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The Race For The 2012 Heisman Trophy

The Heisman Trophy will be awarded on Saturday night (7 PM ET, ESPN) from New York City, and three players have gotten invites—the favorites appear to be Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel along with Notre Dame linebacker Mantei Te’o, with Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein along for the ride. Did the right people get invites to the Big Apple? Who should win the award? TheSportsNotebook scours the nation conference-by-conference to hash out our final 2012 Heisman Trophy ballot.

Let me begin with a disclaimer—I’m not including Te’o in this analysis, nor do I intend to pick him for the award. I have nothing against a defensive player being chosen—in fact I’m all for it, so long as it can be done on the same kind of comprehensive analysis we might give a skill position player. Unless you’re a coach or an advanced sabermetrician, I don’t see any way of doing that.

As a result, I think any traction defensive players get is even more hype-driven than that of quarterbacks, running backs or receivers, because it’s based on too limited a study of the player. So before Notre Dame fans come after me, let me reiterate that I have no problem with Te’o winning, but I don’t feel in a position to cast an informed ballot on a defensive player, and frankly I doubt too many Heisman voters are either.

One thing I do take a serious look at is the question of exclusive value—a fancy way of saying that I like players for whom the entire offense is built, not ones who pile up big numbers with an impressive supporting cast around them. There’s a word for the latter—a great team (or at least a great offense). We honor them with high national rankings and major bowl bids. The Heisman is an individual award. I’m going to impressed with a player who had a huge load on his shoulders each week, even if his team ended up 7-5.

What we’ll now do is go through all six BCS conferences, plus touch on the best players at the mid-major level. With each league, I’ll either pick a Conference Player of the Year or, if there are multiple good candidates, at least list who I’d invite to New York. Then we’ll wrap up the article up with our own version of the ceremony and pick a winner.

BIG 12: How did we forget West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith? In September, he was the one everyone anointed for the honor, now he can’t even get a ticket to Broadway. Here’s what Smith did—he threw for over 4,000 yards, completed 71 percent of his passes, and had 40 touchdowns against six interceptions. Forty touchdown passes! And when you look at how bad this team’s defense is, how can you hold the 7-5 record against him? If Smith wouldn’t have been the quarterback, the Mountaineers might have belonged at a lower level of college football.

Klein is a worthy candidate as well, with a balance of throwing the ball and running it. While his raw yardage of volume is well behind Smith, K-State often led in games and Klein didn’t need to throw as much. He also rushed for 890 yards, and his yards per attempt was better than Smith (9.2 to 8.2).

I’ll defer making a pick on who should rank higher, because I’d be sending both of these quarterbacks invites to New York City. In the meantime, let’s given an honorable mention shout-out to Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle, with 1,351 yards and stabilizing an offense that changed its quarterbacks in and out throughout the season.

SEC: Have you wondered if maybe Manziel is a product of the media hype machine—a late-season win over Alabama, the little nickname “Johnny Football” and all that? Wonder no more—the kid is for real and the ‘Bama game was just his coming out party. He completes 68 percent of his throws, piled up 3,419 yards, keeps his mistakes to a minimum and did it against a schedule that had only one really easy game, a non-conference date with South Carolina State—and that was the one game he didn’t stuff the stat sheet. And he also rushed for 1,181 yards. Manziel does it all and he was at his best in the biggest games.

As a result he’s an easy choice for SEC Player of the Year. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron was brilliantly efficient, but has two 1,000 yard backs and a tough defense to back him up. Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley make a great throwing/running duo, but they complement each other. And a tip of the hat to wide receivers Cobi Hamilton at Arkansas and Jordan Matthews for Vanderbilt, who led the league in receiving without great quarterback play. But no one compares to Manziel who deserves his NYC trip.

PAC-12: In a world where it’s been tough to get beyond quarterbacks, the Pac-12’s best candidates are in the backfield and on the flanks. That’s thanks to a tough year from Matt Barkley—at least tough by the standards of this article. The USC quarterback got the numbers, but threw 15 interceptions. UCLA freshman Brett Hundley had more passing yards than anyone, but had 11 picks. By the way, Hundley was sacked 46 times. Get this guy some protection, would you please?

So we put our focus on elite running backs in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Oregon’s Kenjon Barner, Stanford’s Stephan Taylor and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin.  In the case of Taylor, he might be the best of the group when it comes to NFL potential, but his 1,400-plus yards are the lowest raw total, so he’s off the board. Barner has the support of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, not just passing, but running.

