|Geno Smith is a strong front runner for the Heisman Trophy (US Presswire)|
There is obviously a long way to go and a lot can happen. But if Smith stays on or near his record statistical pace, it will be very difficult to dislodge him from his spot at the top of the race.
A lot of casual and well-meaning Heisman observers think that early-season games don't matter, that the trophy goes to the 'hot hand' at the end of the year. While this has sometimes been the case, it's mostly been a function of schedule and circumstance rather than any hard and fast rule. In reality, September games can be just as important as November games in shaping the perception of the Heisman electorate.
Think of the 925 voters out there as a young child. As that child grows, its mind is influenced and molded by the events that occur around him. A traumatic event early in the formative years is often more influential than what comes later on and can shape how subsequent events are perceived.
And so it is with voters when looking at the Heisman race. If a player does something earth-shattering in September and nothing else happens to counteract it, the narrative is shaped accordingly.
The starkest example in my mind of a Heisman race being set in stone in September came in 1987.
Tim Brown returned two punts for touchdowns against Michigan State in the second week of the season and immediately established himself as the Heisman front runner. Brown's stats at the end of the season weren't that impressive and the Irish were just 8-3, but his early-season brilliance set the standard by which the rest of the field was judged. No other contender met that standard and Brown triumphed over a weak group that included Don McPherson of Syracuse and Gordie Lockbaum of Holy Cross (of course, it also helped that he played for Notre Dame).
Flash forward to 2011. Andrew Luck entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. But Luck's Stanford team didn't play a ranked opponent until the eighth week of the season. He maintained his lead in the race up to that point purely on the strength of his status as the returning Heisman runner up who was destined to be the future NFL No. 1 pick. While he performed very well statistically during that time, his numbers didn't wall off his candidacy from potential challengers. His narrative was vulnerable because he was not presented with the opportunity to strengthen it in the early going.
Meanwhile, Robert Griffin III burst onto the scene with an incredible opening night in a dramatic win over a ranked TCU team. By the end of September, he had established himself as a viable alternative to Luck and all it took to win the Heisman was a couple big wins over established powers Oklahoma and Texas later in the season.
It is doubtful that Griffin III would've been able to win the Heisman had he not had a strong September and if Luck had been able to show his mettle early against the likes of, say, USC instead of Duke.
So while Heisman campaigns aren't necessarily decided in September, they can certainly be lost or at least set to the point where it becomes awfully hard to change the narrative, no matter what happens later.
As it stands, Smith is not on top of this race merely because of how well he has been playing. His extraordinary numbers are certainly a huge part of it, but it's equally important that the preseason coterie of Heisman favorites have been removed from contention and therefore their accomplishments do not clash with what he has done. The combination of Smith's greatness and the decline of the early front runners has created our current Heisman environment. His narrative stands alone, unchallenged.
And so the award is Smith's to lose, but it's not his yet. On to our weekly list of candidates, now down to six.
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 -- What more can be said about Smith's amazing eight-touchdown performance against Baylor? He essentially crammed two games worth of stats into one, giving him plenty of wiggle room for later in the season should he have a subpar outing. He's on pace to throw for an eye-popping 5,184 yards and 60 touchdowns by the time Heisman votes are due. The rest of the schedule is going to be a challenge, with games against Texas, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma serving as potential pitfalls (or bonanzas), but as long as his production remains clearly ahead of his competition, he's the strong favorite to take home the trophy.
2. EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State -- Manuel was his usual efficient self against South Florida, throwing for 242 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-26 passing. He appears to be settling in to become Smith's strongest challenger as the season wears on. If FSU stays undefeated and he continues to be seen as the catalyst for the program's revival, he'll remain in contention. However, he's on pace to throw for only 2,990 yards and 23 touchdowns, so he'll need to increase his production to really have a shot at dislodging Smith.
3. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- I'm so impressed with Georgia's offense right now that I was tempted to put Murray in the second spot ahead of Manuel. Simply put, Murray is on his way to a fantastic season. He's currently third nationally in passing efficiency with a stellar 183.5 rating and, if the Bulldogs win out and make it to the SEC title game, he'll probably have upwards of 3,500 passing yards and 30 touchdown passes, which should eclipse what Manuel is able to do in the FSU offense. However, I'm less convinced that Georgia, rather than FSU, can make it through the season unscathed. Next week's game against South Carolina will tell us a lot about Murray's Heisman future.
4. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State -- There is a lot of potential stirring within Klein's candidacy. The most obvious factor in his favor is that Heisman voters will get to see him go toe-to-toe with Smith and West Virginia on October 20. What better way is there to show he is more worthy of the Heisman than Smith than to let voters compare and contrast between the two in the same game? It doesn't seem likely that Klein's numbers will be all that impressive, so if he's going to win the Heisman, it'll have to be as the MVP-type candidate who leads his team to a cinderella season. If anyone can do it, he can.
5. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon -- If Thomas has any more games like he had the past two weeks, he's going to drop off this list. After starting the season with seven touchdowns in 31 touches, he has had just one touchdown in his last 33 touches. It's highly unlikely that he's going to have the kind of production that, by itself, will justify Heisman consideration. However, as I've mentioned before, he's a different type of candidate and can't be eliminated just yet. He is one or two exhilarating punt or kick returns away from jumping back into serious contention. This is the upside to being a player who trades on excitement and highlight reel prowess rather than overall production.
6. David Ash, QB, Texas -- Some people were incredulous over my decision to include Ash on my last two Heisman Watches. But his performance against Oklahoma State and his overall season to date seems to validate that inclusion for the time being. He's currently second nationally to Smith in passing efficiency with a rating of 184 and he's on pace to finish with 3,024 yards, 30 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. Like Klein, he also gets to take on Smith in a head-to-head battle. If the Longhorns come out on top against the Mountaineers next Saturday and Ash has a big game, he might emerge as Smith's prime challenger.