The campaign for the 2012 Heisman Trophy officially gets underway this week.
As with elections of the Presidential variety, the early contests do matter and help to set the stage for the long slog ahead.
Established candidates have a chance to confirm the preseason hype. Insurgent candidates have a chance to burst onto the scene.
Don't be lulled into thinking that these early-season games don't play a factor in the Heisman race just because so many of them are unattractive mismatches.
For many of the candidates, they will serve as 'stat builders' to make their overall season more appealing to the voters. In a game of averages, rushing for 200 yards against a directional school will help make up for that 70-yard effort later in the season. Do voters remember in December that X-amount of a great player's yardage came against bad teams early on? Not really. They only notice if the bottom line production isn't there.
Let's also not forget that a huge performance in a marquee opener can launch a campaign with gusto. Just look back to last season and Robert Griffin III's magnificient game against TCU. After that nailbiter, RG3 was on the Heisman map.
So let's take a look at the first week of games and how they will affect the Heisman race:
South Carolina at Vanderbilt -- College football 2012 kicks off with a Thursday night SEC matchup that a lot of people will be watching. This is Marcus Lattimore's chance to make a sparkling debut and launch himself into the upper tier of Heisman candidates. Getting over 100 yards will keep him in the conversation, but getting 150-plus will really do the trick. Of course, if he is bottled up by the Commodores, it might take a while for him to receover. He'll have to go on a tear afterward to make up for it.
Boise State at Michigan State -- This is another game where a Heisman dark horse could conceivably emerge. Junior running back Le'Veon Bell should explode this season into a 1,500-yard back and putting on a show in the opener against a respected (albeit rebuilding) program would draw considerable notice. It's been 25 years since a Spartan runner has made a peep in the Heisman race. If Bell is going to do so, it must begin on Friday night.
San Jose State at Stanford -- We include Stanford on this list as a point of intrigue. After all, the Cardinal have produced the last three Heisman runners up. And with the buzz out of Stanford being that they're hoping for 2,000 yards out of senior running back Stepfan Taylor, it might be worthwhile to keep an eye on this one. Taylor had just 61 yards against the Spartans last season. He'll need to triple that total to raise an eyebrow or two and get on the Heisman radar.
Marshall at West Virginia -- If Geno Smith is going to win the Heisman, he'll probably have to do so by producing a season that is clearly and inarguably superior to those of his competitors. In recent Heisman history, that has meant approaching or surpassing the 50 total touchdown mark on the season. Tim Tebow (55), Sam Bradford (55), Cam Newton (50) and Robert Griffin III (47) all did that in their Heisman-winning seasons. For Smith to do so, the math is simple: He'll have to average around four total touchdowns per game. The opener against Marshall gives him a chance to get a leg up on that number. If he throws and runs for over four touchdowns, he'll be right on schedule. If he doesn't, he'll have to make up for it later, which could be problematic. Whatever the case, this is a chance to get his Heisman campaign off to a good start.
Buffalo at Georgia -- There's not much upside to this game when it comes to Aaron Murray's quest for the Heisman, but a sluggish outing would no doubt put more pressure on him the following week against Missouri. For Murray to win the trophy, he'll need to lead Georgia to an undefeated season and put up Heisman-worthy stats, so it's important that he take advantage of a weak opponent and pile up superlative numbers while he can.
Northern Iowa at Wisconsin -- I can't imagine that Montee Ball will get more than 20 carries in this one. As long as he gets his 100-plus yards and continues his remarkable 17-game regular-season streak of two or more touchdowns per game, then he'll come out of this with his Heisman reputation intact.
Murray State at Florida State -- EJ Manuel is in the same boat as Aaron Murray. He must take advantage of a weak opponent and produce enough numbers to provide a 'buffer' in case he has a lackluster performance in the weeks to come. If all goes right, he won't be playing the fourth quarter and he'll have really efficient numbers to take away from a blowout win.
Clemson at Auburn -- One of the more intriguing matchups of the weekend, as Auburn tries to get revenge for last year's loss. If Tajh Boyd plays brilliantly and leads Clemson to a win in hostile territory without Sammy Watkins, he should establish himself as a legitimate Heisman candidate. A loss might be crippling to his hopes, depending on the circumstances. Keep an eye out for Kiehl Frazier, a talented sophomore quarterback who makes his debut for Auburn. He has Heisman potential down the road.
Hawaii at USC -- In discussions with colleagues at a recent USC practice, I set the over/under for Matt Barkley touchdown passes in this game at five. While they scoffed at this, consider that Lane Kiffin is one of the more stats-conscious coaches around. This season, Kiffin is going to make sure that Barkley gets his numbers whenever possible, especially in games that are likely to be blowouts. I project a huge year for Barkley statistically, so this game will help indicate if that is likely to happen.
HEISMAN GAME OF THE WEEK: Michigan vs. Alabama -- This could be Denard Robinson's defining moment. We already know he's an incredible dual-threat quarterback, but we've never seen him do his thing against this level of competition. The fleet-footed Michigan quarterback is almost in a no-lose situation. If he leads Michigan to a win, I can't imagine he will have done so while playing poorly. Thus, a Michigan win over the defending champs is likely to catapult him to the top of the Heisman charts. Even ahead of Matt Barkley. But if he plays valiantly in a respectable loss, his Heisman hopes won't be dashed as he will have gained respect in the eyes of the voters. He'll have another 11 games to build on that performance and crawl back into the race. A horrible performance in a loss would also be graded on a curve. After all, he wouldn't be the first great player that Alabama has crushed. He'd still have a chance to get back into the race, but he'd have to be very impressive along the way in doing so. Beating Alabama would not only give him an immediate boost, it'd also provide some leeway in the future. A couple interceptions thrown in a close win over a later opponent would be more likely to be forgiven. On the flipside, this game could be Eddie Lacy's coming out party. The Crimson Tide running back will insert himself into the Heisman conversation with a strong starting debut. This is, by far, the most interesting Heisman game of the weekend.
Arkansas State at Oregon -- This matchup is a video game come to life. Two of the finest offensive coaches in the land (Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly) going head-to-head. Oregon obviously has the upper hand and the better team and it'll be interesting to see how De'Anthony Thomas is utilized in his sophomore debut. Can he make a run for the Heisman as a utility man? Then there is Kenjon Barner, who takes over for LaMichael James as the starting running back. Both these players should get a chance to pile up good stats and the one who shines the brightest might emerge as Oregon's best early-season hope at a Heisman.
Oklahoma at UTEP -- Landry Jones and the Sooners get an easy draw in week one. He needs to have the kind of season that Sam Bradford had in 2008 if he wants to win the Heisman. That means having a killer instinct in every game and throwing for lots of yards and touchdowns. I expect he'll get his senior season off to a good start against the Miners. One point of curiosity will be the role of Blake Bell. If the 'Belldozer' continues to eat into Jones' red-zone numbers, it could mean a quick hook for Jones as a candidate.