2012 Heisman Race: Key Matchups That Could Kill Each Candidate's Hopes

Joye PruittSenior Analyst IAugust 27, 2012

2012 Heisman Race: Key Matchups That Could Kill Each Candidate's Hopes

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    USC’s Matt Barkley is one of five serious Heisman contenders who have no shortage of teams on their schedule looking to keep them from winning the award.

    Each contender has games that are virtually must-wins for his Heisman candidacy, no matter how early those competitions may be.

    The greatest player excels all season, not just at the end.

    Here are key matchups that could crown or dethrone each Heisman candidate in 2012. 

Matt Barkley vs. Stanford

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    A two-year bowl ban did not keep Matt Barkley from becoming one of the most talked-about college quarterbacks last season. And emerging from the punishment, Barkley has become one of the most complete and coveted quarterbacks in 2012.

    Still, the battle is far from won.

    With Andrew Luck, Stanford outlasted USC in triple overtime a year ago. Without Luck, the Cardinal will still be a stern test.

    In last year's thriller, the Stanford defense forced USC RB Curtis McNeal to fumble to end the game after a go-ahead score from Cardinal RB Stephan Taylor, both of whom are returning.

    Levine Toilolo, the huge tight end for Stanford, is also back after a 25-reception, 343-yard season. Tyler Gaffney, a running and short-yardage receiving threat, will also be back in the Cardinal offense.

    A weaker Stanford offense would be good news for the Trojans if their defense was as talented as their offense.

    Unfortunately, it’s not.

    There is a lack of depth, especially in the front four, and it has yet to be seen if their defensive line is good enough to make USC a contender for a national title.

    Barkley’s chances in this game will depend on his performance and the efforts of that defensive line. If he missteps against a Luck-less Stanford team, it could kill his Heisman and BCS championship dreams.

Matt Barkley vs. Oregon Offense

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    No Darron Thomas. No LaMichael James. But the Oregon Ducks have Marcus Mariota replacing Thomas at quarterback, and Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas filling in for James at running back.

    Not impressed? You shouldn’t be. Those are big shoes to fill, but with head coach Chip Kelly at the helm, is there any doubt that they’ll be ready for one of the more important games of the season?

    Sophomore Bryan Bennett may have been the assumed heir to the starting quarterback position when Thomas left Oregon.

    But Mariota’s ability to win the starting job should say a lot about where he is as a freshman and where he has the potential to be by the end of the season. Being endorsed by Don James and CBSsports.com  writer Chris Huston is only the start of the praises raining down on Mariota, and rightfully so.

    Not only is he ahead of the curve in the pocket, but he possesses that overlooked ability to make plays on his feet. Sure, Bennett is more experienced, but Mariota has more potential.

    The USC defensive crew will still have its hands full with Oregon’s running attack and the spread-option system that the Ducks have come to favor.

    What’s lost in the praise for Mariota and Oregon’s running backs is the Ducks' depth on the defensive line. A fast-paced Ducks’ team stands to lose without a fresh front four.

    But that’s not a problem for Oregon. The line has the ability to absorb the blocks of any team’s offensive line and allow its linebackers to make plays on the ball.

    This will be a very interesting game.

    If Barkley were to lose to Oregon and its rookie QB, he surely would lose a few key votes in the Heisman race.

Denard Robinson vs. Alabama's Defense

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    Quarterback Denard Robinson is a dark horse to win the Heisman, even with all of his pretty statistics.

    The problem with his play a year ago may rear its ugly head again this year. After superior performances in the first half of the season, Robinson collapsed and made key blunders that proved there are certain demons the QB can’t exorcise.

    The scheduling of Alabama at the beginning of the season may be his demise, as Alabama’s defense is a lot to handle for even a dual-threat quarterback.

    Robinson has the agility and elusiveness to make plays with his feet and buy time in the pocket, but his lack of size will hurt him in this game. Not to mention that Robinson’s arm has the potential to be pretty erratic, especially when desperation is lurking.

    This game just isn’t dependant on Robinson, although fans may be a lot more confident if it were. The Michigan secondary, offensive line and front four will have a large say in whether he walks away with a win.

    The depth on the offensive line is questionable and one of Michigan’s key weapons on offense, Fitzgerald Toussaint, is not even completely cleared to play for the season opener.

    The Crimson Tide has four returning starters on an offensive line that was one of the best in the country last season. They also have a possible Heisman candidate in A.J. McCarron at quarterback, break-out potential in Eddie Lacy at running back and safety Robert Lester in Alabama’s defensive backfield.

    The game will by no means be an easy win by either program. Robinson will have his hands full against a stacked Alabama defense.

    Update: Previously suspended Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint was reportedly listed as the starting running back for the Wolverines' Week One game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. However, due to a subsequent conference by coach Brady Hoke, Toussaint's status for the game is still up in the air, leaving more questions than answers. 

