His Heisman form could use work, but that's what senior seasons are for.
Make no mistake: Denard Robinson is a Heisman Trophy contender this year. He's arguably the most recognizable face in the Big Ten, especially after his speech at the B1G Kickoff Luncheon last week. He's one of the few players in the game who can take over an entire offense by himself. And here, in his senior year, he's being lauded by coaches as someone who's taking the necessary steps to become a leader of the team.
We set out some end goals for Robinson's Heisman candidacy in June, but let's take a look at what a Denard Robinson Heisman-winning season would actually look like, week in and week out, and what weekly benchmarks are most important as the season goes along.
So step into our time machine and ride with us through the 2012 season. Yes, we have a time machine. Don't ask questions, just get in.
It may be too tall a task to ask Denard Robinson and Michigan to beat Alabama in Week 1. The Crimson Tide lost plenty of high-level talent to the NFL Draft, but we're still talking about the defending national champion here—and far away from the friendly confines of the Big House, to boot.
All the same, if Robinson wants to begin making his case as being the best player in the nation, he can start with keeping Michigan in this game by making big plays, limiting mistakes, gaining a minimum of 300 yards of total offense (and not those sad garbage time yards, either), and generally making Alabama and its fans nervous about the possibility that yeah, this guy might take down the Tide single-handedly. Or double-footedly... you know what we mean.
Necessity: 7 out of 10. Heisman Trophies are rarely lost in Week 1, especially if the initial disappointment leads to the narrative of redemption with big games in November. Still, if Bama makes Robinson look pedestrian, he's going to need a mammoth year to get back in the collective football consciousness.
Denard Robinson averaged 474 yards of total offense against Notre Dame in his two career starts. Those games have been his best and fourth-best total offense totals of his entire career, and if Robinson wants to make it three of his top five this time around, well, that'd be welcome.
Notre Dame's defense isn't the pitiful collection of traffic cones and folding chairs that it was in 2010, but it's still one that Robinson has had no trouble in slicing through in years past.
So maybe Robinson doesn't put up over 500 yards against the Irish this go-around. At the very least, it's unlikely that he'll have 40 passes and 28 rushes to get there, as he did in 2010. But at least three total touchdowns? At least 400 total yards? Those need to be his baselines for performance this year.
Necessity: 8/10. If Robinson goes for 450 yards and only two scores—or he helps the Wolverines put up more than 40 points but only manages 350 yards—then the sun's not going to set on his campaign. But voters love big-name games, and voters love Notre Dame. Robinson won't be handed opportunities to wow the public like this very often.
The Heisman voters may be wowed and swayed by big games, but only incrementally so; the reality is, overall season stats matter, and they matter a lot. It's weird to think of something as complex as identifying the best player in the nation coming down to essentially a fantasy football competition with a win/loss bias, but look back at the last 15 years or so and try to come up with a different conclusion.
Thus, this meat of the Big Ten schedule has to be where Denard Robinson shows up week in and week out, and puts together big numbers and big wins. They don't have to be amazing stats by any stretch, but he needs to establish a better baseline of performance than 258 total yards per game (his 2011 average) and roughly 2.8 touchdowns per game. If he's rushing for 90 yards a pop and throwing for about 200 more, that's a significant bump in overall production—and more touchdowns should ensue.
Moreover, the schedule is challenging, but eminently reasonable. The only road game that looks like a major challenge before the season finale is a trip to Nebraska, and Michigan rolled the Huskers last year. Michigan State and Iowa should be full four-quarter games in Ann Arbor, but if Robinson is a Heisman-worthy quarterback, Michigan wins both of those games.
Necessity: 9/10. Robinson can't lay more than one egg in Big Ten play, and even then that'd be a problem for his Heisman campaign. The wins and losses are going to matter a lot too, and they'll determine how much leeway Robinson has on the statistical front.
The crowd will be much surlier in 2012 should Michigan win this game again.
This is the Big Ten season finale, and for postseason-ineligible Ohio State it's the Super Bowl. Michigan comes to Columbus fresh off its first win in the rivalry in nearly a decade, and the Buckeyes are going to be aching for revenge. And Urban Meyer's more than smart enough to know that that revenge starts by stopping Denard Robinson.
Here, in this game, stats become almost irrelevant. Voters are going to want to see Robinson do whatever it takes to just get the win. Obviously if he rolls up 400 yards and four scores in the process so much the better, and that'll send his Heisman credentials into the stratosphere. But that's straining plausibility, and it's really not a hurdle Robinson needs to clear. There are no style points necessary in winning at Ohio State. You do that, and you're a Michigan hero, period. And Heisman voters will know that.
Necessity: 10/10. This is going to be Michigan's last game of the regular season. Even in the unlikely event that the Wolverines have the Legends Division title all wrapped up beforehand, if Robinson and the Wolverines blow this one, it'll essentially be a death blow to Robinson's Heisman hopes. If you're a Michigan player and you want the Heisman Trophy, you beat Ohio State.
Wisconsin players with roses in their mouths? Real original.
If Michigan beats Ohio State and more or less handles the rest of its Big Ten competition, a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship will likely be in the offing. Barring something amazing in the Leaders Division, that's going to be a game against a Wisconsin team looking for its third consecutive Rose Bowl.
So if we're tying this storybook regular season up with a nice little bow, unseating the mighty Badgers from the throne of the Big Ten would be a perfect way to finish things off for Denard Robinson. Some big stats here would help—and it's not as if Wisconsin has the stingiest defense in the Big Ten this year.
Necessity: 7/10. Robinson's resume is going to be pretty well set at this point, for better or worse, and while it'd absolutely be nice if he electrified Indianapolis en route to securing a spot in Pasadena (if not the BCS Championship) for Michigan, it's not the end-all, be-all here.
Moreover, suppose Michigan goes 11-1 (7-1) in the regular season but loses out on the Leaders Division title to Nebraska or Michigan State on a tiebreaker. Exclusion from the Big Ten Championship doesn't do Robinson any favors, but none of the top three vote-getters in the 2011 Heisman race were conference champions.
A sword accident is not out of the question.
Here's where we acknowledge one crucial piece of context: this is almost certainly going to be Matt Barkley's Heisman Trophy, and the voting probably won't be close.
Barkley's throwing to the best wideout tandem in the nation (and perhaps the two individual best wideouts, at that) in Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. His offensive line is loaded, despite losing Matt Kalil. He just added Silas Redd to his backfield with the explosive Curtis McNeal. The points and production are coming to the Coliseum in a big, big way.
So really, Robinson probably needs disaster to befall Barkley. We're talking both arms completely incapacitated or destroyed, because as the Orange County Register notes, Barkley has experience throwing lefty—and he could still probably get 30 touchdowns that way, with those receivers.
We don't wish lasting harm or agony on Barkley, of course; we envision a very near future where he gets some bionic arms after the season and goes on to be the first, best and richest cyborg QB in NFL history. But if all that seems outlandish, well, so does the idea of Denard Robinson out-producing a healthy Matt Barkley. Sorry!
Necessity: 10/10. Seriously, it's nearly unfathomable that Barkley regresses out of Heisman contention while healthy.