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College Football: Top 25 Heisman Contenders for 2012

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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.

2012's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,528 yds, 39 TD, 7 INT, 14 rush yds, 2 TD
No one in their right mind can make the case that Matt Barkley isn’t the First-Team All-American quarterback and top Heisman contender nationally. If someone else has someone else atop their Heisman ballot, they are simply being cute. He has the records, the stats, the Golden Boy image, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and a plethora of talented skill players to work with. In fact, the only negative Heisman pundits can lob at Barkley is, in fact, that he is the clearcut Heisman favorite. When was the last time the obvious preseason stiff-armed favorite actually won the award? Bueller?

2. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (SR)
2011 Stats: 2,173 yds, 20 TD, 15 INT, 1,176 rush yds, 16 TD
There is no player in a better Heisman situation in the Big Ten than Robinson, but because Montee Ball was so unstoppable a year ago, they are essentially 1a and 1b in the Big Ten. Shoelace has the NCAA records, the electric, big-play, highlight-reel skills needed to enthrall voters, a better chance at a Big Ten title, has multiple national showcase games in and out of conference and plays the all-important quarterback position (11 of last 12 winners). If he can stay healthy, he has an excellent chance to be sitting next to Barkley in New York come December. Some improved efficiency and a win over Alabama, of course, wouldn't hurt.

3. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (JR)
2011 Stats: 818 yds, 10 TD, 19 rec., 182 yds, TD (7 games)
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 because of 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.

4. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,923 yds, 33 TD, 24 rec., 306 yds, 6 TD
It is nearly impossible to argue with Ball’s production, but the 2012 Badgers are not going to be the same team that set school records for scoring two years in a row. Gone is uber-leader Russell Wilson, offensive genius Paul Chryst and three first-team All-Big Ten blockers. Ball will still post big numbers this fall, but a 1,600-yard, 16-TD season will pale in comparison to his 2011 output — and might not get him back to New York. At least, not without another Big Ten title ring on his finger.

5. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,385 yds, 31 TD, 7 INT, 2 rush TD
The list of accolades for the Mountaineers' starting quarterback is already long and distinguished, yet he might be ready to add the most important award in college sports. He led the Big East in passer efficiency and total offense a year ago — finishing eighth nationally at 334.8 yards per game. His 4,385 passing yards were a school record and he might possess the strongest throwing arm in the nation. With a deep and talented skill corps and play calling from offensive wizard Dana Holgorsen, Smith has a great shot at landing in Manhattan come December.

6. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (JR)
2011 Stats: 82 rec., 1,388 yards, 12 TD
Who is the leading returning receiver in the Pac-12? No, it’s not a guy named Woods, Allen or Lee. It’s Wilson with his 1,388 yards. In fact, the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder has had one of the quietest two-year starts to any career in the nation (party due to his current zip code) as he has 137 catches, 2,394 yards and 18 scores in two years. He has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with a revolving door at quarterback and Paul Wulff running the ship. Now, he has Mike Leach calling plays for him — a coach who has never had a quarterback pass for less than 3,400 yards. I got two words for you: Michael Crabtree.

7. De’Anthony Thomas, AP, Oregon (SO)
2011 Stats: 595 yds, 7 TD, 46 rec., 605 yds, 9 TD, 2 ret. TD
Few players can rip off huge chunks of yards like The Black Mamba, who averaged nearly 12 yards per offensive touch as a freshman. His highlight-reel explosiveness is exactly what Heisman pundits everywhere crave. He contributes to the offense in every imaginable way — 2,235 all-purpose yards, 18 total TDs — and can be completely unstoppable in the open field (see Rose Bowl footage). Thomas averaged 10.0 touches per game last year, and with LaMichael James no longer on the roster, fans can expect lethal doses from the most poisonous running back in the nation.

8. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,357 yds, 15 TD, 21 rec., 177 yds, 2 TD
Sexy Rexy Superman Burkhead is arguably the most complete football player in the nation. He has every skillset a coach can ask for in a workhorse feature back: Strength, size, toughness, durability, vision, instincts, quickness, hands and leadership. He may be the most underrated player in the country at any position. For Burkhead to make it to NYC in December, however, he will likely have to lead his team past Michigan and into the Big Ten title game. A tall order until the defense improves its overall play.

9. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (JR)
In only his first full season as the starter, Thomas showed why he has such a high ceiling. He threw for over 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns while rushing for 469 yards and 11 more touchdowns on the ground – which tied a school record for rushing TDs by a quarterback at a school with a long history of scamblers. His 6-foot-6, 262-pound frame has drawn Cam Newton comparisons, and while he isn’t nearly as explosive, Thomas has the capability of posting huge numbers and winning an ACC title this fall. He just needs to play better against Clemson.

10. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (JR)
Last fall the Tigers quarterback led the ACC in total offense at 289.0 yards per game. His 3,828 ranked first in the league as did his 33 touchdown passes. He added 218 yards rushing and five more scores on the ground. With a loaded collection of receivers and running backs returning this fall, Boyd should be able to post another huge year under the tutelage of Chad Morris. A big performance on the road against Florida State would go a long way to getting Boyd to New York.

11. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,149 yds, 35 TD, 14 INT, 103 rush yds, 2 TD
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. That said, a win on the road at South Carolina and possible SEC title would go a long way in getting Murray to The 646.

12. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,638 yds, 24 TD, 6 INT, 4 rush TD
The Hogs quarterback was slightly 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 improve on 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 in-game adjustments. Wilson should have another great year in Fayetteville, but significant improvement from last year’s already very solid numbers seems far fetched. For Wilson to get an invite to Radio City Music Hall would most assuredly require a win, or wins, over Alabama and LSU, which seems unlikely.

13. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (SO)
Few players have ever been ready to compete at a Heisman level right out of high school like Watkins. As a true freshman, Watkins led the ACC in all-purpose yards: 1,219 receiving, 231 rushing, 826 kick return and 12 punt return yards. He scored a total 13 touchdowns and would likely be in the top 10 if he wasn't suspended for two games — including a key non-conference test against Auburn in Week 1.

14. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,463 yds, 29 TD, 15 INT, 2 rush TD
There are plenty of question marks surrounding Jones the quarterback — like major statistical regression and a horrible road record. But the Sooner quarterback has as good a shot as any in the Big 12 to be Big Apple bound at year’s end. He is surrounded by the most talent of any team in the league and should be the leader of the Big 12 champions. Should Jones correct his road woes and produce another big statistical year, he very easily could land on Heisman ballots, and perhaps, in the national title game.

15. Keith Price, QB, Washington (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,063 yds, 33 TD, 11 INT, 10 rush yds, 3 TD
Steve Sarkisian has a great one in Price. In the first six games of Price’s first season as the starter, all he did was lead the nation in touchdown passes with 21 scoring strikes. He set single-season Washington passing records and should only improve in his third year in Coach Sark's system. He has plenty of talent around him and multiple marquee showdowns on the schedule (at LSU?). If he can stay healthy — and gets some improved offensive line play — he could easily find himself in New York come December.

16. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (SO)
2011 Stats: 1,159 yds, 13 TD, 4 INT, 715 rush yds, 7 TD
If Heisman voters are trying to find a darkhorse from the Big Ten, they need to look no further than Ohio State’s quarterback. Miller showed flashes of brilliance as only a true freshman on one of the worst Buckeye teams in two decades. And now he has spread guru Urban Meyer tailoring his high-powered attack to Miller’s perfectly suited dual-threat skillset. This team could have the best record in the league, but Ohio State’s offensive leader will have to overcome the program’s current sanctions on his way to the Big Apple.

17. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,918 yds, 13 TD, 6 INT, 1,141 rush yds, 27 TD
Klein won’t be able to sneak up on any defenses this time around after rolling up a sick 1,141 yards rushing and an NCAA-record 27 rushing touchdowns (by a QB). He added big plays in key situations while leading the Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl. What he lacks in pure passing ability he makes up for with grit and toughness. However, he may need to use his arm more in 2012 as coordinators are now prepared for his talented dual-threat skills. It will be tough for CK-7 to replicate both the statistics and win total in 2012.

18. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State (JR)
2011 Stats: 1,216 yds, 24 TD, 43 rec., 266 yds, 2 TD
He may not be built like a true three-down workhorse, but he certainly plays like it. Randle brings speed, power and pass-catching skills to one of the most explosive attacks in the country. With a new (true freshman) quarterback and rebuilt offensive line, it will difficult to top his 1,482 total yards, 26 touchdowns or 43 receptions from last year. But if he can come close, Randle will find himself mentioned with the best backs in the country.

19. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia (SR)
2011 Stats: 101 rec., 1,186 yds, 8 TD, 182 rush yds, TD, 2 ret. TD
Austin is one of the most dynamic and explosive play-makers in all of the nation. He set a school record with 101 receptions last year and led the nation in all-purpose yards (198.0 per game). In addition to his receiving skills, the inside slot man rushed for 182 yards to go with 938 kick return yards and 268 punt return yards. He finished with 11 total touchdowns and could be poised for a C.J. Spiller-type of season in Morgantown.

20. Robert Woods, WR, USC (JR)
2011 Stats: 111 rec., 1,292 yds, 15 TD
The uber-talent from SoCal exploded into living rooms as a sophomore in 2011. He not only broke USC receiving records, but set a Pac-12 record with 111 receptions in only 12 games. He caught at least two scores in four straight games at one point and has clearly built a rapport with No. 1 on this list. The only thing keeping this dynamic play-maker from being higher is lingering bone inflammation in his ankle. Following arthroscopic surgery in December, Woods still has yet to begin summer workouts. Fans have to be concerned about Woods' upside this fall.

21. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina (SO)
Another freshman in the ACC, Bernard burst onto the scene with four touchdowns in his frist two career games. He then rattled off five straight 100-yard efforts, to finish with 1,253 yards and 13 scores in his first year on a collegiate gridiron. With arguably the top offensive line returning in front of him and a stellar quarterback we’ll address in just a moment, the South Florida product is poised for a huge second year in Chapel Hill.

21. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee (JR)
2011 Stats: 1,913 yds, 17 TD, 6 INT, Rush TD (7 games)
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.