While every college football fan takes great interest in which teams are in position to play for the National Championship over the course of the season, an individual award often takes precedent over the BCS polls.
That award, of course, is the Heisman Trophy.
Almost certainly the most famous individual trophy in all of sports, the Heisman has a rich history that can be traced back to 1935 when Jay Berwanger became the first player to win the award. One benefit of the Heisman’s lineage is that it allows prognosticators to make predictions based on trends that have developed over the life of the award.
For instance, since 1973, only three players at a position other than quarterback or running back have won the Heisman—those players being cornerback Charles Woodson, wide receiver Desmond Howard and wide receiver Tim Brown. Also, for most of the past decade-plus, the Heisman winner has come from a team that played for or was in contention for the National Championship.
This automatically makes star quarterbacks and running backs on highly-ranked teams the favorites to take home the Heisman. While it’s unlikely a player from an alternative position would win the award, they can’t be dismissed altogether, especially since a couple rare talents exist at wide receiver this season.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 Heisman Trophy candidates for the 2011 college football season.
With no wide receiver having won the Heisman since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991, the odds are obviously stacked against Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles.
Despite that fact, Broyles does have plenty going for him, which should allow him to at least insert himself in the Heisman conversation.
First and foremost, Broyles will be playing on an Oklahoma team that is among the favorites to compete for the National Championship. He also has an excellent rapport with quarterback Landry Jones, who is entering his junior year and coming off a season in which he threw for a near-school record 4,718 yards. Broyles is entering his senior season in his own right, and he has shown marked improvements in each of his three seasons at Oklahoma.
It may be difficult for Broyles to better his 2010 accomplishments that included 131 receptions, 1,622 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns, but if he does, he will undoubtedly be in the Heisman conversation.
The loss of leading rusher DeMarco Murray could affect Broyles in one of two ways.
The lack of a proven back may cause the Sooners to sling the ball around the field, allowing Broyles to explode. It could also cause opposing defenses to shift their focus to Broyles.
The more likely scenario is probably the former, though.
A recent similarity among many Heisman-winning quarterbacks is that they possess the ability to run and put up points using their legs rather than their arm. Three of the past four quarterbacks to win the award (Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Troy Smith) were more highly touted for their rushing ability than their passing.
A perfect example of that type of quarterback is Michigan’s Denard Robinson.
Robinson burst onto the scene last season as a sophomore after receiving a scarce amount of playing time as a freshman. He wrestled the starting job away from Tate Forcier and made the most of it. Not only did he pass for more than 2,500 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he also accounted for 1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
Although Robinson is perfectly capable of putting up Heisman-caliber numbers, the main thing working against him is the projected performance of his team as a whole. The Wolverine defense was absolutely awful last season and was the main culprit in limiting Michigan to a 7-6 record.
With the defensive unit unlikely to make huge strides this season, expectations have to be tempered with regards to the team’s overall record. Robinson will be in the running, but the deficiencies of his teammates will prevent him from taking home the Heisman.
With Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon running rampant at Boone Pickens Stadium over the past couple seasons, Oklahoma State University has become a factory capable of producing elite-level wide receivers.
In a Big 12 Conference that features plenty of pass-heavy offenses, Blackmon should be able to shine once again in 2011.
At 6'1" and 207 lbs., Blackmon is a physical specimen capable of manhandling most of the nation’s top corners. In offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense last season, Blackmon was able to use his size and speed to get open often and decimate opposing defenses. Although Blackmon was virtually a non-factor during his freshman year in 2009, he was indispensable to the Cowboys in 2010 as he racked up 111 receptions, 1,782 yards and a whopping 21 total touchdowns.
With Holgorsen’s departure to West Virginia, there will be a feeling-out process for the Oklahoma State offense. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken should be able to transition smoothly though, as he coached the receivers at Oklahoma State from 2002 to 2004.
Regardless, the Cowboys will certainly be committed to the passing game, as Blackmon will be the focal point of the offense and quarterback Brandon Weeden will be entering his senior season.
With all those factors in place, Blackmon will certainly be the best hope for a non-quarterback or running back to win the Heisman this season.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2010, Darron Thomas came out of nowhere to lead the Oregon Ducks to an undefeated regular season and the National Championship game.
