1. Matt Barkley - Senior QB, Southern California
Barkley is the de-facto Heisman leader heading into the season, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He is burdened with guiding a thin USC team to a National Championship and brushed away a spot in the NFL in order to come back for his senior season. He passed for 3,528 yards last season, along with 39 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions. While he may be the most talented quarterback in the nation, recent history says he is facing an uphill battle. With all eyes on him this season, if he doesn’t produce stellar numbers, then he his stock will drop. Andrew Luck entered last season as the massive favorite and left empty-handed. Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy all came back for another season in 2009 only to see Mark Ingram sneak up and take the Heisman. It’s why the games are played every week.
2. Marcus Lattimore - Junior RB, South Carolina
The most talented offensive weapon in the SEC has something to prove this season. After injuring his knee against Mississippi State in late October, Lattimore missed the final six games of the season in 2011. Though South Carolina went 5-1 in those final six games, a 16-point loss to Arkansas could have had a little different result with South Carolina’s best player on the field. Additionally, a win in that game would have propelled South Carolina into the SEC title game. With 110 yards on 23 carries to go along with a pair of touchdowns in a close victory over Vanderbilt in Thursday’s opener, he’s already made a statement.
3. Montee Ball - Senior RB, Wisconsin
A year removed from setting all sorts of records in the Big Ten, Ball also spurned an opportunity in the NFL to return for his senior season in Madison. The workhorse for the Badgers ran for nearly 2,000 yards and led the nation in scoring with 39 touchdowns in 2011. Ball carried the rock 307 times last season and his load should increase with the departure of quarterback Russell Wilson. But as he becomes the focus of opposing defenses, he will need his new quarterback, Danny O’Brien, to pull some of the defenders out of the box to give him running room. And with 568 carries so far in his carrer, he has a lot of wear on his tires, and it could start to show this season. Ball’s biggest opponent may be himself: if he can’t repeat his historic output from last season, then his stock will drop throughout the season.
4. Denard Robinson-Senior QB, Michigan
Many consider Robinson to be the most electric player in the country heading into the season, and with the expectations surrounding Michigan has this season, he will be in the spotlight often. He will have many chances to wow the voters, and his first test comes in the season opener against Alabama. If he is able to slice through the Tide defense like he did often last year, then he will be the early frontrunner. But in the same vein, his campaign could be derailed if the Alabama defense shuts him down. Entering his third year as starter, Robinson’s numbers actually went down last season from the previous one; he showed a decrease in rushing totals, as well as a significant drop in completion percentage. In order for him to be a legitimate Heisman contender, he has to be able to distribute the ball with his arm, not just those unlaced shoes.
5. Everyone else
The field has produced the last three Heisman winners: Robert Griffin III out of Baylor, Cam Newton of Auburn, and Ingram during Alabama’s first national title run under Nick Saban. This year’s field features Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, Oregon backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, and Geno Smith of West Virginia. Additionally, the field includes every other player in America. If Barkley loses two games, Lattimore and Ball both fail to carry the load as the main focus of their offenses and if Robinson is unable to make strides this season, then the Heisman race will be wide open for anyone who is propelling their team towards the top of the national rankings. Watch out for Stanford freshman running back Barry Sanders Jr. — he’s got a great name.
All stats and numbers obtained from either ESPN.com or the official NCAA statistics site.