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 Pac-12's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:
1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (SR)
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. 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?
2. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (JR)
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 a 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. And 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.
3. De’Anthony Thomas, AP, Oregon (SO)
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. 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.
4. Keith Price, QB, Washington (JR)
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. If he can stay healthy — and gets some improved offensive line play — he could easily find himself in New York come December.
5. Robert Woods, WR, USC (JR)
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 than No. 5 is lingering bone inflammation in his ankle. Following arthroscopic surgery in December, Woods still has yet to begin summer workouts.
6. Keenan Allen, WR, Cal (JR)
This east coast product (Greenboro, N.C.) has already placed himself securely in the Cal record books after only two seasons on campus after a massive 98-catch, 1,343-yard sophomore season. Wilson will have the best stats and Woods might be the most explosive, but there may not be a more physically gifted athlete in the Pac-12 than Allen. If he can reach paydirt a few more times in 2012, which is possible with improved quarterback play, this graceful gazelle might need to book a flight to Manhattan later this year.
7. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon (SR)
Barner has dealt with injury issues throughout his career in Eugene, but should he stay healthy, this senior to be has proven to be plenty capably of carrying the Ducks’ running back torch. In three career starts, Barner posted 433 yards rushing on 58 attempts and 102 yards receiving on three catches to go with eight total touchdowns. Ironically, the only thing keeping him from a potential Heisman trip to the Big Apple could be his backfield mate De’Anthony Thomas.
8. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah (SR)
The Morris Trophy winner from a year ago as the Pac-12’s top defensive lineman, Lotelelei should be in Heisman conversations across the country. Nebraska sent a defensive tackle to New York in 2009, so why can’t the Utes do the same? Utah’s Star up front could be the top DT taken in the 2013 NFL Draft as this defense ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, No. 1 in turnover margin and No. 3 in rushing defense. Using him in some gimmick plays — e.g., along the offensive line or in goalline packages — would go a long way towards boosting his national profile.
9. John White, RB, Utah (SR)
In only his first season on campus, White broke the single-season Utah rushing record with 1,519 yards. What is more impressive is how he did it. The Utes had little-to-no quality quarterback play last year due to injuries and it allowed defenses to stack the box against White. All he did was carry the ball 316 times and score 15 touchdowns in the face of eight- and nine-man fronts. With just a little support from the passing game in 2012, White could post Radio City Music Hall-type numbers.
10. Jeff Tuel, QB, Washington State (SR)
There is a lot of projection and finger-crossing going on with Tuel this fall. He has the Tuels needed to be successful, especially for a quarterback genius like Mike Leach. But he has been consistently injured for the better part of his career. Should he stay healthy, the Cougars' offense could set school records and reach the postseason for the first time in years.
11. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford (SR)
The Cardinal's offensive onus sans Luck, Martin, Fleener and DeCastro now falls to Taylor. Things will be undoubtedly tougher without the quartet. However, David Shaw has instilled a physical mindset that begins with the rushing attack and Mr. Taylor.
12. Marqise Lee, WR, USC (SO)
A tremendously talented first-year player got the benefit of defenses focusing on Woods a year ago and it led to a 73-catch, 1,143-yard 11-TD season. Should once again be productive in explosive offense led by elite quarterback.
13. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford (SR)
Maybe not as physically gifted as Shayne Skov, but Thomas is certainly more dependable. The outside tackle is a fierce competitor and a preseason first-team All-American. The savvy linebacker plays sideline-to-sideline — and in your backfield.
14.Isi Sofele, RB, Cal (SR)
Jeff Tedford recommitted himself to the ground game after starting the year 4-4. Sofele got 88 carries in the final four games and it resulted in 569 yards and three wins. Cal has had a long line of productive backs and this senior to be is the next.
15. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington (SO)
Washington might have the best tight end in the nation. As only a freshman, ASJ landed all over the Huskies' record books. His 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame was virtually unstoppable down the stretch as he caught 19 (of his 41) passes for 209 yards and two scores over the final four games.
16. Jordan Poyer, CB, Oregon State (SR)
There may not be a better pure coverman in the nation than this senior Beaver. He is also an electric return man and special teamer, which only adds to his Heisman clout. Should Oregon State return to the postseason it will be in large part because of Mr. Poyer.
17. Cameron Marshall, RB, Arizona State (SR)
Posted his best career game in the spotlight against USC last year (141 yards, 3 TD) and it led to a huge upset. With a new quarterback and new offensive scheme, Marshall should be the focal point of ASU’s offense.
18.Marcus Mariota/Bryan Bennett, QB, Oregon (FR/SO)
If one of these two talented dual-threats can lock down the starting job in Eugene, he will have a great chance to post Heisman-type numbers. The offense is too powerful and both of these quarterbacks are athletic enough to conjure images of Dennis Dixon.
19. Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (SO)
Rich Rodriguez has been known to produce Heisman Trophy-caliber backfields. Carey is one of the most talented runners in recent Wildcats memory and proved himself plenty capable as a freshman (425 yards, 6 TD)
20. T.J. McDonald, S, USC (SR)
The preseason first-team All-American hunts heads, delivers huge blows, leads the No. 1 team in the nation and has an NFL pedigree. What’s not to like?
21. Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA (SR)
It feels like Franklin has been toting the rock in Westwood forever, but 2012 will be his final, and potentially finest, season. After a 1,000-yard sophomore season, Franklin got 48 fewer carries as a junior. With an increased workload and improved offensive scheme, Franklin should return to form in 2012.
22. Michael Clay, LB, Oregon (SR)
This Ducks defense could be sneaky good and it begins with leadership from its heart and soul. The stocky Clay is lightning quick and incredibly savvy. Expect big things from the senior in 2012.
23. Curtis McNeal, RB, USC (SR)
With little depth on the roster behind him, McNeal looks like Lane Kiffin’s guy in 2012. He established himself as the year went along, finishing with four 100-yard efforts over the final six games. But can his tiny 5-foot-7 frame handle the workload?
24. Shaq Thompson, S, Washington (FR)
Not too many true freshman will show up on Athlon’s Heisman Watch List, but Thompson deserves it. He should start right away, will play all over the field and could restore defensive prominence in Seattle. He is a once-in-a-decade type of safety.
25. Matt Scott, QB, Arizona (SR)
Do dual-threat quarterbacks normally produce big numbers in RichRod’s zone read? If he can stay healthy, Scott should have little problem posting big numbers in the new option attack. I would say redshirting turned into a brilliant maneuver by the senior to be.
Other Names To Watch:
Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State (SO)
Turned the ball over too much but also posted 3,328 yards and 16 TDs as only a freshman.
Kasen Williams, WR, Washington (SO)
Tremendously gifted athlete who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman.
John Boyett, S, Oregon (SR)
Another heady veteran on what could be best Ducks D in years.
Joseph Fauria, TE, UCLA (SR)
Extremely gifted physical talent who needs quality QB play to make a real splash.
Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon (SR)
Overtly talented and versatile yet occasionally inconsistent defensive “drop end.”
Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Team Previews
-by Braden Gall