Matt Barkley, quarterback, USC
Matt Barkley surprised a lot of pundits by announcing that he would return to USC despite a promising 2012 NFL Draft projection. Barkley will be one of several pre-season Heisman favorites after throwing for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and breaking a school single-game passing touchdown record (6). Barkley undoubtedly is looking forward to being bowl-eligible with two loaded weapons at his disposal (also on this Heisman watch list) to play pitch-and-catch with.
De'Anthony Thomas, running back/kick returner, Oregon
De'Anthony Thomas finally got to show off how dangerous a runner he is when he rushed for 155 yards on two plays in the Rose Bowl game against Wisconsin. Thomas has great burst of speed and ankle-breaking moves but he played sparingly due to team mates LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner getting most of the carries—he made up for the rushing yards in his kick return yardage (983 yards, two touchdowns). Thomas rushed for 595 yards on 55 carries for seven touchdowns and an astounding 10.8 yards per carry for the 2011 season.
Manti Te'o, linebacker, Notre Dame
Manti Te'o announced at the Lott Trophy ceremony that he would return to Notre Dame for another year due to some "unfinished business." Irish fans got an early Christmas present because Te'o had been the driving force of Notre Dame's defense in 2011. In the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State, Te'o had 14 tackles (eight solo) and a half sack. He should be a contender for most major defensive awards this year but is a long shot to go to New York this December.
Tajh Boyd, quarterback, Clemson
Tajh Boyd had a rough time toward the end of the season but he was still named First-Team All-ACC. Boyd set single-season school records for most passing yards, most offense and most touchdown passes. In a weird twist of fate, Boyd had one of his poorest performances of this season in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia, a school that he originally committed to while he was in high school. With one full year of starting experience under his belt and a more efficient defense (hopefully) to help him out, 2012 should be special for Boyd.
Montee Ball, running back, Wisconsin
Since Montee Ball has decided to return to Wisconsin for one more year, the 2012 Heisman race just got more interesting. Ball, a 2011 Heisman finalist finishing fourth to Baylor's Robert Griffin III, tied Barry Sanders' single-season rushing touchdown record (39) during the second quarter of the Rose Bowl game. Ball rushed for 1,923 yards in 2011, more than any other running back in FBS. Ball, obviously, is a pre-season favorite.
Keith Price, quarterback, Washington
Keith Price is well-known to Pac-12 fans but he made a national splash after his spectacular showing at the Alamo Bowl. Price scored seven touchdowns—four passing, three rushing—and threw for 438 yards in a losing cause to Baylor. For the season, Price passed for 33 touchdowns (a school single-season record) and 3,063 yards and posted a 161.9 passer rating. Life after Jake Locker looks good.
Landry Jones, quarterback, Oklahoma
Landry Jones is probably one of the most underrated and underappreciated quarterbacks in the country. A lot of pressure was put on Jones when leading rusher Dominique Whaley and star wide receiver Ryan Broyles both went down with injury but Jones had a very solid year passing for over 4,400 yards and 29 touchdowns. With all eyes on Montee Ball and Matt Barkley, I still expect Jones to be in the mix for a trip to New York.
Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, Louisville
Louisville has a very agile quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Scout.com's Mike Hughes said this about Bridgewater in December: "Bridgewater isn’t the future of Louisville football. He is Louisville football after completing, perhaps, the best freshmen season in program history."
Starting as a true freshman in 2011, Bridgewater completed 64.5 percent of his passes and threw for 2,129 yards. He's got some work to do on minimizing mistakes (14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) but for all intents and purposes, Bridgewater could be the biggest sleeper of the year in the Heisman race.
Denard Robinson, quarterback, Michigan
Denard Robinson is one of the most exciting players in college football. A dual-threat quarterback, Robinson is a gifted athlete who is still working to improve in his accuracy—Robinson tends to "heave" the ball rather than "rifle' it in to his target. Still, Robinson, according to Yahoo!Sports, has filed paperwork with the NFL Draft Advisory Board but as of this posting time, no decision has been made.
Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback/punt returner, LSU
Tyrann Mathieu, aka Honey Badger, made such an impact in the 2011 season that he was sent to New York as a Heisman finalist. In fact, one wonders how many more votes he would have received if it weren't for a one-game suspension he served out in the Tigers' game against Auburn. Still, for a sophomore defensive player to be named a Heisman finalist is impressive and if he can keep out of trouble, Mathieu should be a serious contender this year.
Isaiah Crowell, running back, Georgia
Isaiah Crowell had an incredible freshman year rushing for 850 yards—if he hadn't missed two games (New Mexico State, Georgia Tech) he would have probably reached the 1,000 yard milestone. Crowell battled an ankle injury that caused him to miss action in the Georgia Tech game and he was suspended for the New Mexico State game. The Bulldogs ended their season on a low-note bookending their 0-2 season start with a 0-2 season ending, but Crowell was still a big bright note for the Bulldogs.
Robert Woods, receiver, USC
Robert Woods made the vertical game more fun again at USC. Woods electrified Trojans fans with his ability to get open and pile on the yards-after-catch. Woods broke school reception records as well as a conference record for catches in a single-season, but didn't sniff the school's single-season receiving yardage record (1,520) set by Johnnie Morton in 1993. Woods finished the season with 111 catches and 1,292 yards and was the eighth most productive receiver in FBS.
Sammy Watkins, receiver/kick returner, Clemson
Sammy Watkins had a spectacular freshman year—the Clemson receiver was named first team All-American and ACC Freshman of the Year, among other honors. Watkins, a true freshman, racked up 1,225 yards and 12 touchdowns in the receiving category and 826 yards in the kick return category. Every time Watkins touches the ball, opposing team coaches take a deep breath.
Marqise Lee, receiver, USC
While teammate Robert Woods was turning the media's heads in 2011, Marqise Lee was putting together quite a year himself. Lee caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lee's impact was most remarkable in his last two games of the 2011 season—against Oregon, Lee caught eight passes for 187 yards and a touchdown and then bested that mark against UCLA the following week with 13 catches, 224 yards and two touchdowns.
Marcus Lattimore, running back, South Carolina
Marcus Lattimore actually appeared on a few Heisman watch lists in 2011 but a serious knee injury in South Carolina's game with Mississippi State ended his campaign. Lee only played in seven games but still rushed for 818 yards and ten touchdowns, including a whooping 246 yards against Navy. Lattimore, Scout.com's No. 1 ranked running back for the class of 2010, will no doubt be on every Heisman watch list this year but his surgically repaired knee is a concern.
*While Alabama running back Trent Richardson has not announced his decision on his plans for 2012, reliable sources indicate he will forego another year at Alabama and declare for the 2012 NFL Draft.