Heisman may finally belong to a senior

Heisman may finally belong to a senior

Published Aug. 15, 2012 5:00 a.m. ET

From Tim Tebow to Robert Griffin III, underclassmen have ruled the Heisman Trophy victory party in each of the past five years.

But as the 2012 college football season approaches, we may be seeing a shift back to the old standard — old, of course, being the operative word.

For the first time in years, a talented group of seniors leads the list of preseason Hesiman Trophy candidates. That's not to say some underclassmen won't emerge as the season progresses. Who saw then-sophomore LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu as a Heisman Trophy candidate at this time a year ago?

Still, with Mathieu's recent suspension from the team, the Heisman race now appears to be predominantly a senior-laden affair. The last senior to win the Heisman was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006.

A look at five Heisman Trophy candidates at the start of the 2012 season:

USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley

Barkley surprised many when he decided to return for his senior season rather than enter the NFL draft. That decision should pay major dividends over the next five months because Barkley is considered the Heisman Trophy frontrunner while playing on a team with national championship aspirations.

Barkley's body of work in his first three seasons as USC's starting quarterback is stellar. He ranks third in career passing yardage at USC (9,054 yards) and second in touchdown passes (80). And if he plays as well as expected, he'll leave the program at the top of both lists. Carson Palmer holds the USC passing yardage record with 11,388. Matt Leinart is the program leader with 99 career touchdown passes. Both of those players won Heismans.

In most seasons, Barkley's junior season would have resulted in his earning a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. A year ago, he completed 308 of 446 passes (69.1 percent) for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 39 touchdown passes broke the Pac-12 record held by Leinart.

OK, enough with the Barkley boasting. Here's the other obvious component to Barkley's Heisman push: USC's offense is absolutely stacked. The Trojans return wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee — both of whom are legitimate All-American candidates. The two combined last season for 2,435 yards receiving and 26 touchdowns.

And by the way, let's not forget about the talented backfield duo of Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. McNeal, a senior, rushed for 1,005 yards and six touchdowns in 2011 Redd, a Penn State transfer, rushed for 1,241 yards as a sophomore last season for the Nittany Lions. Whoever gets the carries will provide a serious punch to the offense.

Add up all those quality pieces at USC, and anything short of a Heisman Trophy has to be considered a disappointment for Barkley.

Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball

Given Mathieu's dismissal from his team, Ball is the only returning Heisman Trophy finalist competing in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season. And big things are expected of Ball once again.

A year ago, he rushed for 1,923 yards with 33 touchdowns and tied the FBS single-season record with 39 touchdowns scored. But with star quarterback Russell Wilson off to the NFL and a loaded backfield behind Ball, the big question is whether Ball will be able to match those statistics and earn a spot as a Heisman finalist again.

Last season, Wisconsin's offense hummed along to the tune of 44.1 points per game, and many expect at least a slight drop-off with a new quarterback in place. Ball also could share more carries with backup running backs James White and Melvin Gordon, who are each capable of being 1,000-yard rushers if given the opportunity.

It remains to be seen how Ball responds from a tumultuous offseason. In May, he was cited for trespassing at the annual Mifflin Street Block Party for refusing to leave a resident's porch when asked by police. In an unrelated incident, Ball was the victim of an assault in the early morning hours of Aug. 1 while walking back to his apartment near campus. Police believe the assault stemmed from a fight involving Wisconsin students, including football players, a few nights earlier. Ball was present at the fight but has denied any involvement.

Ball apologized to his teammates during the first week of fall practices for being a distraction and seems hell-bent on proving his offseason was out of character. Ball, who sustained a concussion in the assault, will return to full-contact drills on Aug. 20.

“I've read a couple (stories) basically saying I'm kind of drawing a pattern here," Ball said during Wisconsin's media day on Sunday. “But no, that's not true at all. People who know me know how I am, how I carry myself."

Oklahoma senior quarterback Landry Jones

All Landry Jones had to do when he began his Oklahoma career was replace Sam Bradford, a Heisman Trophy winner and the eventual No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL draft.

