-by Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter)
Here at Athlon Sports it is never too early to start looking ahead to the 2012 football season. With an early Top 25 from Steven Lassan to what to expect from the defending champs and the 2012 LSU Tigers to three teams on the rise and three teams on the slide to analyzing the SEC schedules, Athlon Sports is already previewing 2012 in full force. And we haven’t even reached National Signing Day 2012 yet.
The Heisman Trophy is the most coveted award in all of sports. And should the reigning award winner Robert Griffin III decide to return to Baylor, he instantly becomes the top option on this list. However, with the defection of other favorites, LaMichael James, Chris Polk, Andrew Luck and Ronnie Hillman, the front-runners for the 2012 Heisman Trophy are beginning to become more apparent.
The 2012 Heisman Finalists:
Matt Barkley, QB, USC (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,528 yards, 39 TD, 7 INT, 69.1%, 14 rush yards, 2 TD
The nation’s No. 1-rated player in the 2009 Athlon Consensus 100 has completely lived up to his recruiting hype and is now the top candidate for the 2012 bronze statue. He set a USC single-season passing record with 39 scoring strikes in 2011, including 17 in his final four games. His team will likely start in the preseason top five, if not No. 1, and will return the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the nation. Barkley will enter his fourth year under center as the Heisman Trophy front-runner.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (JR)
2011 Stats: 163 att., 818 yards, 10 TD, 19 rec., 182 yards, TD
With Trent Richardson moving on to the NFL, Lattimore becomes easily the most talented running back in the country. Through six games and some change before suffering a season-ending injury, Lattimore rushed for 818 and caught 182 yards (144.3 yards from scrimmage per game) and scored 11 total times. He will be the focal point of the offense once again and will likely be a first-team All-American in the preseason. He is simply the most gifted player at his position and could post SEC-record rushing numbers if all falls correctly for the Gamecocks.
Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (SR)
2011 Stats: 2,173 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT, 55.1%, 1,176 rush yards, 16 TD
The most electric player in the nation will return to Ann Arbor with championship aspirations — and possibly not just Big Ten title hopes. He has posted back-to-back 2,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing seasons for unprecedented levels of production from the quarterback position. He has 2,878 yards rushing and 30 scores on the ground over the last two seasons and 4,743 yards through the air with 38 more touchdowns. With Michigan returning largely intact and the likely favorite in the Legends Division (and a BCS Bowl win under his belt already), Shoelace looks to be the top challenger to Barkley in 2012 for the Heisman.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (SR)
2011 Stats: 307 att., 1,923 yards, 33 TD, 24 rec., 306 yards, 6 TD
Ball will not come close to posting the numbers he did in 2011, so he is a finalist by default as the top returning vote getter. He tied Barry Sanders' single-season TD record with 39 (to quote one of the greats, "he got more 6s than first grade"), so it a virtual certainty that his scoring numbers will drop behind a revamped offensive line (that always seems to reload) and a quarterback who will be largely unproven. Ball led the nation in rushing and touchdowns and is unlikely to do so again, but his work ethic, the system in which he plays and the fact that Wisconsin could play for a Big Ten title could put Ball back in New York in 2012.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,385 yards, 31 TD, 7 INT, 65.8%, 2 rush TD
Smith was already going to be on most Heisman preseason lists, but a 407-yard, 6-TD performance in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson only solidified him as an elite passer. He can make every throw on the field and has a plethora of talented receivers coming back. Since this team will likely be playing in the Big 12, which has had the uncanny knack for inflating quarterback numbers recently, Smith and head coach Dana Holgorsen are going to leave opposing defenses charred and crippled on most Saturdays.
Robert Woods, WR, USC (JR)
2011 Stats: 111 rec., 1,292 yards, 15 TD, 511 return yards
Woods set a Pac-12 record with 111 receptions as only a sophomore in 2011. The sky is the limit for this uber-talented dynamo who is a complete player at the wide receiver position. He will have talented names like Marquis Lee helping to spread the defense’s attention and the Heisman favorite throwing him passes for the third consecutive season.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,149 yards, 35 TD, 14 INT, 59.1%, 103 rush yards, 2 TD
Murray is simply a winner, and the Bulldogs have a chance to win a lot of games in 2012. The Dawgs will be picked to win the SEC East and have a chance to push for a national title berth. Murray enters his third full year as the starter after back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons and an SEC-leading 35 scoring strikes. If he can correct some of his mistakes (14 INT) and improve his efficiency (59.1%), Murray has a serious chance to end up in New York.
Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska (SR)
2011 Stats: 284 att., 1,357 yards, 15 TD, 21 rec., 177 yards, 2 TD
There may not be a more complete, better all-around football player in the entire nation than Sexy Rexy. The leader, in every aspect of the word, for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Burkhead returns for his second full season as the No. 1. He is a true workhorse who can also line up at quarterback, catch the ball out of the backfield and block with a vengeance. The key to Burkhead’s success in 2012 will be the development of quarterback Taylor Martinez. If the passing game can stretch the defense and open up lanes for No. 22, he could be in for a huge year.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,013 yards, 19 TD, 10 INT, 59.8%, 469 rush yards, 11 TD
In his first full season as the starter, Thomas started slowly but exploded into the player Hokies fans envisioned when they landed the star recruit. The Cam Newton clone is devastating as a runner and clearly showed development as a passer as the year went along. Thomas didn’t throw an interception in six of his last nine games. The only issue for Thomas is a reworked offensive line and no David Wilson to help carry the rushing game.
Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,918 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT, 57.3% 1,141 rush yards, 27 TD
Klein tied an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (Ricky Dobbs, Navy) with 27 scores. He finished with 40 total touchdowns and only six interceptions en route to a 10-win season. The gritty, gutty signal caller for Kansas State will need to keep his team nationally relevant for him to finally start getting the credit he deserves.
