Geno Smith has numbers nobody can match this early in Heisman race. (US Presswire)
When trying to figure out who is going to win the Heisman, it's helpful to first figure out who won't win.
I can say with near certainty that the following players will not win the Heisman: Matt Barkley, Denard Robinson, Montee Ball, Landry Jones, Tajh Boyd, Teddy Bridgewater, Kenjon Barner, Tyler Bray, Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Taylor Martinez, Logan Thomas, Marqise Lee, Keith Price and Marcus Lattimore.
Throw out the two defensive players people have talked about, too. Jarvis Jones and Manti Te'o are great players indeed, but pure defenders don't win the Heisman. Sorry about that. That's why we have the Butkus, Bednarik and all the other awards for defensive players.
Getting rid of all these players narrows the field considerably and brings some clarity to our understanding of the race. We know who the remaining contenders are and what they have to do.
Remember that the goal of this Heisman Watch is not just to track who is playing well from week to week. This is not a college football version of Kasey Casem's top 40. The goal here is to figure out who will ultimately win the trophy. We take a long view of the race, factoring in not only individual performance, but also schedule, team success and the historical voting trends of the Heisman electorate.
These are the players who currently stand the best chance of actually winning the Heisman Trophy in 2012.
Keep in mind that some players not listed here will undoubtedly finish in the top 10 of the final Heisman voting. That's all well and good, but this Watch does not exist to gauge their prospects.
1. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia -- Smith had another efficient outing, completing 30 of 43 passes for 380 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Maryland. He maintains his edge in this race based on his numbers, which project out to be quite impressive. Through three games, he has completed 81.4% of his passes for 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions. His efficiency rating is a sky-high 191.2. He is on pace to throw for 4,284 yards and 48 touchdowns, which should be more than good enough to win the Heisman. The main question for Heisman voters will be how he plays in upcoming games against Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and TCU. He will definitely be tested and not be allowed to coast to the Heisman. If he plays well in those games and WVU wins at least two of them and ends up no worse than 10-2, then Smith should be in good shape when the Heisman vote is due so long as his numbers remain clearly superior to the other candidates in the race. Right now, this seems to be the most likely scenario and that's why Smith is on top of this watch.
2. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State -- Manuel's fortunes are tied to those of his team, which look pretty good right now. As long as FSU is undefeated and Manuel performs at a high level, he'll be within striking distance of the Heisman. Also working in Manuel's favor is the narrative that he has helped to revive a storied program that has been lackluster for the past decade. A lot of his potential as a candidate was realized this past Saturday when he threw for 380 yards and rushed for 102 in a big win over No. 10 Clemson. Those are the kind of performances that voters like to see. Because his playing time and overall role was limited in FSU's first three games against weak competition, he's not currently on pace for a Heisman-worthy season statistically. But I fully expect that to change as he moves into ACC play and he is called upon to throw (and run) more. If his game against Clemson is a guide, he should produce upwards of 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns and maybe another 500 rushing yards before it's all said and done. If he hits those numbers and FSU is undefeated and headed to the BCS title game, then the Seminoles just might have their first Heisman winner since Chris Weinke in 2000. At the very least, he'll be heading to New York as a finalist.
3. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- I think people will soon begin to understand why I've had Murray so high on this list for so long. As with Manuel, the potential for his candidacy moves in lockstep with the success of his team. If Georgia keeps winning, he's going to get a lot of the credit, which will then create a lot of buzz about him as a Heisman candidate. It's not just that he's the quarterback of a national title contender. If it were that simple, then AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger or Marcus Mariota would be on this list. Unlike those three, Murray should have enough production at the end of the season for voters to consider him Heisman worthy. This week, he was 18 of 24 for 250 yards and two touchdowns (with one rushing TD) against Vanderbilt. On the year, he has 1,092 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. His efficiency rating is a sterling 182.4. He's on pace to have 3,549 yards and 33 touchdowns by the time the Heisman vote is due. If he has those numbers and Georgia goes undefeated -- including a win over Alabama or LSU in the SEC title game -- he'll have a really good chance to win the Heisman.
4. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon -- Thomas' candidacy is very unique and isn't as susceptible as the other candidates are to the ups and downs of the weekly box score. So getting shut out of the end zone while totaling just 96 all-purpose yards against Arizona isn't going to hurt him too much. The next time he returns a punt or kick for a touchdown, or scores three touchdowns in seven touches, it will be forgotten. The rationale for the Thomas candidacy is based on his ability to excite. Don't get me wrong, though. He still has to have enough production for voters to justify placing him on their ballots. He can't have too many more games like he did against Arizona. While he's currently on pace for 1,859 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns, I think he'll need to do a bit more. It does help that Oregon is in the national title hunt and that Thomas is really the main Heisman contender from the Pac-12. Late-season games against USC, Stanford and Oregon State will go a long way in determining his fate.
5. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State -- If the Heisman was an MVP award, then Klein might run away with it. As it stands, many voters base their selections on that sort of criteria, which is why Klein has a decent shot at getting to New York. Klein isn't going to bowl you over with amazing statistics, although he is currently a respectable 18th nationally in passing efficiency. Where Klein succeeds is through his ability to will his team to unlikely victories, especially in close, hard-fought games. His performance against Oklahoma was an example of that. He was 13 of 21 for 149 yards through the air and he added 79 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Respectable numbers, to be sure, but when the Wildcats really needed him to make plays, he made them. On the year, he is completing 70 percent of his passes for 758 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He has also rushed for 289 yards and five scores. He's on pace to have 2,280 passing yards, 867 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns when the Heisman votes are due. If Klein leads Kansas State on an unlikely march to the Big 12 title while knocking off teams like West Virginia, Texas and TCU, those numbers may be good enough to merit serious Heisman consideration.
6. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State -- Miller's number came back down to earth a bit this weekend, but he's still got an outside shot at making a late run at the Heisman. He threw for 143 yards and rushed for 64 yards and two scores in a win over UAB. On the year, he has 754 passing yards and seven touchdowns to go with 441 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He's on pace to have 2,268 passing yards, 1,320 rushing yards and 42 total touchdowns when the Heisman vote is due. If some of the other candidates ahead of him screw up, he may present an attractive alternative to voters, especially if Ohio State somehow remains undefeated or in the top 10. Whatever the case, he is setting himself up to be the front-runner for the 2013 trophy.
Be sure to check back at CBSSports.com on Tuesday for the weekly Heismanpundit/CBSSports.com Heisman Straw Poll.