We’re a third of the way through the 2012 college football season, and after four weeks, the competition for the Heisman Trophy is beginning to look a little different than expected. Some preseason frontrunners (Matt Barkley, Landry Jones) have struggled, but there’s no definitive leader in the race yet.
Here’s the rundown on who’s still relevant in the Heisman Trophy race, and which new faces to watch for as the season unfolds:
Geno Smith – QB, WVU
Smith is one of the biggest names from preseason who hasn’t stumbled his way into darkhorse candidacy (or worse). The Mountaineers’ senior quarterback has thrown for 1,072 yards, 12 touchdowns and, so far, no interceptions. He’s completing an average of 81.4% of his passes thanks to two early games against Marshall and James Madison. He looked more human against Maryland’s surprisingly stout defense, completing just 69.8% of his passes and taking his first two sacks of the year. It’ll be interesting to watch how well he holds up against other top teams further down the schedule.
De’Anthony Thomas – WR/RB, Oregon
Thomas made the cover of Sports Illustrated last week, above the tagline: “The Fastest Man in Football.” Then he promptly went out and had his “worst” game of the young 2012 season (“worst” being a relative term). In the first three games, against the likes of Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech, Thomas racked up 382 yards rushing and receiving, with seven touchdowns. In the Ducks’ 49-0 shutout over Arizona, though, he had 12 carries (one shy of his total in the first three games combined) but averaged just four yards per carry and did not score. SI cover jinx?
The Wildcats beat Oklahoma in Norman on Saturday, so Klein might finally start getting some well-deserved recognition (although ESPN can stop with the “Optimus Klein” references already). The under-the-radar star has been getting the job done for K-State for awhile now. He was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2011, when he set a record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season. So far this season, he’s thrown for 758 yards and run for 382 more, and he has a nice balance with five touchdowns through the air and five on the ground. If Kansas State keeps winning, his name will keep coming up in the Heisman discussions.
Le’Veon Bell – RB, Michigan State
Bell could make a solid case to earn a trip to New York with a strong performance in a nationally televised home game against Ohio State this week. In four games, he’s had two 200-yard+ rushing performances, with more than 35 carries in both of those games. In the others, a win at Central Michigan and a loss to Notre Dame, Bell has had just 18 and 19 carries. It’s not feasible to expect him to run it 35 times a game until December, but if he kicks off his Heisman campaign with a stellar showing this weekend, Bell will need to find some consistency to stay among the leaders.
Marcus Lattimore – RB, South Carolina
Lattimore hasn’t gotten back into the thick of the race after a knee injury ended his chances last season, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of it yet. He’s posted modest numbers as he continues to regain his strength after missing significant time, with 320 rushing yards and six touchdowns. The good news for the junior’s Heisman hopes is that the meat of the Gamecocks’ schedule is still ahead. If he hits his stride and puts up big numbers against SEC opponents – particularly Georgia, Florida and Tennessee – and Clemson, they’ll have an even bigger impact on his prospects.
E.J. Manuel – QB, Florida State
Manuel had a breakout game when it counted, in last week’s primetime matchup against Clemson. He gained 482 total yards and threw for two touchdowns in what might’ve been the ‘Noles toughest regular season game. The senior has 8 touchdowns and one interception on the year, and if FSU continues to dominate and insert itself in BCS championship conversations, Manuel will continue to be a legitimate Heisman candidate.
Buckeyes’ coach Urban Meyer said the sophomore might be more talented than Tim Tebow, who was the first sophomore Heisman winner when he played for Meyer at Florida. Miller is certainly a dynamic, game-changing player. He’s thrown for 754 yards and seven touchdowns, and he leads the Big Ten with seven rushing TDs. He’s also tied for second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (441), but his yardage on the ground has declined in each game. Ohio State is sitting at 4-0, thanks in large part to Miller, but the conference’s perceived weakness this year will hurt his chances.
Aaron Murray – QB, Georgia
Through the first four weeks of the season, the Bulldogs have looked like one of the best teams in the very talented SEC, and Murray has looked like one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. He has 1092 passing yards, 10 touchdowns, and two interceptions, as well as three rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs have big conference games coming up against Tennessee, South Carolina (who might be their biggest hurdle to win the East), Florida, Ole Miss, and Auburn, and Murray will get plenty of airtime between now and November to make a strong case for himself as 2012′s Heisman winner.
Casey Pachall – QB, TCU
The Horned Frogs’ quarterback has rebounded from offseason off-the-field issues and currently holds the nation’s best quarterback rating and yards per attempt average. He’s completing more than 76% of his passes (including a perfect 9 for 9 in their warmup game against Grambling State) and has thrown for 841 yards, 8 touchdowns and just 1 interception. The Horned Frogs aren’t getting the same degree of national attention they have in recent years, but if Pachall continues to perform this well, it’ll be impossible to ignore him in December.
Te’o is starting to gain Heisman momentum as a rare defensive candidate for the award. He played well in primetime against Michigan, picking off Denard Robinson twice, and was named the Lott IMPACT player of the week for the second straight week. He’s been playing at an exceptionally high level after tragically losing both his grandmother and his girlfriend, and voters are beginning to take notice.