Other Stiff-Armed Contenders:
Darron Thomas, QB, Oregon (SR)
2011 Stats: 2,761 yards, 33 TD, 7 INT, 62.2%, 206 rush yards, 3 TD
Does anyone realize that Darron Thomas has thrown back-to-back seasons of 30 touchdown passes? As a three-year starter for the Ducks, Thomas is in charge in 2012, and with Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas providing plenty of speedy big-play options, Thomas’ numbers could be the best of his career (which is scary). Also, the Ducks are likely a preseason top five team nationally and will be the favorite to meet up with USC in the Pac-12 title game.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,463 yards, 29 TD, 15 INT, 63.2%, 2 rush TD
Jones’ career numbers alone get him onto this list, but he clearly struggled without Ryan Broyles in what was his worst season as the starter. He returns with over 12,000 yards passing but also 41 career interceptions. Jones will have to take more of a leadership role and produce big numbers — and big wins on the road — to get to New York.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (SO)
2011 Stats: 82 rec., 1,219 yards, 12 TD, 231 rush yards, 826 KR yards, TD
The most electric freshman athlete of 2011 was most certainly Watkins (although, the next name on this list might take umbrage with that statement). The Clemson Tiger star wideout made plays in every facet of the game and is mature well beyond his sophomore classification. If Clemson can keep it together for a full season and the offensive line holes can be plugged, Watkins could find himself in the Big Apple.
Kenjon Barner (SR) and DeAnthony Thomas (SO), RB, Oregon
2011 Stats: 152 att., 939 yards, 11 TD, 17 rec., 184 yards, 3 TD
2011 Stats: 55 att., 595 yards, 7 TD, 46 rec., 605 yards, 9 TD, 983 KR yards, 2 TD
Barner will finally be the starter in the high-powered Oregon rushing attack. He has proven to be very capable of filling in for James and should have no problem producing huge numbers again in 2012. The key will be how Thomas gets worked into the offense. He made huge plays with his electric open-field ability as only a true freshman — and did so in the rushing, receiving and return game. How the touches are divvied up likely impacts which of these two names makes the Heisman push.
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,828 yards, 33 TD, 12 INT, 218 yards, 5 TD
Boyd was magical at times in 2011. Try 24 touchdown passes against only three interceptions during the 8-0 start. However, much like Clemson is apt to do, Boyd inexplicably trailed off, throwing for only nine touchdowns and nine interceptions in the final six games of the season. His talent is there and the skill talent around him is remarkable; however, a totally reworked offensive line will be the key to his upside in 2012.
Ryan Aplin, QB, Arkansas State (SR)
2011 States: 3,588 yards, 19 TD, 16 INT, 63.9%, 588 rush yards, 10 TD
Aplin has been a wildly productive player for more than two seasons. But in his third full year as the starter, for a conference champion no less, he could explode in Paul Smith fashion (look it up). Aplin’s dual-threat ability will fit perfectly with what offensive mastermind Guz Malzahn wants to do schematically.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (SO)
2011 Stats: 1,159 yards, 13 TD, 4 INT, 54.1%, 715 rush yards, 7 TD
The youngest member of this list was unleashed on the Big Ten during the second half of the season last fall. Miller rushed for 472 yards and all seven rushing touchdowns over the Buckeyes' final six games. He also threw eight of his 13 touchdowns over that span. The key for Miller will be continued development as a passer and how much the postseason ban will hurt him a la 2011 Matt Barkley. This team should have the best record in the Leaders Division but will not be allowed to play for a title.
Keith Price, QB, Washington (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,063 yards, 33 TD, 11 INT, 66.9%, 3 rush TD
In his first full season under center, Price made Husky fans quickly forget about Jake Locker. He won seven games and trailed only Andrew Luck as the Pac-12’s most efficient passer. Losing Chris Polk to the NFL will hurt, but there is a litany of talented skill players waiting to step up for Steve Sarkisian.
Keenen Allen, WR, Cal (JR)
2011 Stats: 98 rec., 1,343 yards, 6 TD
Arguably the most physically gifted receiver in the nation, Allen makes the acrobatic catch seem effortless. He has a great rapport with half-brother and quarterback Zach Maynard and will undoubtedly be the top Bears pass-catcher. Keep your eye on No. 21 at all times.
Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas (JR)
2011 Stats: Redshirted due to injury
The most welcome recruit this season in Fayetteville, Ark., will be the return of star tailback Knile Davis. After taking over as the starter about a third of the way through 2010, Davis rushed for at least 100 yards in six of his final seven games, scoring 12 times over that span. Bobby Petrino certainly likes to chuck it around on offense, but his best offenses have always been predicated on a power rushing attack. Davis brings that back to the Hogs offense in 2012.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,638 yarsds, 24 TD, 6 INT, 63.2%, 4 rush TD
Anyone running Bobby-P’s offense likely deserves a mention on any early Heisman list. And Wilson is coming off his first full season as the starter in which he led the SEC in passing yards. He will be losing some talented options at wideout, but the receiving corps has plenty of depth and the offense will welcome back Davis. If Wilson can beat Alabama and/or LSU at home and get his team to the SEC title game, he could very easily find himself in Heisman discussions.
Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (JR)
2011 Stats: 82 rec., 1,388 yards, 12 TD
As the top pass-catching option in a Mike Leach offense, Wilson could produce otherworldly numbers in 2012. He is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career and has done so with three different quarterbacks throwing him the ball. Wazzu will have to win more games, however, in 2012 if this long shot expects to enter the Heisman fray.