Although the Ducks suffered a narrow defeat to the Auburn Tigers, the big-game experience stands to benefit Thomas and his teammates quite well in 2011.
Taking over the starting role after Jeremiah Masoli was dismissed from the team, Thomas orchestrated an Oregon offense that failed to score at least 37 points just once during the entire regular season. Not only was Thomas effective through the air, passing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns, but his speed also helped make the Ducks’ spread option lethal. When running back LaMichael James wasn’t carving up defenses on the ground, Thomas was, to the tune of 486 yards and five touchdowns.
While Thomas may not be as effective a runner as Michigan’s Denard Robinson, he is probably the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback due to his superior efficiency in the passing game, along with his active legs. The graduation of Thomas’ top receiver, Jeff Maehl, will mean the Oregon offense will need to make some adjustments, but much of what the Ducks do is based upon their system rather than their personnel.
If Oregon’s offense picks up where it left off last season, the Ducks will once again be in the national title hunt, and Thomas will be among the top Heisman candidates.
A model of consistency, Kellen Moore has led the BCS-busting Boise State Broncos the past three seasons and is poised to have his best season yet in 2011.
The lefty has put up mind-boggling numbers in his collegiate career, including 129 passing touchdowns, as opposed to just 19 interceptions. As the fourth-place finisher in Heisman voting last season, Moore is also quite familiar to the voters.
Perhaps Moore’s biggest obstacle to winning the Heisman is the perception that he is playing against inferior competition. A move to the Mountain West Conference may quell those accusations a bit, but the Broncos will likely always be attached to that stigma. Boise State will have tough games against Georgia, Tulsa and TCU (among others), but unless the Broncos go undefeated, Moore will likely have no chance at the award.
Moore will also have to adjust to the loss of his top two receivers, Austin Pettis and Titus Young. While both of them are certainly talented players, Moore should be able to push on without them due to his penchant for spreading the ball around and getting multiple players involved. If he continues on his upward trend, there is a chance he could top 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Keep in mind though that no non-BCS player has won the Heisman since BYU quarterback Ty Detmer in 1990.
With Mark Ingram moving on to play for the New Orleans Saints in the NFL, Trent Richardson will finally get the opportunity to shine as Alabama’s feature back.
Although Richardson has been overshadowed by Ingram to this point in his collegiate career, he has quietly put up monster numbers as a complementary back the past two seasons.
Last year in particular, Richardson averaged an incredible 6.3 yards per carry on 112 totes. He also found pay-dirt six times on the ground. Additionally, Richardson became a credible receiving threat out of the backfield with 23 grabs, 266 yards and four touchdowns.
While Ingram was more of a power back, Richardson is an explosive player who is capable of hitting a proverbial home run every time he touches the ball. In fact, many experts consider Richardson to be a better all-around back than Ingram, who happened to win the Heisman in 2009.
Despite Richardson’s immense talent, there is no guarantee he will be able to transition smoothly into a feature role.
One of biggest reasons for Richardson’s success over the past couple seasons was the fact that the contrast in styles between he and Ingram kept opposing defenses off balance. And speaking of balance, the Tide may have to rely even more heavily on the running game this season due to the graduation of quarterback Greg McElroy.
Sophomore A.J. McCarron is expected to step in under center, but because he is unproven, the opposition may feel comfortable keying on Richardson. If McCarron can settle in though, Richardson could become the second Alabama back in three seasons to take home the hardware.
If you’re searching for a dark-horse Heisman candidate, look no further than Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Weeden’s story is an interesting one, and would probably make him a sentimental favorite among Heisman voters.
Out of high school, Weeden was selected by the New York Yankees in the MLB Draft. After toiling in a few minor league systems, he suffered an arm injury that compromised his ability to pitch. Because of that, he decided to attend Oklahoma State University and play quarterback.
Weeden played sparingly his first two seasons, but he exploded as a junior in 2010 while playing in the Cowboys' spread offense.
Weeden completed nearly 67 percent of his whopping 511 passes last season to the tune of 4,277 yards and 34 touchdowns. As previously mentioned, offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen’s departure is something the Oklahoma State offense as a whole will have to overcome. Considering how mature Weeden is (he’ll turn 28 in October) though, he should have no trouble getting his teammates to rally around him.
