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CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457407 Who's got next? Who%27s+got+next%3F CFB

It’s difficult to be in the Heisman race. Robert Griffin III (pictured) and Montee Ball weren’t on top of the list of candidates coming into the season, and no one saw Cam Newton coming in 2010 or Mark Ingram and Toby Gerhart in 2009. So, the 2012 Heisman winner might come from out of left field.

The Heisman race almost always comes down to the most productive quarterbacks and running backs from the hottest BCS programs, so defensive players need not apply and receivers have no realistic shot unless they’re also a star returner.

So, with that in mind, and with a few projections, the most likely front-runners for next year’s Heisman chase will probably come from these 16 players.

— Pete Fiutak,

Jerry Lai - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457397 QB Matt Barkley, USC QB+Matt+Barkley%2C+USC+ CFB

It’s one of the rumors going around Los Angeles sports circles; a top NFL prospect from USC is planning on sticking around for one more year. If it’s not offensive tackle Matt Kalil, who might be the No. 2 pick behind Andrew Luck, then it could only be one player.

Call it wishful thinking from the desperate fan base waiting for the program to return to glory, or call it just another piece of unsubstantiated gossip in a town that lives off of it, but there’s smoke around the idea that Barkley — who might be the No. 2 quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL draft after Luck — will want to stick around to finally enjoy the fun after a rough three years under the NCAA’s cloud.

Barkley has been the consummate leader and the star for a program that needed something positive to rebuild around. Polite to a fault, he has the right personality to help USC change its image as it turns the corner from the Pete Carroll era. That will win him the hearts and minds — aka, those who voted for Luck for the 2011 Heisman — but it’s his play on the field that could make him the coast-to-coast Heisman favorite, even if Robert Griffin, Montee Ball and other top candidates are back.

Again, it isn’t a sure thing in any way that Barkley is returning, but if he is — and assuming that Kalil is off taking a treasure bath — USC will be a preseason top five team, if not No. 1.

The Trojans will have the best 1-2 receiving punch in the nation in Robert Woods and Marquise Lee; running back Curtis McNeal is a potential star; and in all, 10 offensive starters might return, along with nine on defense and both kickers. But it all hinges on Barkley, the frontrunner for the 2012 Heisman Trophy. Unless he’s the Cleveland Browns’ 2012 starting quarterback.

Gary A. Vasquez - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457396 QB Denard Robinson, Michigan QB+Denard+Robinson%2C+Michigan CFB

Robinson won the September Heisman in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, if he can cut down on his interceptions, run for another 1,000 yards and take Michigan to the Big Ten title, he might be able to win it in December, too.

Interceptions have been the killer for Robinson in the Heisman chase, not looking the part of a polished passer when he needs to. However, he didn’t throw more than one pick in any game over the final six games of the year, and he was flawless against Ohio State completing 14 of 17 passes for 167 yards and three scores, to go along with 170 rushing yards and two scores.

He’ll always be one of the most electrifying players in college football. After starting for two years, he needs to be more consistent. However, if he has a big game against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and leads the way to the program’s first BCS game victory in a decade, he’ll be the face of the resurgence of Michigan football into its spot among the leaders and best.

Andrew Weber - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457395 QB Geno Smith, West Virginia QB+Geno+Smith%2C+West+Virginia+ CFB

It doesn’t matter where West Virginia plays; the offense is going to go bonkers now that everyone knows what they’re doing under second-year head coach Dana Holgorsen.

The Mountaineers will to have to replace only two key starters from an offense that lit defenses up like a Christmas tree, averaging 460 yards and 35 points per game. Smith? He only threw for 463 yards and two scores against the LSU defense, and he gets all his top weapons back.

He’ll blow past the 4,000-yard mark in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, but next year it will be all about wins and big moments. Why did Robert Griffin III win the Heisman? He put up huge numbers and was clutch in the stunner against Oklahoma. No one was better at bombing away late in games than Smith and West Virginia. The heroics will come.

