Heisman Preview: What to look for in Week 4

EJ Manuel battles Tajh Boyd of Clemson for ACC Heisman supremacy on Saturday. (US Presswire)

We've turned a new page in this year's Heisman sweepstakes, with a new front-runner emerging just three weeks in and a bevy of challengers looking to make some headway.

Here are the games from Week 4 that will have the most bearing on the outcome of the Heisman race:

Maryland at West Virginia -- It's Geno Smith's first game as the Heisman front-runner, and I know some voters will be watching very closely to see how he responds to the new expectations. Through two games against lowly competition, he has put up some startling numbers, with as many touchdown passes (nine) as incompletions. Maryland is by no means a major test, but it will be interesting to see where that touchdown-to-incompletion ratio is by the end of the day -- and if it becomes a meme that ends up driving his candidacy. The game starts at noon ET and is probably the most interesting matchup of the early time slot. So any highlights by Smith will be widely observed. [Listen to Dennis Dodd's breakdown of this game here]

UAB at Ohio State -- This game is noteworthy only because I want to see if Braxton Miller can keep it going. He has been incredible through three games, passing and rushing for 988 yards while accounting for 12 touchdowns. As a result, he is second in my latest Heisman poll. Since there's a chance he won't be quite as prolific against most of the Big Ten defenses that he will face down the road, this might be one of his last opportunities to put up some really gaudy stats. By his fourth game as a starter for Urban Meyer at Florida, Tim Tebow had accounted for 17 touchdowns. Can Miller keep up or stay near that Heisman-winning pace? This UAB game will give us a clue.

Oregon State at UCLA -- I've pointed to this game for a couple weeks now as the proving ground for the Johnathan Franklin Heisman campaign. Simply put, the Beavers held Montee Ball in check in a 10-7 upset a couple weeks ago. As a result, the value of playing well against and beating Oregon State is probably as high as it will be all season. If voters see Franklin dominate against the Beavers (whereas Ball could not), he'll move into the upper tier of candidates and become the top pure running back contender (with De'Anthony Thomas being the all-purpose guy). If he gets shut down against OSU, he'll fall off the radar a bit and will need to rip off some more 200-yard games to make up for it.

California at USC -- This game is important because it might help reveal Matt Barkley's future role in the campaign. While I do not think the USC quarterback will win the Heisman, due to last weekend's loss to Stanford (and a few other reasons related to his team's disappointing play), he can still make it to New York as a finalist. He can still influence where this race ends. But if that is to happen, he'll need to get on a roll, starting with a really good game against the Bears. If he struggles against Cal like he did against the Cardinal, I think he'll have a hard time recovering as a candidate.

Michigan at Notre Dame -- The sting of Michigan's opening loss to Alabama will seem like a distant memory if the Wolverines can knock off the Irish in South Bend. While Denard Robinson's chances of actually winning the Heisman are remote at this point, he -- like Barkley -- can still be a factor in the outcome. If the last couple seasons are a guide, this one should be a drama-filled affair. What if Robinson puts in another exciting performance and single-handedly knocks off the undefeated Irish? It might well prove me wrong and catapult him back into Heisman contention.

Kansas State at Oklahoma -- If you play in the Big 12 (but not for Oklahoma) and you want to become a serious Heisman candidate, you've got to beat the Sooners or at least make them look bad in a losing effort (see: Barry Sanders, 1988, Robert Griffin III, 2011). The same rule applies to Collin Klein on Saturday. The odds look grim for K-State since the Sooners are 77-3 at home under Bob Stoops. However, that didn't stop Texas Tech from winning in Norman last year. If all goes right for Klein, this could be the game that gets tongues wagging about him as a Heisman candidate. And let's not forget OU's Landry Jones, who could put some life into his sluggish campaign with a high-level peformance.

Arizona at Oregon -- De'Anthony Thomas has been brilliant in his first three games, but critics are correct to note that the level of competition for the Ducks has been abysmal. The real proving ground for every Heisman campaign is conference play, and Oregon must adjust quickly with No. 21 Arizona coming to Autzen on Saturday. I have every expectation that this will be a shootout, with upwards of 170 plays run between the teams. Thomas has barely played in the second half of games this year. That hasn't mattered since he seems to score at will. The game against the Wildcats will be his first chance to be fully utilized against an opponent this year, and it will be interesting to see what he can produce. If Oregon wins and he continues to amaze, then he'll solidify his position as the Pac-12's top Heisman contender. 


Clemson at Florida State -- The ACC hasn't had a Heisman finalist since 2000, when Chris Weinke won the trophy for FSU. This is one of two matchups on the day featuring two candidates, and the winner of this game will carry the mantle of the ACC going forward. Working in Tajh Boyd's favor is that he'll probably need to produce extravagant numbers to lead Clemson to a win. Working in EJ Manuel's favor is that he can count on an elite defense to slow Boyd and give his efficient passing attack favorable field position. There is more pressure on Manuel, since many are calling for FSU to go undefeated and he has the burden of leading the Seminoles into BCS title game contention. A good peformance by Manuel in a win over Clemson would be the first signal to voters that FSU is indeed back, and they'll credit the quarterback for getting it done. A good performance by Boyd in a win over the Seminoles in Tallahassee would put Clemson on the path toward an upstart BCS berth. Lots of conference and national implications in this one, and it could have a real effect on the Heisman race. [Go here for Dennis Dodd's look at FSU]

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