from South Carolina who has a better chance of winning the coveted posed sculpture of Ed Smith (not John Heisman, as is popularly thought).

    Last season we were robbed of what could have been one of the truly great performances by an underclassman when South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore succumbed to a season-ending knee injury.

    The whole nation was prepared to watch Lattimore catapult the Gamecocks back to an SEC championship game berth and possible BCS game invite. Instead, we had to put our expectations on hold for a year while Lattimore rested and recovered.

    Now, with everything appearing just as it did prior to last season, our hopes are rising again for a once-in-a-decade kind of performance from the junior Lattimore. Staying healthy is obviously going to be his primary concern in 2012, but if that happens, you can bet that the Gamecocks' running game will get a huge shot in the arm.

    The East Division is likely to come down to South Carolina and Georgia this season, and with the Gamecocks avoiding cross-divisional foes like Alabama, Texas A&M and Auburn, the game against in-state rival Clemson could turn into one of the biggest regular-season tests Lattimore and the Gamecocks will face this season.

    A season finale also has the advantage of remaining fresh in voters' minds when it's time to cast those ballots, and a big game by Lattimore could weigh heavily on those decisions.

Alabama at LSU

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    After last season, is there really another SEC game that's more important in 2012?

    Alabama appears on our list for the second time, this time against LSU. While we've already talked about the preseason absence of any Crimson Tide players on Heisman watch lists, we can't discount the possibility that by November 3, there could be a little Alabama flavor to the collection of Heisman hopefuls.

    LSU, for its part, actually has a Heisman finalist returning for 2012. While Tyrann Mathieu failed to take home the award in 2011, he's sure to be a big name to watch this season.

    While only one defensive player has ever won the award, it's worth noting that it was Charles Woodson's (CB, Michigan, 1997) amazing success at returning kicks that probably gave him the final edge in beating out Peyton Manning for the 1997 Heisman Trophy.

    If LSU hopes to repeat as SEC champions in 2012 and return to the BCS National Championship Game, it will need to rely on big-game performances from every star on the roster—including Mathieu.