Although it won’t be easy for the Cowboys to run through the Big 12, there is a very real possibility they could meet the Oklahoma Sooners on Dec. 3 in a battle of the unbeaten. If Oklahoma State comes out on top, they could be playing for the National Championship, and Weeden could assert himself as the Heisman favorite.
Last year’s third-place finisher in the Heisman voting, Oregon running back LaMichael James will undoubtedly be among the favorites again in 2011.
The main thing James has going for him is his consistent production. Not only did he rush for more than 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2009, but he built upon that with 1,731 yards and 24 total touchdowns last season.
While the Ducks’ offense lost some linemen and receivers to graduation, James should benefit from the continuity he’ll have with quarterback Darron Thomas.
James and Thomas are the ones who essentially make the spread option go, after all.
Due to the loss of top receiver Jeff Maehl, the Ducks may focus on running the ball even more than they did last season. This is good news for James as he can expect a heavy workload. Even if defenses focus more on the running game, there isn’t much they can do to stop it due to James’ supreme skill and the deception of the spread option.
While the Ducks are certainly among the favorites to compete for the National Championship, they will have a tough road if they want to get back to the title game.
Oregon will play another top contender in LSU on opening night. If Oregon loses that game, they’ll likely be playing catch-up the remainder of the season.
Playing for the national title isn’t necessarily a must if James is to win the Heisman, but as discussed earlier, it seems to be a trend among recent Heisman winners that is picking up plenty of steam.
If James and the Ducks can survive LSU and late-season tests against Stanford and USC, James could become the first Oregon Duck to win the Heisman Trophy.
Perhaps the biggest thing Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck has going for him in his pursuit of the Heisman Trophy is preseason hype.
It’s difficult for a player to a win the Heisman if they aren’t well-known prior to the season because it often takes voters a long time before they take notice. That certainly won’t be an issue with Luck though, as he turned down a surefire shot at becoming the top pick in the 2011 NFL Draft to return to Stanford for his senior season.
Luck made a huge jump in 2010, completing an insane 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,338 yards and 32 touchdowns with just eight picks. Luck also did plenty of damage on the ground, rushing for 453 yards and three scores.
Keeping in mind the impact running quarterbacks have made on the Heisman voters in recent years, Luck should certainly stand out from the crowd. When looking at his overall game, it’s hard to argue the fact that Luck is the most complete quarterback in the nation.
Not everything is in Luck’s favor heading into 2011 though.
For starters, head coach Jim Harbaugh has moved on to the NFL to coach the San Francisco 49ers. This certainly leaves a leadership void among the Cardinal, as Harbaugh was considered one of the best coaches in the country.
Luckily for Luck (no pun intended) and the rest of the Cardinal offense, offensive coordinator David Shaw is taking over as the head man at Stanford. Because of this, little should change in terms of the offensive game plan, which means Luck shouldn’t miss a beat.
Although the Pac-12 will be difficult to get through with Oregon and USC posing stiff challenges, Luck should be heavily in the Heisman picture due to his reputation and ever-improving skill set.
As the star quarterback on perhaps the National Championship favorite, Landry Jones may very well be in the driver’s seat in terms of the Heisman race.
As good as he was as a freshman in 2009, Jones made massive strides in 2010. Not only did he improve his completion percentage to more than 65 percent, but he also threw for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns, as opposed to just 12 interceptions.
The Sooners are returning nine starters on offense in 2011, which should ensure they remain among the elite offenses in the country. The loss of running back DeMarco Murray may put more pressure on Jones and the passing game, but after throwing the ball 617 times last season, it’s clear Jones can handle a heavy workload.
Also, his top receiver Ryan Broyles will be back for his senior season, so Jones shouldn’t miss a beat.
While the Big 12 is never easy to get through, it may be weaker in 2011 than it has been in recent memory. Not only did Nebraska make the jump to the Big Ten, but Oklahoma’s main rival, Texas, is in a bit of a rebuild.
If the Sooners can get past Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, an undefeated season and a spot in the national title game is almost a guarantee. And if Jones’ natural progression continues, he has a realistic shot at 5,000 yards passing and more than 40 touchdowns, which are certainly Heisman-caliber numbers.