Heisman Watch 2011: 5 Dark Horses Shining Bright

Stix SymmondsCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2011

Heisman Watch 2011: 5 Dark Horses Shining Bright

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    The Heisman race heats up with every passing week and every explosive game. We know the frontrunners. Which dark horses might be making a case that they belong at the front of the pack?

    It seems every year that someone comes from nowhere to shake up the Heisman race a little.  I don't expect this year to be any different. 

    That's the angle to watch.  Who aren't we talking about that maybe we should?

    There aren't a ton of stats to go off of, but that's what makes this portion of the season so exciting.  What if these guys keep on their current track?  Could they (or should they) sneak in and make an interesting run at the biggest single-player trophy in America?

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Ray Graham, RB Pittsburgh

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    Coming into this week, Pittsburgh's Ray Graham was the leading rusher in the nation.  Sure, there's a lot of season left, and "leading" depends on which criteria you're specifically looking at. 

    Take a look at these numbers though.

    Ray carried the ball 57 times for 322 yards, averaged 5.65 yards per carry and had scored six touchdowns. At 161 yards per game, Graham was tops in the nation coming into this week, beating out San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman by eight yards per game.

    This week against Iowa, Ray carried the ball 22 more times for 97 yards. That's a shade under his average at 4.4 yards per carry, but Iowa typically has a strong run defense and Pitt was doing enough damage through the air that Ray didn't need to do a lot. 

    That is, until later in the game when the Hawkeyes were surging back from a 17-point deficit. 

    What hurts Graham the most, though, is that his team lost this week. The Panthers allowed Iowa to come back from a 27-10 score to pull out the victory 31-27.

    We all know how badly losses can hurt a Heisman chase, especially when those losses come to unranked opponents.

    Still, Graham has put up great numbers and—if you've seen him play you'd know—is an exceptionally exciting back.  If Pitt can pull out enough wins to offset this loss, Graham could or should be in the discussion.

Nick Foles, QB Arizona

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    Coming into this weekend, Nick Foles was the nation's leading passer. Yes, really.  Quit laughing.

    Prior to this weekend, Foles had completed 76.3 percent of his passes for 810 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.  At 405 yards-per-game average, Foles was a good 13 yards-per-game better than Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden.

    Foles has been a solid quarterback for Arizona for years now.  He's cool under pressure, accurate and exciting to watch.  As with Graham from Pitt, if only Arizona's team were a little better around him, we might hear more about Foles than we do.

    However, keep in mind that Michigan's Denard Robinson has been in the discussion early and yet Michigan hasn't won more than seven games in the last three years.  So, do losses really hurt that much?

    They have in the past, and the idea seems to be that if you're that good, you should be leading your team into BCS Bowls. 

    On that front, Arizona isn't looking great.  The Wildcats were embarrassed by Oklahoma State last week and have No. 6 Stanford on tap for later tonight.

    A great showing tonight could put Foles in the conversation.  A poor showing and any long-shot hope for Foles will disappear in a hot Arizona breeze.

Michael Dyer, RB Auburn

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    Michael Dyer is the man at Auburn.  Coming into this week's showdown with Clemson, Dyer had carried the ball 32 times for 207 yards, averaged 6.47 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns.

    Against Clemson, he added to those totals considerably.

    Dyer carried the ball just 16 times and picked up a sensational 149 yards and scored two touchdowns.  That puts his running total at 7.42 yards per carry and six touchdowns in three games.

    Dyer may get a little boost by the team he plays on.  I know, I've been harping on the fact that losses hurt Heisman hopes, but Dyer plays on a very visible team in Auburn.  As the defending national champions, the nation is still paying an awful lot of attention to what the Tigers are doing on the field.

    What they're doing is losing.  Their 38-24 drop to Clemson marks the first loss in the young 2011 season.  Heisman candidates are supposed to lead their team to greatness.

    However, sometimes that doesn't hold true.  When your team is as nationally known as Auburn, you can take a loss or two and still win a Heisman. 

    Dyer continues to make a case that he should be in the mix.

Case Keenum, QB Houston

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    Case Keenum has been having a Heisman-type season.  Completing just over 69 percent of his throws, he's tossed for 768 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions.

    Keenum likely won't get enough love from Heisman voters.  Why?  Because he plays for a Conference USA team.  The competition level just isn't as sexy as if he put up these numbers against SEC competition.

    Still, he's led his team to two straight wins over UCLA and at North Texas.  Louisiana Tech (7:00 PM ET Saturday), probably won't help his cause on that "sexy scale", but it's a chance for Keenum to put up large numbers and show how impressive he can be.

    Unfortunately, looking at Houston's schedule, there aren't many opportunities for Keenum to prove his worth against really tough, ultra-respectable defenses. 

    I'm sure there will be comments somewhere about how easy it must be to put up stellar numbers against these kinds of defenses, but sometimes great players can't help who they play against.  Case Keenum has been efficient, safe with the football and playing for a winning team.

Robert Griffin III, QB Baylor

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    I'm not sure if Griffin should really be called a "dark horse" in this race.  He's made something of a name for himself already.

    There aren't many in the game more efficient than Griffin, who has completed 77.8 percent of his passes.  He hasn't put up a lot of yards through the air at 359, but he's protected his throws, grabbing five touchdowns and no interceptions.

    What Griffin also brings to the table is his versatility and what he means to his Baylor team.

    Besides his 359 passing yards, Griffin has run the ball 10 times for 38 yards and caught a pass for 15 more yards.

    Also keep in mind that Baylor has only played one game this season—a 50-48 win over TCU. Who knows what his numbers might look like after Baylor takes care of Stephen F. Austin tonight at 7:00 PM ET?

    Griffin is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game today.  If he isn't near the top of the Heisman discussion when this weekend closes, he should be before long.