By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
Sports Network (Philadelphia, PA) - This time last year, few people predicted that Robert Griffin III would be hoisting the Heisman Trophy at season's end.
So while this upcoming college football season has its share of favorites for the Football Bowl Subdivision's top individual honor, there are also a number of dark horses hoping to take the leap into super-stardom.
The following is a list of ten early Heisman Trophy contenders:
Matt Barkley, QB, USC - It appears as though the stars are beginning to align for Barkley in 2012. A starter since his freshman year, Barkley has shown marked improvement with each passing season, culminating in a spectacular 2011 campaign where he completed 69.1 percent of his passes for 3,528 yards to go along with a school-record 39 passing touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The high-powered Trojan offense remains mostly intact from a year ago - including an explosive receiver to be revealed later in the list - which not only makes Barkley the favorite for the award, but it makes USC one of the top contenders to win the BCS National Championship.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin - Ball's junior season was one for the record books. On 307 carries, Ball gained an incredible 1,923 yards and found the end zone 33 times on the ground. His 39 total touchdowns tied Barry Sanders' single-season record and he stands alone with the record for most consecutive games with two or more touchdowns (13). Ball has a few things going against him however. Even with his monster season in 2011, he finished fourth in the Heisman voting, receiving just 22 first-place votes (RG III had 405 first-place votes). Even under perfect circumstances, it seems unlikely that Ball can come close to duplicating his historic 2011 numbers, and the Badgers head into 2012 with questions at quarterback and along the offensive line.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina - After scoring 19 touchdowns as a freshman in 2010, Lattimore was well on his way to becoming a potential Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 before suffering a season-ending injury in October. The sophomore's numbers were astounding in just over six games (818 rushing yards, 182 receiving yards, 11 TDs). He returns in 2012 fully healthy and will again be the focal point for a very good Gamecocks team. With Trent Richardson now a member of the Cleveland Browns, Lattimore's combination of physical gifts and on-the-field production make him the most talented back in the nation's most competitive conference.
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma - Unlike Barkley, Jones took a step backward in his junior season after establishing himself as one of the nation's best quarterbacks earlier in his career. He threw for an impressive 4,463 yards in 2011, but he was also picked off a career-high 15 times and seemed to come up small in big games, combining for zero touchdowns and three interceptions in crucial losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State. Jones clearly has the pedigree to make it on to this list, but he'll need to lead Oklahoma back to a BCS bowl game to have any shot at winning the award.
Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan - After leading his team to an 11-2 record and a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, 'Shoelace' Robinson proved that he was way more than just a flashy playmaker in 2011. He has become one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in NCAA history after throwing for at least 2,000 yards and rushing for at least 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, setting countless Michigan and Big Ten Conference records in the process. If Robinson can take the next step in making the Wolverines not only the favorites in the Big Ten but a national title contender as well, he seems likely to get an invitation to New York City in December as a Heisman finalist, and perhaps be Barkley's biggest competition.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU - Mathieu was named a Heisman finalist in 2011 in his sophomore season after an outstanding year for the SEC champion Tigers. The cornerback showed remarkable play-making ability on both defense (71 tackles, two interceptions, six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, two touchdowns) and on special teams (26 punt returns for 420 yards and two touchdowns). There's no doubt Mathieu is a special player, but it's difficult to forecast another season where he scores four touchdowns. Charles Woodson is the only defensive player to win the award since 1961, and like Woodson, Mathieu will again need to make a huge impact on special teams to have any chance in 2012.
Robert Woods, WR, USC - In reality, Woods' quarterback will likely steal most of his votes, but as arguably the nation's best receiver, he deserves some love on this list. As a sophomore, Woods was fantastic, earning First-Team All- America honors after finishing with 111 receptions (a Pac-12 Conference record), 1,292 yards, and 15 touchdowns. With another year together with Barkley, it's scary to think of the numbers the two can put up.
Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia - Smith set the Big East Conference on fire last season, thriving under head coach Dana Holgorsen's new pass-based offensive system to the tune of conference-record 4,379 yards and 31 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. He capped off his record-setting year with an amazing performance in the Mountaineers' 70-33 shellacking of Clemson in the Orange Bowl with 401 yards and six touchdowns. West Virginia moves from the Big East to the Big 12 this season, but Smith and company shouldn't miss a beat in their new pass-happy conference.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson - Watkins in a wild card here due to his unlimited upside as a big-play receiver. After hauling in 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2011, the 6-1 receiver became just the third true freshman ever to be named First-Team All-American by the AP, joining Herschel Walker and Adrian Peterson. Watkins was also an asset in the running game (229 rushing yards) and on special teams (695 return yards), and if he progresses at all in his sophomore campaign, it's going to be hard to ignore him.
Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas - Davis was red-shirted in 2011 following a season- ending ankle injury suffered in practice last August, and without him Arkansas still managed to make noise in the SEC West with an 11-2 record. Now healthy, the junior will attempt to improve upon his 2010 season, when he was one of the most effective backs in the conference with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. Also keep an eye on Razorback quarterback Tyler Wilson, who tossed 24 touchdowns against just six interceptions last season, as another dark horse, as Arkansas dives into the 2012 season as a team with both the ability and opportunity to make headway in the BCS standings.
06/27 10:45:53 ET