No matter how confident one may feel about the Heisman race heading into a season, things don't always go according to plan.
The last three years are good examples that.
Though Robert Griffin III did make the Heismanpundit.com preseason Heisman Watch list in 2011, it took a miraculous ending against Oklahoma in mid-November to cement his legitimacy as a candidate.
And while I did explicitly hail Cam Newton as a potential Heisman candidate--first out of high school and then out of junior college--his remarkable 2010 season was not something I was able to foresee.
Even Mark Ingram's narrowest of Heisman wins in 2009 came out of the blue.
You might say that the Heisman race is changing before our very eyes. The advent of social media, the rapid proliferation of information and the shortening of the news cycle has made it easier for insurgent candidates to emerge.
Sometimes, all it takes is one play.
I recently put out the list of the 10 players most likely to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy, with another 10 below that who could also make run. Now it's time to dig a little deeper, to look out for those players who might really jump up and surprise us.
This year's top 10 Heisman dark horses (in no particular order):
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama -- The case for Lacy is based on simple math. The 6-foot-0, 220-pound junior carried the ball 95 times for 674 yards last season (a remarkable 7.1 yards per tote) and now a large chunk of Trent Richardson's 283 carries from last season are likely to go to Lacy, who should–conservatively–top the 200 carry mark (provided he stays healthy). That means if he averages just 6.1 yards per rush instead of the 7.1 he averaged last year, he's looking at a minimum of 1,220 yards on the ground. He's not the talent that Richardson is, but if he is relied upon as much as Richardson was last year, he'll be a Heisman candidate in the Tide's run-heavy offense.
Braxton Miller, QB,
Kiehl Frazier, QB, Auburn -- Frazier hasn't even locked down the starting position for Auburn yet, but he's a big-time dual-threat talent who should shine once he gets some more playing time under his belt. One question mark is how smooth the switch from Gus Malzahn's system to new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler's will be. It's a possibility that Frazier just isn't a good fit for the pro-style aspects of the new scheme. But if Frazier is handed the keys to the Auburn offense–and is used correctly–he'll develop into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the year. For a guy who threw for just 34 yards and rushed for 327 last year, this may seem like a stretch. But he's got the skills to do it. If the new OC doesn't screw things up--and if you see a lot of Clint Moseley this year, you'll know he has--then I expect a 2,000/1,000-type year from Frazier.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State -- It's fun to see a good football rushing duo grinding out the yards. But with rare exceptions, one back is always clearly better than the other. We saw last year how Montee Ball separated himself from James White. Eric Dickerson pretty much left Craig James in the dust back in the early 1980s. And last year, Bell showed he was superior to Edwin Baker. Bell rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns in his sophomore season, while Baker (coming off a 1,200-yard campaign in '10) fell to 665 yards and a 3.9 average. Bell was very consistent, averaging 13 carries per game, but I expect that number to jump to 20 per game in '12 as the Spartans rely on the running game more with the loss of quarterback Kirk Cousins to graduation. The 6-2, 237-pound Bell should become the workhorse of the Spartan offense. His yards per carry average may drop a bit, but he'll probably rush for at least 1,300 yards, if not more.
Christine Michael, RB, Texas A&M -- It's common sense to project that Michael, a talented senior who ran for 899 yards last season, will improve his numbers thanks to the loss of backfield mate Cyrus Gray to the NFL. Michael got about 43 percent of the carries in 2011 in an offense that also featured Ryan Tannehill's 306 rushing yards. With both Gray and Tannehill gone, Michael is now the focus of the offense, which means he'll probably carry the ball upwards of 250 times this season. As a result, he should be in the conversation as one of the top backs in the newly-reconfigured SEC and, if he stays healthy, he could have an All-American-level season. If he can do that against a schedule that includes Arkansas, Alabama and LSU, he might emerge as a Heisman candidate. One wildcard in all this is the development of true freshman Trey Williams, who is the Aggies' tailback of the future. Williams has the potential to steal a lot of carries from Michael as the season wears on.
Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma -- How can a player who is a backup quarterback at the start of a season--to a legitimate Heisman candidate, no less--possibly be on this list? Well, we are talking about dark horses and long shots here. It recognizes that some quirky things might have to happen for any of these scenarios to occur. Such is the case with Bell, a sophomore who rushed for 13 touchdowns last year as a specialist out of the 'Bell-dozer' formation. While the 6-foot-6, 245-pound wunderkind has been pigeonholed as a runner, he did complete 14 of 19 passes for 179 yards in the Sooners' most recent spring game. The setup for his potential Heisman run is not unlike that of Tim Tebow's, who spent his freshman year as a celebrated goal-line quarterback before taking over the starting job as a sophomore. The only problem is the status of Landry Jones as Oklahoma's current starter. But stranger things have happened. Should Jones get hurt or fail to perform as expected, Bell could step in and become a phenom. It wouldn't be the first time a young, mobile quarterback filled in admirably for an injured pocket passer in Norman. Whatever the case, keep an eye on Bell for future Heisman consideration.
Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern -- Colter is one of the most entertaining players to watch in college football. The junior triple-threat did well last season stepping in for an injured Dan Persa, rushing for 654 yards and nine touchdowns and passing for 673 yards and six scores (with just one pick). Oh, he also caught 43 passes for 466 yards and three TDs. If there's a better a better example of the word 'versatile' out there, then I'd like to see it. With Persa gone, Colter takes over the quarterback spot and I expect he'll have a highly-productive season. The schedule provides a solid chance to start the season 7-0 before a game against Nebraska, a team Colter helped upset in Lincoln last year. An exciting player leading the Miracle 'Cats to a magical season could mean a dark horse Heisman dark run is in store.
Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State -- Randle rushed for 1,216 yards, caught 43 passes and scored 26 touchdowns last season as a sophomore. The question with him is whether he can improve upon those numbers without Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon on hand to take some of the pressure off. It could be that having true freshman Wes Lunt at quarterback plus three new offensive line starters hurts Randle's effectiveness. On the other hand, Randle might get more chances to shine now that he is the top returning offensive weapon for OSU. If Randle can handle that responsibility, he'll have better production in the wide-open Cowboy scheme. A huge season by Randle would get him in the Heisman conversation.
Mike Glennon, QB,
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford -- The Cardinal have produced the last three Heisman runners up, so why not take into account the possibility of yet another Stanford player making a run at it? After two-straight 1,000-yard seasons (including 1,330 last year), Taylor's coaches say 2,000 yards is within reach. "That's the goal," Taylor confirmed to me at Pac-12 media day in July. The end of the Andrew Luck era could well mean that the Cardinal offense leans heavily on Taylor, a low-to-the-ground runner with good balance and toughness. Considering Toby Gerhart went for nearly 1,900 yards in 2009, Taylor's goal isn't far-fetched. So maybe he'll break the three-year Stanford runner-up string, but in a positive fashion.