Every year as the nation’s top college football teams battle for BCS glory, the best players also hit the field looking to earn ultimate bragging rights in the form of one of sport’s most famous awards — the Heisman Trophy. Only two of the top 10 finishers from last year’s Heisman race return, so it truly is anyone’s award to win, but here are 15 candidates to take home the award this December in New York City. — SAM GARDNER (sam_Gardner)
EJ Manuel, QB, Sr., Florida State
Watching EJ Manuel is about as frustrating as watching FSU in general, but like the Seminoles, Manuel can be really good when he’s on. After a shaky start last year, he finished strong, completing 66.5 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,714 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions over the final eight games of the season. In that span, FSU went 7-1. If Manuel and his team can build off that, the senior could become a darkhorse Heisman candidate.
Kenjon Barner, RB, Sr., Oregon
Last year, Barner quietly produced, running for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns while his teammate, LaMichael James, led the nation in rushing yards per game. This year, Barner finds himself in the shadows again as De’Anthony Thomas is getting all of the preseason attention. But Barner is the featured back, and if he can come close to maintaining last year’s success in a full-time role, he’ll be in the Heisman discussion.
Robert Woods, WR, Jr., USC
A wide receiver hasn’t won the Heisman since Desmond Howard in 1991, but if anyone is going to put an end to that two-decade wideout-winless streak, it could be Woods. The USC standout hauled in 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore and could be poised for bigger numbers this year, especially since Woods has recently said he's nearly 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury. The only problem for Woods is that his quarterback, Matt Barkley, is one of the favorites to win the award himself.
Collin Klein, QB, Sr., Kansas State
Klein may not come with the hype of, say, Denard Robinson, but he's darn near as effective as Michigan’s star QB. Klein finished his junior season with 1,141 rushing yards (just 35 fewer than Robinson) and 40 total touchdowns (four more than Robinson) while also throwing for 1,918 yards. Klein may be one of the more underrated players in the country and could put himself in the Heisman discussion if Kansas State can match last year’s 10-3 finish.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, Jr., South Carolina
Lattimore led the SEC in yards from scrimmage as a freshman in 2010, and then got off to a hot start in 2011, rushing for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games before a knee injury ended his season. The Gamecocks star is reportedly back at 100 percent, and if he can pick up where he left off last year, South Carolina — and Lattimore's Heisman chances — will be better for it.
Aaron Murray, QB, Jr., Georgia
As a sophomore, Murray threw a school-record 35 touchdown passes while leading the Bulldogs to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2005. This year, Georgia enters the season with a top-10 ranking, and if the Bulldogs don’t live up to those lofty expectations, Murray’s Heisman hopes will be put on hold for another year.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Sr., Arkansas
Last season, Wilson earned All-SEC first-team honors after throwing for a conference-high 3,638 yards and also led Arkansas to a Cotton Bowl win over Kansas State (on FOX). A second straight 11-win season certainly would put Wilson in the discussion for the Heisman — especially if one of those wins comes against LSU or Alabama, the only two teams to beat the Razorbacks last season.
Tajh Boyd, QB, Jr., Clemson
Clemson got off to a surprising 8-0 start last year and eventually went on to win the ACC. A large part of the Tigers' success should be credited to Boyd, who threw for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns in his first season as the starter. With one of the nation’s top receivers in Sammy Watkins as his prime target — after Watkins’ return from a two-week suspension, that is — Boyd could put up big numbers again.
De'Anthony Thomas, RB, So., Oregon
Thomas isn’t the feature back in Eugene — that distinction belongs to Kenjon Barner — but that won’t stop Thomas from being a Heisman contender this year. Thomas has big-play ability from scrimmage (1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 101 touches last year) and is also one of the game’s best kick returners. One of the only things that could stand between Thomas and a Heisman is Barner, who has Heisman aspirations of his own.
Knile Davis, RB, Jr., Arkansas
Davis led all SEC running backs with 1,322 rushing yards on 6.5 yards per carry in 2010 and was expected to build upon that success last season before a broken ankle ended his season before it even started. If he’s back at 100 percent (and he ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and squatted 570 pounds in March), Davis will be the best running back in the nation’s toughest conference. If that’s not enough to earn a trip to New York, what is?
Landry Jones, QB, Sr., Oklahoma
This time last year, Jones was many pundits' favorite to win the Heisman, but as a junior, he saw his passing yardage and touchdown numbers slip while his interceptions rose. Jones also sputtered down the stretch in 2011, throwing just one touchdown and six interceptions in the final four games, including two picks in a blowout loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Championship Game. But if he can rebound as a senior, Jones could be a favorite again.
Geno Smith, QB, Sr., West Virginia
Smith finished fourth in the country with 4,385 yards passing and also threw for 31 touchdowns in his first season under Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. But this year, Smith's third as a starter, will have to match those numbers against a much tougher schedule in West Virginia’s first season in the Big 12 to have a chance at the Heisman.
Denard Robinson, QB, Sr., Michigan
After throwing for 2,570 yards and rushing for 1,702 more as a sophomore, Robinson took a step back last year, passing for 2,173 and running for 1,176. But “Shoelace” is still one of the most electrifying players in football and could make a strong case for himself — possibly even becoming the Heisman front-runner — with a strong showing in Michigan's season-opener against Alabama.
Montee Ball, RB, Sr., Wisconsin
Ball led the nation in rushing yards (1,923) and rushing touchdowns (33) last season, putting him fourth in Heisman voting as a junior. The Badgers star is coming off a rough offseason in which he was cited for trespassing and then was assaulted near his apartment complex, but if he can produce as he did in 2011 and continue to take care of the ball — he has not lost a fumble in 617 career touches — Ball easily could take home the Heisman as a senior.
Matt Barkley, QB, Sr., USC
The odds-on favorite to win the Heisman, Barkley threw for 3,528 yards and a Pac-12-record 39 touchdowns last season, his third as the Trojans’ starter. USC is, historically, a Heisman factory, and if the Trojans live up to their top-three ranking and BCS title expectations, it’ll likely be because Barkley is leading the charge.