No sweat.

Jones filled in admirably as a freshman in 2009 when Bradford went down with an injury, and he has continued to churn through Oklahoma's passing records. Jones is already the Sooners' all-time leading passer with 12,389 yards and could reach as high as second in college football history. Former Hawaii quarterback Tommy Chang is currently second with 17,072 yards.

Jones also has thrown 93 touchdown passes and should finish in the top five all-time in that category — former BYU quarterback Ty Detmer is fifth with 121 touchdowns.

The passing records are great, but it's up to Jones to push Oklahoma back into the national championship picture. During his time, the Sooners have played in one BCS bowl game — the Fiesta Bowl two seasons ago. They also have appeared in the Sun Bowl and the Insight Bowl, which are never on an Oklahoma football fan's wish list at the start of the season.

Oklahoma begins the year ranked No. 4 in the coaches poll and is expected to win the Big 12 championship and compete for much more. Winning games certainly won't hurt Jones' chances in the Heisman race.

Jones has a couple of nice options at wide receiver this season. Kenny Stills caught 61 passes for 849 yards with eight touchdowns a year ago. Freshman Trey Metoyer was the star of the spring game when he caught six passes for 72 yards and could provide the Sooners and Jones a lift now that NCAA career receptions leader Ryan Broyles is gone to graduation.

Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson

We all know Robinson is fast. Maybe not Usain Bolt fast — even if he thinks so — but certainly one of the fastest, most difficult quarterbacks to bring down in college football history. Robinson already owns the NCAA single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback after gaining 1,702 yards on the ground in 2010. He ranks 13th in career rushing yards by a quarterback with 3,229.

But in order to become an elite-level quarterback, Robinson must demonstrate an ability to beat teams with his arm.

Last season, Robinson experienced a drop-off in his overall passing numbers from the previous year. He completed 142 of 258 passes (55.0 percent) for 2,173 yards, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Six times last season, he failed to complete at least half his passes in games.

Robinson will have to improve his numbers while playing with one of the most inexperienced wide receiving groups at Michigan in recent memory. Last season, Roy Roundtree, a fifth-year senior, caught 19 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns in offensive coordinator Al Borges' new offense. Junior Jeremy Gallon caught 31 passes. Beyond those two players, the Wolverines are unproven at wideout.

Still, Michigan is considered the favorite to win the Big Ten this season, and Robinson — barring injury — should have a standout senior season.

While electrifying plays certainly make the highlight reels, consistency makes a true Heisman Trophy finalist. And Robinson can state his case for the Heisman Trophy immediately, when Michigan plays defending national champion Alabama at Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 1.

West Virginia senior quarterback Geno Smith

There is a reason four of the five players listed here are quarterbacks. Dating back to 2000, 10 of the 11 Heisman Trophy winners have been quarterbacks (running back Reggie Bush's vacated 2005 victory is not included).

Smith could be a darkhorse candidate to take home the Heisman. He is a three-year starting quarterback at West Virginia who set the Big East single-season passing record last year. The offensive system under coach Dana Holgorsen is pass-happy, and that can certainly skew statistics when it comes to comparing Heisman Trophy candidates.

Still, Smith's production must at least be considered in the Heisman race. He threw for 309 yards as a freshman, 2,763 yards as a sophomore and 4,385 yards as a junior. What he does for an encore performance in the new-look Big 12 will be interesting to see.

The last image college football fans have of Smith is his scintillating performing during West Virginia's 70-33 Orange Bowl victory against Clemson. Smith completed 32 of 43 passes for six touchdowns and rushed for another score.

The legitimacy of Smith's Heisman candidacy in 2012 will be determined when West Virginia plays its Big 12 schedule, which features games against Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU.

Given the offensive system West Virginia plays, Smith likely will have to produce a season that is far and away superior to that of any player in college football. If he can throw for at least 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns, he'll certainly be in the Heisman conversation. Of course, that doesn't guarantee a trip to New York in the top five.

Last season, Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw for 5,631 yards, 48 touchdowns and five interceptions and finished seventh in the Heisman voting.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.