Denard Robinson vs. Michigan State's Defense

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    It wouldn’t just be a punch to his Heisman candidacy, but a complete unraveling of Denard Robinson’s ego if he leaves Michigan without beating MSU at least once.

    In the three years that Robinson has played for Michigan, he has not been able to dethrone State. This season it would appear the Wolverines have a better chance.

    However, what is predetermined on paper rarely affects what happens on the field. The Spartans’ defense is built to dismantle Michigan.

    MSU lost a lot of its key components such as Kirk Cousins, B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin and Jerel Worthy, but its team has not been completely dissembled.

    Eight starters return on defense, led by DE William Gholston, DE Marcus Rush, LB Denicos Allen and shutdown CB Johnny Adams. That’s just scratching the surface. State’s defense is stacked.

    The Wolverines are probably going to rely on Robinson more for his abilities in the pocket than in the run game against MSU, which has a strong front four and excellent linebackers. But then, MSU's secondary is just as lethal.

    On offense, MSU will start a rookie quarterback and an inexperienced receiving corps. But outside of Roy Roundtree, the Wolverines’ receiving corps isn’t that experienced either.

    State is also going to emphasize its running game, led by Le’Veon Bell and third-down specialist Larry Caper. Michigan’s defense is solid, but its defensive line isn’t proven.

    It would be a hard to argue that Robinson is the best college football player in the country if he can’t even overcome an in-state hurdle.

Montee Ball vs. MSU Defense and Le'Veon Bell

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    Montee Ball is entering the 2012 season without quarterback Russell Wilson to share the load in the Wisconsin offense. That could help his Heisman candidacy if the Badgers succeed, or hurt it if they fail.

    If all things go according to plan, Ball will once again be a Heisman finalist on a Big Ten championship team.

    However, Michigan State’s defense will be a major hurdle. The Badgers and Spartans have developed a fierce rivalry in recent years, and this game will be no less hard-hitting than its predecessors.

    Ball has to expect that he will be the primary target of a defensive attack from State.

    The scary part of it is that even while focusing on making the Heisman candidate a priority, the Spartans’ defense is deep enough to leave its secondary as lone wolves in the defensive backfield. Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard are premiere shutdown corners, and Isaiah Lewis will have no problem manning the safety position as effectively as he did last season.

    So, we’re talking about a team that can stack the tackle box and still have playmakers defend passes and possibly make interceptions.

    The Badgers aren’t scrubs, but they have a new quarterback in Danny O’Brien. He is a transfer out of the ACC, just as Wilson was, but he does not have the physical tools to be as effective as Wilson on the run.

    That’s not to say that O’Brien can’t make something out of nothing. That is an ability that most-impressed coach Bret Bielema and likely won him the position over senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave.

    It’s going to take a lot of scrambling to consistently make plays against State’s strong defensive line and linebacker corps. Plus, Michigan State has its own Heisman candidate in Le'Veon Bell, who  became the Spartans’ go-to guy last season in the absence of Edwin Baker and will likely be leaned on much more because of MSU’s uncertain quarterback situation.

    If Ball allows Bell to snatch the attention from him in this game, it will be pretty difficult to make a case that he’s the best running back in college football, much less the best football player. 

Montee Ball vs. Nebraska's Revenge

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    The Nebraska Cornhuskers were ugly in last season’s game against Wisconsin.

    The game was a blowout by the second quarter, and Montee Ball’s four-touchdown performance was not lost on the Huskers.  Nebraska went into the game unprepared for the rushing attack or for Russell Wilson's ability to victimize their secondary through the air. It was an assassination.

    So, if we haven’t forgotten, what makes you think the Cornhuskers have?

    The revenge factor is often taken out of context and given far too much credit. But after being humiliated in a game where they were expected to put up some type of fight, the Cornhuskers will use all the bulletin board material they can.

    Assuming that Taylor Martinez will improve upon his puzzling and worrisome 56.3 percent completion rate while continuing to be a dual-threat quarterback, Nebraska isn’t going to roll over and play dead like in last season’s meeting.

    Neither will Nebraska’s defense.

    New defensive coordinator John Papuchis will likely be a bit more unpredictable than former coordinator Carl Pelini. Not to say Pelini wasn’t an amazing defensive coach, but mixing it up on third-down situations and taking a more aggressive approach with Nebraska’s front four will make for a more formidable defense.

    Concerning Ball, look for the Cornhuskers to take the MSU approach. If Nebraska can establish a dominant presence with its front four, it can rely on its linebackers to close the gaps when Ball tries to break free.

    That’s assuming everything goes according to plan.

    If Nebraska is able to slow the Wisconsin rushing attack, that would definitely dim Ball’s chances to impress Heisman voters.  

Landry Jones vs. Collin Klein

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    Landry Jones was a disappointment last season.

