|David Ash and Texas host Heisman front runner Geno Smith on Saturday (US Presswire)|
If there is such a thing as a Separation Saturday in this year's Heisman race, we might be upon it.
Four of the top six contenders in the CBSSports.com Heisman Watch will compete against ranked opponents on Saturday, which means Heisman voters will watch what happens in these games very carefully.
If anyone is to challenge Geno Smith's status as the Heisman favorite, it probably starts with a big performance this weekend. There just aren't too many chances to make this kind of impression, so each contender must strike while the iron is hot.
Here are the games to keep an eye on:
No. 5 Georgia at No. 6 South Carolina -- This is arguably the biggest game of the day and it's a great opportunity for Aaron Murray to make his case against a quality opponent. The junior quarterback hasn't received a lot of Heisman attention thus far, but he's third in the nation in passing efficiency and doing a fine job directing Georgia's explosive offense. The Gamecocks garner a lot of respect as a defensive team, so if Murray has another productive outing, he'll reap a lot of praise afterward. This is one of two major tests that will determine if Murray can emerge as Smith's main challenger for the Heisman (with the other being the Florida game). Play well in a win over South Carolina and Murray surges into contention. Play poorly in a loss and he drops off the list altogether.
No. 3 Florida State at North Carolina State -- There aren't too many opponents left on FSU's schedule that have the firepower to upend the Noles. The Wolfpack have a history of giving FSU fits and it will be up to EJ Manuel to help keep his team performing at a high level. Manuel needs to have a big game here to improve his overall statistical outlook on the season. If he continues to lag in production, Heisman voters will start to lose interest in him. They want to see more games like he had against Clemson, where he showed the full extent of his physical tools.
No. 21 Nebraska at No. 12 Ohio State -- The Buckeyes might not play another ranked team the rest of the way, so this is a chance for Braxton Miller to impress against a quality opponent in a prime-time television slot. Leading Ohio State to a win while running and passing for upwards of four touchdowns could help him crawl back into the Heisman conversation. He needs a lot of touchdowns because he's fallen a bit off the pace he had set in the first three games, when he projected out to 48 scores (he's now on a 36-touchdown pace). The only chance for Miller to win is if he leads Ohio State to an undefeated season while also putting up some really impressive numbers that compare favorably to what Smith is doing. Whatever happens, he's doing a good job of setting himself up to be the 2013 Heisman frontrunner.
No. 23 Washington at No. 2 Oregon -- Ducks running back De'Anthony Thomas has fallen off a bit the last couple of games after getting off to a great start. It's almost as if he has been lulled to sleep by the lack of quality opponents that Oregon is facing. Well, he'd better wake up because the Ducks are about to take on a Washington team fresh off an upset win over Stanford. This is just the chance Thomas needs to remind voters why he is considered to be among the most exciting players to watch in the country. If Thomas doesn't put in a dominating, or highlight-reel-worthy performance here, his odds of winning the Heisman will become very, very remote.
HEISMAN GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 8 West Virginia at No. 11 Texas -- This is the most important game on the schedule to date in the Heisman race. Geno Smith is the strong frontrunner for the trophy and he will face his first real test against a defense loaded with high-level athletes. Whatever lingering doubts Heisman voters have about Smith's abilities can be laid to rest with a strong performance against the Longhorns. If he struggles, then other candidates will have a chance to gain considerable ground against him. There are several ways this one could go. If Smith has a huge game in a West Virginia win over Texas, then he'll continue to put distance between himself and his challengers. If he has a huge game in a West Virginia loss, then he'll still remain the frontrunner since voters are likely to blame the Mountaineers' defense and not Smith. If he has a lackluster game in a win (which seems unlikely), then he'll hold serve. A poor performance in a horrible loss will creat some doubt as to the overall value of his stats heading into the game.
How will Smith play following his eight-touchdown extravaganza against Baylor? Will he finally throw an interception? Will he get flustered by adversity? Those questions will be on my mind when this game kicks off.
Meanwhile, Texas quarterback David Ash, who is second to Smith nationally in passing efficiency, might have a chance to become second to Smith in the Heisman race, too, if he plays well in a Longhorn win. This is a rare chance for voters to compare and contrast two players going head to head and if Ash comes out looking better than Smith on this day, his nascent Heisman campaign will start to take shape.
By the end of the night on Saturday, we should have a very clear picture of what the Heisman race looks like.