The Heisman Trophy may be the most coveted trophy in all of sports.
Ten of the last 11 winners of this priceless award have been quarterbacks. And since 1950, only one time has a non-offensive skill player — e.g., quarterback, running back or wide receiver — claimed the historic award (Charles Woodson, 1997). Yes, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, few players touch the ball more than a workhorse running back. But just because big uglies, heavy-hitters and pass rushers don't often get the famed trip to Radio City Music Hall in New York City, it doesn't mean they don't deserve it.
So expect to see more than just signal callers, pass-catchers and tailbacks on Athlon Sports' conference-by-conference Heisman Contenders.
The SEC's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:
1. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (JR)
If healthy, there is no running back in the nation with more physical talent than the Gamecock junior. The per-game averages are astounding for No. 21 and there is no reason to think he won’t maintain his elite level of production behind one of the better O-Lines in the SEC. He has averaged over 100 yards rushing and has scored 30 total touchdowns in 20 career games. Lattimore can move the pile with power, can get to the edge with speed and will make defenders look silly trying to cover him in the passing game. He has averaged an absurd 130.5 yards from scrimmage for his career and has topped 170 yards rushing five times in 20 games. He has missed time in both seasons due to injury, mostly due to his incredibly physical running style, and he was held back in spring ball this year. However, Lattimore appears ready to lead the Gamecocks in 2012 and, needless to say, he is the complete package in the backfield.
2. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (JR)
Only USC quarterback Matt Barkley returns to college football with more touchdown passes than Murray’s 35. He has posted back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons as an underclassman and has accounted for 65 total touchdowns over the last two years. He also led his team to its first SEC Championship game since 2005. The junior quarterback from Tampa, Fla., is a gamey, tough, poised leader who has competed for championships at every level of play. He will only get better in 2012.
3. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas (SR)
The Hogs quarterback was more efficient (63.2% to 59.1%) than Murray, had a better TD:INT ratio (24:6 to 35:14) and topped the Bulldog in passing yards (3,638 to 3,149). Wilson has all the tools to continue to grow into an NFL quarterback but will likely struggle to repeat his ’11 numbers. There is plenty of talent around him, but replacing Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs won’t be easy. Most importantly, the top offensive mind in football, Bobby Petrino, is no longer calling plays and making adjustments. Wilson should have another great year in Fayetteville, but significant improvement from last year’s already solid numbers seems far fetched.
4. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee (JR)
The lanky junior has plenty of growing up to do — both mentally and physically — but all signs point to the 6-foot-6 gunslinger having his best season in 2012. He has one of the nastiest wide receiver duos in the nation at his disposal and a developing offensive line blocking for him. He was on pace for video game numbers after throwing for 332 yards per game and 14 touchdowns in the first four games of last year. A broken thumb forced him to miss five games and all but ended his breakout sophomore campaign. He has the best frame in the SEC at quarterback and possibly the best throwing arm in the league, so if he can stay healthy, he will post big numbers. If Tennessee wins enough, he could be in New York at season’s end.
5. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (JR)
Mark Ingram. Trent Richardson. And, now, Mr. Lacy. Besides running behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines and playing in Tuscaloosa, what do these three have in common? They are all big, burly, powerful, bruising power backs who provide Nick Saban with exactly what he wants: A feature back. Lacy will lose touches to a plethora of talented back-ups, but Saban’s offenses have proven to be plenty lucrative for multiple runners. And with a 7.2 career yards-per-carry average, fans can bet Lacy is getting the most touches.
6. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas (JR)
As a sophomore in 2010, Davis rolled-up 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in basically seven games. He averaged 146.8 yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns once given the starting reins in Week 7. A season-ending ankle injury cost him the entirety of 2011 but should allowed Davis to be rested heading into his junior season. He is expected to be at full strength to start 2012 behind what should be an excellent QB-OL combination. Yet, he too will miss superstar offensive guru Bobby Petrino on the sidelines — whose high-flying passing attack was predicated first on the power running game.
7. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (SO)
The preseason first-team All-American was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011 after completely justifying his lofty recruiting status as the nation’s top prospect. He posted 36 total tackles, 8.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles . He made big plays as his five forced fumbles indicate. There may not be a bigger impact player on defense in the entire nation as the freakish pass rusher must be accounted for on every play — whether he is lined-up at end or tackle.
8. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (SR)
The senior from Germantown, Tenn., is the most versatile, experienced and dynamic offensive blocker in the nation. He has been an all-league performer at all three offensive line positions and claimed the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman a year ago. He has two national championship rings and will pave the way for a third Heisman contender in as many seasons. There is little left for Jones to prove.
9. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (JR)
The only thing that was going to stop Hunter from dominating SEC opponents last year was a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee. He had posted 16 catches for 302 yards and two scores in only two games before his year was ended on his first catch in The Swamp in Week 3. All signs are pointing to his knee being fully healthy for the start of the season, but rebuilding strength and explosiveness is much easier said than done. If healthy, J-Hunt has a chance to be an All-American who will be drafted in the first round next April.
10. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU (JR)
The LSU defensive back is a really, really, really good player with a tenacious attitude. But his Heisman candidacy was built more on a popular YouTube video, creative nickname, two punt returns in blowout wins and the support of the best defensive back in the nation more than anything else. Mathieu can be a game-changer on special teams and find himself around the ball constantly, but can the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder be the top coverman now that Morris Claiborne, and leader Brandon Taylor, are gone from the secondary? That remains to be seen.
11. Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt (SR)
The senior to be is the only running back in the SEC who topped the 1,000-yard mark a year ago. His 1,193 set a new Vandy record, and now, Stacy will be the focal point of arguably the most talented Dores offense in decades.
12. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia (JR)
The electric play-maker on defense was a Butkus Finalist a year ago after leading the SEC in sacks (13.5) and tackles for a loss (19.5). The USC transfer should be that much better in Year 2 in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme.
13. Isaiah Crowell, RB, Georgia (SO)
The sophomore has an innate ability to stay upright, battle through tackles and gain positive yards. He also has proven to be immature, inconsistent and temperamental. With some seasoning (and some support along the O-Line), Crowell has a chance to be great.
14. Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M (SR)
Behind what could be an elite offensive line, Michael has an opportunity for a memorable final year. He’s scored 23 times and averaged nearly 100 yards from scrimmage for his career in 29 games. However, he has missed at least four games in each of the last two seasons.
15. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama (JR)
The BCS title game MVP led the SEC in completion percentage last year (66.8%) and will be asked be more of a play-maker this season. With an upgraded receiving corps and stellar offensive line, McCarron should have high hopes in 2012.
16. Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina (JR)
It took a while, but Shaw finally proved Steve Spurrier right with his play down the stretch. After taking for the Kentucky game, Shaw tossed 14 touchdowns (and only six INTs) and 1,419 yards while rushing for 485 yards and eight more scores on the ground. Can he take the next step?
17. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee (JR)
Rogers has all the physical talent in the world but his dedication to his craft and team are large question marks. Should he keep his head screwed on straight, he could be a superstar in Knoxville. If not, he could be catching passes for Georgia State.
18. James Franklin, QB, Missouri (JR)
An electric dual-threat talent, Franklin produced big numbers in his first season as the starter: 2,971 yards passing, 981 yards rushing, 36 total TDs. But a spring injury to his throwing shoulder has called into question his upside in 2012.
19. Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas (SR)
Three wideouts have moved on, leaving Hamilton as the go-to target for quarterback Tyler Wilson. He has the physical tools to be a great player in the SEC, but will also suffer from Bobby Petrino’s departure.
20. Odell Beckam, WR, LSU (SO)
It didn’t take long to see the raw talents of No. 33. The freshman posted 41 catches for 475 yards last fall. Now, he will add the vertical game to his repertoire with Zach Mettenberger under center. The heady, handsy wideout is a star in the making.
21. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (JR)
The junior had eight catches in the first seven games last year. All he did over the final six games was catch 33 passes for 669 yards and four touchdowns.
22. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU (JR)
The junior might be the most physically gifted draft-eligible defensive end in the nation. He led LSU in sacks a year ago (9.0) and posted 49 tackles and 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2011.
23. Spencer Ware/Michael Ford/Kenny Hilliard/Alfred Blue, RB, LSU
Should any one of these names get the bulk of the carries, move him into the top 15 on this list. Each of the four is extremely talented and capable of a 1,000-yard, 10-TD season. But, for now, they cancel each other out.
24. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri (FR)
The most prolific wide receiver in America prep football history will be joining the Gary Pinkel high-flying attack this summer. Expect the 6-foot-6, 220-pound wideout to make an immediate impact.
25. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M (SR)
Even though Ryan Tannehill is gone, Swope should still be productive. He has 161 catches, 2,032 yards and 15 scores over the last two years, and now, Kevin Sumlin is his coach.
Other Names To Watch:
Malcolm Mitchell, WR/DB, Georgia
If used like Charles Woodson, he could be much higher on this list.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida
Someone has to produce yards for the Gators, right?
Onterio McCalebb, RB, Auburn
Solid O-Line and the ball is all his now. Can he handle the workload?
Jameill Showers, QB, Texas A&M
Should he start all year, he would easily land in Top 25.
LaDarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State
Can he be a feature back in spread attack sans Vick Ballard?
Related: 2012 Athlon Sports SEC Predictions
Athlon's 2012 SEC Previews
-by Braden Gall