Andrew Weber - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457393 RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina RB+Marcus+Lattimore%2C+South+Carolina+ CFB

This is assuming the Gamecocks star can come back 100 percent healthy from an awful knee injury late in the season. When he was right, he was the one of the nation’s best backs, carrying a team that couldn’t get anything going through the air. Before the injury, he was on pace for at least 1,600 yards and close to 20 touchdowns. Whenever he’s ready, he’ll be the centerpiece of the attack working behind an experienced offensive line. He's an easy player and personality to root for, and if he can carry the Gamecocks to a second SEC East title in three years, he should be in New York next December.

Dale Zanine - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457394 QB Collin Klein, Kansas State QB+Collin+Klein%2C+Kansas+State+ CFB

You want the hot player of the offseason? It will take the next nine months for the rest of the college football world to catch up on what it missed: A case could be made that RGIII wasn’t the best quarterback in the Big 12 this season.

Klein ran for 1,099 yards and 26 touchdowns and threw for 1,745 yards and 12 scores with five picks. Robert Griffin might have lit up Kansas State, but Klein ran for 113 yards and a score, threw for two touchdowns, and got the win as he carried the offense time and again on the way to a 10-2 season. The spotlight will be on next year in a wide-open Big 12 race, and this time around, he won’t be ignored.

Scott Sewell - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457392 RB Kenjon Barner, Oregon RB+Kenjon+Barner%2C+Oregon+ CFB

Ready for the scary part of the Oregon offense? It’s going to be even better next year. LaMichael James is a near-lock to go early to the NFL, and losing tight end David Paulson and two starting linemen hurts, but everything else is in place to go nuclear in 2012 with quarterback Darron Thomas at the helm and Barner ready to blow up. James led the nation in rushing yards per game, but Barner proved he could be every bit as devastating when called upon, rushing for 909 yards and 11 TDs.

Chris Morrison - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457398 QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson QB+Tajh+Boyd%2C+Clemson+ CFB

Almost the entire offensive line has to be replaced. Dwayne Allen, the best tight end in America, is almost certainly leaving for the NFL. And the Tigers defense has to replace a slew of key players. But Tajh has Sammy.

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is one of college football’s most dynamic playmakers, and Tajh Boyd knows how to work with him, Jaron Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and the rest of the tremendous Clemson receiving corps. The step back on D might mean Boyd will have to throw even more, and that’s a good thing. He might not be built like an NFL quarterback, but he can get the ball downfield and he should put on a tremendous show next year.

Bob Donnan - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457402 RB Michael Dyer, Auburn RB+Michael+Dyer%2C+Auburn+ CFB

The hero of the 2011 BCS Championship Game didn’t get enough credit for carrying a lousy team as far as it could go this season — at least until the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With no passing game to help the cause and a shaky offensive line struggling to pave the way, Dyer still showed just how talented he is, with a grinding, 1,242-yard, 10-touchdown season. The entire interior of the line will be back, and Onterio McCalebb will return to take some of the heat off, so if the quarterback situation can be settled early on, Dyer should be able to put up huge numbers.

John Reed - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457401 DB Tyrann Mathieu, LSU DB+Tyrann+Mathieu%2C+LSU CFB

In just his second year, he’s not eligible to turn pro until next season. As a Heisman finalist this year, he’ll be on the radar from the start next season. Although he’ll be on everyone’s All-America list and he should be just as dynamic an all-around performer, it’s asking the world of any player, no matter how great he is, to come up with play after play in key situations. Defensive players don’t win Heismans. Mathieu could be deserving if he has another year like this one, but he’ll have to blow up again as a punt returner to be back in the mix.

Derick E. Hingle - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457399 QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State QB+Braxton+Miller%2C+Ohio+State+ CFB

Let’s see if the grand experiment works. It’s Urban Meyer’s offense in the Big Ten, and Miller getting to run it. While the air attack might not be there — remember, Alex Smith and Tim Tebow put up huge, efficient passing stats under Meyer — Miller should be able to run wild.

He was already special this season in the win over Wisconsin, creating his own Heisman-like moment with the game-winning throw, and he threw for 235 yards and two scores in the near-miss against Michigan. Ready to blossom as a true sophomore, his Heisman campaign will probably roar in 2013. But if Meyer works his magic early on, Miller could be one of the stories of next year.