The debate between Carey and Franklin is a good one—the Arizona back has a few more yards (1,757 to 1,700) and didn’t have the Pac-12’s most prolific passer leading his offense. But Franklin came up absolutely huge in the season’s biggest games—Nebraska (217 yards), Arizona State (164), Arizona (162), USC (171) and Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game (194). Carey dazzled with his 366 yards against Colorado, but was less productive against UCLA and Oregon. For that reason, I’m going to give Franklin a lean.

We still have a wide receiver on the board though, and that’s Marqise Lee at USC. He produced 1,680 yards on receiving, with huge games against UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon and Arizona. He was far and away Barkley’s top target and with the Trojan running game often inconsistent, opposing defenses could feel comfortable targeting Lee. It’s for that reason that, even though no one in this league goes to New York, I give Lee a slight edge on Franklin for Pac-12 Player of the Year.

BIG EAST: I’m going to keep this one easy. It’s Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The numbers are there across the board and he never played a bad game, including taking the field against Rutgers in the season finale with his non-throwing hand broken and putting up a 20/28 for 263 yards and two touchdowns against an elite defense that had the ‘Ville in a 14-3 hole. He carried his team to the Sugar Bowl. And he should have gotten a plane ticket to New York along with it.

ACC: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd had a lot of hype coming in, and he earned it with a 67% completion rate, still getting big plays (9.4 yards per pass), 3,550 yards and 34 touchdown passes. But he had a lot of help, from Andre Ellington in the backfield to the conference’s leading receiver in DeAndre Hopkins. Consequently, I’d like to find someone who really fit the criteria of most valuable.

N.C. State’s Mike Glennon had more raw yardage than Boyd and less help, but a 58% completion percentage is too low in this day and age. Boston College receiver Alex Amidon had 1,210 yards and no support to speak of, but I’m not ready to sell whatever minimal credibility I have in pushing him for league MVP. The player I like is North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard.

Bernard had 1,228 yards on the ground and a dazzling 6.7 yards per carry. While quarterback Bryn Renner had a good year, the Tar Heels were still most reliant on Bernard and this is a team that was best in the Coastal Division, if not for their probation. The Carolina back won’t be in my version of New York City, but he’s ACC Player of the Year.

BIG TEN: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is the favorite and I can see why—while the passing numbers are suspect—58% completion, only 2,039 yards—he also ran for 1,271 yards and was, save a few showings from running back Carlos Hyde, the focal point of an offense for a team that went undefeated.

A good argument can be made by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball—an argument in the form of 1,730 yards, 5.2 per pop, and huge games like Ohio State (191), Penn State (111), Indiana for the division title (198) and finally Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game (202). He did it for a team that played three quarterbacks all year long. This is a close call, but while my heart is with Ball, I’d have to lean Miller by a nose.

THE MID-MAJORS: Jordan Lynch is all the rage right now, as the Northern Illinois quarterback led his team to a well-earned Orange Bowl bid. Let’s start with the fact that as a quarterback he was the MAC’s leading rusher—and with 1,771 yards that in fact makes him the nation’s leading rusher. Then he threw for almost 3,000 yards and had a 24/5 ration on TDs-Interceptions. If this can’t get him to New York, I don’t know what can.

THE FINAL BALLOT

I’ve got five players in New York City—Klein and Smith from the Big 12, then Manziel, Bridgewater and Lynch. I’ll start by eliminating the Louisville quarterback, who I’d have fifth on my ballot nationally. Then I’d give Smith the edge over Klein in the Big 12 primary, because of the stunning 40/6 TD-INT ratio. While both quarterbacks had huge responsibilities in the framework of their offense, Smith was the one who had to take chances every time he had the ball, because his team’s defense was so awful. And yet he still only threw six picks. I’m slotting Klein in the fourth spot and narrowing the debate to Manziel, Smith and Lynch.

At this point, I can see a very credible case for any of the three players, so now is where I finally have to play the snob and eliminate a player because he’s from the midmajors. Lynch settles in at third place, although it’s paining me with each keyboard strike.

Now we’re down to Smith-Manziel. I actually give West Virginia the edge in top-to-bottom schedule strength, because the SEC was awful at the bottom, while the Big 12 sent nine of its ten teams to bowls and their league requires that you play every single one. But if we want to say how many elite teams each quarterback faced, we can spin it for Manziel. The SEC had six teams that are genuinely Top 10 caliber, including A&M. Manziel faced three of the other five (Alabama, LSU, Florida). But he did not play well in the latter two cases.

In the end, I’m just leaning Geno Smith. I feel like this is a case of a quarterback being held responsible for the failings of the rest of his team. Smith played a tough schedule week-in, week-out, piled up dazzling numbers and took an otherwise pretty bad team and put them into a bowl game. I respect a vote for Johnny Football. I can see a case for Lynch being on the top line. But the vote of TheSportsNotebook goes to West Virginia’s Geno Smith.

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