    He was an early Heisman favorite, but with mental lapses toward the end of the season, he fell out of contention for the award.

    When it came time to prove himself against ranked opponents like Oklahoma State and Baylor, teams with quarterbacks with Heisman aspirations of their own, he failed to do so, losing both games while being outperformed by his competitors.

    This season, Jones will face another QB with Heisman aspirations when Oklahoma plays Kansas State on Sept. 22. Collin Klein led the Wildcats to surprising heights last season, rushing for 27 touchdowns and passing for 13.

    A lot of analysts are warning Wildcats’ fans not to expect a repeat of 2011. But Klein and the Wildcats still pose a significant challenge for Jones and the Sooners.

    Playing against Klein early in the season is going to be pivotal for Jones. Though Heisman voters tend to be swayed more by late-season performances, a bad game by Jones could leave a bad taste in their mouths.

    This game isn’t much a battle of defenses, although Kansas State’s defense is returning four of its  most dominant defensive players from last season (MLB Arthur Brown, S Ty Zimmerman, DB Nigel Malone and DE Meshak Williams).

    Malone will undoubtedly make Jones think twice about passing on his side of the field, and Arthur Brown is a name mentioned with great respect in offensive huddles throughout the Big 12.

    Still, the spotlight will be on the quarterbacks. Jones should hope that he wins the battle. 

Landry Jones vs. Geno Smith

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    Landy Jones’ approach in this game will be similar to his against Kansas State.

    He will be facing another Heisman candidate in West Virginia's Geno Smith, who is more highly touted than Collin Klein and equally as dangerous as Jones through the air.

    Let’s not forget that Jones will be without leading receiver Ryan Broyles, who is now a member of the Detroit Lions.

    Broyles' injury contributed to the Sooners’ struggles on offense last season and adversely affected Jones' play as well.

    A bright spot for Oklahoma this season has been the improvement of Kenny Stills, though his silly personality remains. Stills has often been criticized for his lack of decorum and/or regard for how he is perceived.

    Smith can rely on Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, West Virginia’s top outside receiver, to put him in a better light.

    Both Bailey and Austin are proven products, with Austin being in a league of his own. When it comes  to deciding which quarterback will be more successful, you have to look at which QB has the most lethal weapons at his disposal. Smith has that war won by far.

    West Virginia lost four of its top-seven tacklers off a defense that allowed rushers to have a field day.

    The Mountaineers are looking to improve as a rushing offense, but there is no doubt that this game will be won in the air. 

Marcus Lattimore vs. LSU's Defense

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    Marcus Lattimore is back and he’s healthy, an announcement that is sure to elicit gasps from defensive fronts across the SEC.

    A lot of lists name South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw as a dark-horse Heisman candidate, but Lattimore is the more legitimate contender.

    The great thing about South Carolina is that the Gamecocks have a talented group of running backs, which for a lot of other teams could mean diminished production and recognition for Lattimore. But that likely won’t be the case with the high ceiling and never-ending mismatches he provides Steve Spurrier.

    Sure, Lattimore will have to share the carries, but his ability to stand out while sharing the ball will likely be what lands him at the Heisman ceremony.

    This is a game that the Gamecocks could lose, even though the LSU Tigers will be without their Honey Badger. The Tigers still have a great defensive unit that could make life incredibly hard for Lattimore and Shaw alike.

    LSU has Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery as speed pass-rushers at defensive end, not to mention LB Kevin Minter.

    Who’s Minter?

    A run-stuffing machine, that’s who he is. He’ll have an interesting day attempting to slow down Lattimore. This game is hard to predict. But the outcome probably will fall in Lattimore’s lap. It will be up to him to barrel through LSU’s defense the same way Trent Richardson did in Alabama's victory over LSU in the BCS championship game.

    For South Carolina, however, this game will come after a physical and emotional game against Georgia, and a back-to-back breakout performance may be a bit much to ask from Lattimore.

    Then again, maybe not.

Marcus Lattimore vs. Georgia

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    Oh! The much anticipated meeting between Aaron Murray and a Melvin Ingram-less South Carolina defense.

    In the SEC championship game against LSU, Georgia was exposed on special teams by Tyrann Mathieu and by a stout defense. With QB Murray and 10 returning starters from last year’s defense, things may go a little differently for the Bulldogs this season, especially against the Gamecocks.

    How Lattimore performs in this game against a defense that last year was referred to as '‘a bit raw’' may determine his standing as a Heisman candidate, or if he will even be mentioned at all.

    Assuming that both teams play as expected, Georgia and South Carolina will be battling for the lead in the SEC East in this game.

    South Carolina will likely be coming off an easy win against Kentucky, a team not known for its dominance in football.

    On paper, it would appear that the Bulldogs are built to beat the Gamecocks, but with a breakout game by Lattimore and an inspired performance by South Carolina’s secondary, anything is possible.