Andrew Weber - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457400 QB Blake Bell, Oklahoma QB+Blake+Bell%2C+Oklahoma+ CFB

Assuming Landry Jones is off to the NFL early, it will be a battle for one of college football’s premier gigs. Drew Allen could be the one for this spot if he beats out Bell, who became a bigger Tim Tebow down the stretch. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder barreled for 10 rushing touchdowns in the final five games, including four against Baylor. Not necessarily a runner, he’s a pro-style passer who happens to know how to find the end zone on the ground. Allen isn’t going to be shoved aside, though. He’s very big, very strong, has a huge arm, and brings a little mobility, too.

Sarah Glenn - Getty Images
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30456770 QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas QB+Tyler+Wilson%2C+Arkansas+ CFB

The Razorbacks had one of the best receiving corps in the nation in 2011, but Joe Adams, Greg Childs, and Jarius Wright are all leaving. However, Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino had to deal with even more adversity and more turnover this year, and Arkansas still battled for the Southeastern Conference title late into the year. The team will be fine, and the offense will be terrific again.

Wilson led the SEC in passing, completing 63 percent of his throws for 3,422 yards and 22 touchdowns with six picks. Even without the star receivers returning, he should be more than fine working behind a line that gets most of the starters back. The numbers might not be astronomical, but if Wilson can lead the team to a few key SEC wins, the respect will be there to potentially be in the chase.

Matthew Emmons - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457403 RB Knile Davis, Arkansas RB+Knile+Davis%2C+Arkansas+ CFB

Davis was the best running back in college football over the second half of the 2010 season, finishing with a bruising 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. An ankle injury this summer knocked him out for the season, but everything appears to be on track for a 100 percent return next fall. The Razorbacks proved two years ago that a high-octane passing game doesn’t take away from the ground attack. With three starters returning to next year’s line, and great prospects ready to fill the holes, a healthy Davis could be a threat for 2,000 yards.

Wesley Hitt - Getty Images
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30456802 RB James White, Wisconsin RB+James+White%2C+Wisconsin CFB

Wisconsin running backs are a little like Texas Tech quarterbacks; they don’t get as much credit as they should because of the system they’re in. Like Red Raiders passers, Badgers runners don’t produce at the next level, only feeding the idea that it’s just plug ‘n’ chug when it comes to talent. Even so, if Montee Ball leaves a year early and White is the next one to step in, the numbers could be too great to ignore.

Three starters return up front, Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen are solid targets to help the passing game be more than just along for the ride, and it’s not as though White doesn’t know what he’s doing. As a true freshman he ran for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns, and this year, despite seeing a limited role behind Ball, he ran for 683 yards and six scores.

Rick Osentoski - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457405 RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama RB+Eddie+Lacy%2C+Alabama+ CFB

Back in 2009 it was pretentiously hip to suggest that Trent Richardson was going to be better than Mark Ingram. At the very least, Richardson became the better pro prospect. Although Lacy might not be better than either of those two, he has the size and speed to be the next Tide back in the Heisman chase if he can stay healthy and put together a full season. This year, he was electric every time he touched the ball, averaging 7.5 yards per carry with seven scores on only 84 attempts.

The Tide offensive line will be fantastic, quarterback AJ McCarron will know what he’s doing. If Richardson leaves for the NFL, as expected, Lacy should be the new star.

Spruce Derden - USA TODAY Sports
CFB 24 43 2012 Heisman candidates 30457406 QB Aaron Murray, Georgia QB+Aaron+Murray%2C+Georgia+ CFB

There’s an outside chance he could bolt early for the NFL as a third-year sophomore, but he’s more likely to stick around and build up his stock before taking off in 2013. He didn’t have a slew of weapons around him after A.J. Green bolted early for the NFL, but he still led the Southeastern Conference with 33 touchdown passes and threw for an effective 2,861 yards. Next year, he’ll have rising star Malcolm Mitchell to throw to and running back Isaiah Crowell to take the heat off.

Daniel Shirey - USA TODAY Sports
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