Week 11 Heisman Watch: Can Klein hold off fast-charging Lee, Manziel?

Ballots go out to the 925 Heisman voters this week. They'll have three weeks to decide which three players to select, and then they'll return the ballots via email to the Heisman Trust no later than Monday, Dec. 3. 

That afternoon, the Trust will announce the finalists for the Dec. 8 Heisman ceremony.

If the recent past is a reliable guide, up to 90 percent of the voters will wait until the final week before deciding on their top three players. Whatever happens, it looks like we are about to have a historic result that accurately reflects the crazy nature of the 2012 college football season.

Kansas State or Oregon might win a Heisman for the first time. Johnny Manziel could overturn 78 years of precedent and become the first freshman winner. Marqise Lee could become just the third wide receiver to win the award in the modern era. Manti Te'o could be the first linebacker to make it to New York since Brian Bosworth in 1986.

Alabama's AJ McCarron is now out of the race, but I admit I was a bit hasty in eliminating Lee and Manziel completely from contention last week. I've been on the Manziel bandwagon for a while now and even wrote earlier in the year that a win over Alabama could cause all hell to break loose in the Heisman race and make him a contender.

And it has.

But there's still the problematic issue of him being a freshman and, while I think he has a chance to prove the 10 Heismandments very wrong, it's still a bit of a longshot at this point. Don't get me wrong; he's going to go to New York as a finalist. But will he win

The same goes for Lee, who is quickly building up steam in the race and appears to be, along with Manziel, a favorite among the more contrarian elements of the Heisman electorate. His schedule is set up well, with at least two (and maybe three) more high-profile games against ranked foes, so he is in position to make a late impression.

A couple other scheduling factors are in play for these two. First, Manziel plays Sam Houston State on Saturday and then closes out with Missouri on Nov, 24. Lee has UCLA up next and then a prime-time showdown against No. 3 Notre Dame the following week. If USC gets by UCLA, Lee and his team will play in the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 1 against, most likely, Oregon. Will the aura of Manziel's performance against Alabama on Saturday carry him for the next three weeks while Heisman voters overwhelmingly tune in to watch other candidates in big matchups? With Lee, Kenjon Barner, Marcus Mariota and Collin Klein all potentially playing on Dec. 1, will Manziel get lost in the shuffle? I think it's a possibility.

None of this should matter, though, if Klein finishes out the season strong. His team plays Baylor on Saturday in prime time, and then he sits for a week before closing out with Texas. For those who don't remember, Robert Griffin III used the last Saturday in the 2011 regular season to close the deal with his performance against the Longhorns. Klein will have a chance to do the same.

Klein's steady play all season long in support of his team's unlikely march to the BCS title game keeps him firmly ensconced as the Heisman front-runner. While there are several intriguing and worthwhile candidates making late runs, they've all got competing issues that could water down their chances.

Manziel's freshman status is his most pressing issue, and the general conservatism of the vast majority of the Heisman electorate could do him in on that count. The emergence of Mariota of Oregon as another brilliant first-year quarterback -- he currently leads the nation in passing efficiency -- could dilute the quirky appeal that Manziel brings to the table. If Manziel is not hands down the best freshman quarterback, how could he claim to be the most outstanding player? (Mind you, I am speaking as the devil's advocate here.)

As amazing as Lee has been, some voters will recoil at USC's disappointing season, which might still have some losses left to go. The last wide receiver to challenge for the Heisman was Larry Fitzgerald in 2003, and he finished second in the vote while playing for a Pittsburgh team that had four losses. But that Pitt team wasn't expected to do much, and this USC team was supposed to be great. While it's likely that most voters will separate Lee's value as a player from his team's overall record, some will not. 

Barner's 65-yard performance against California on Saturday hurt his cause immensely since it puts him on pace to have less than 1,800 yards by the time the Heisman vote is due. His best chance to overtake Klein was to overwhelm him with numbers, but that seems less likely to happen now. Meanwhile, his teammate, Mariota, is quietly stealing some of the spotlight away and might cause him to lose some votes as a result.

So, with three weeks to go and Heisman ballots ready for filling, Klein remains the one candidate with the fewest glaring weaknesses and the broadest potential support across the six voting regions. He has yet to have a bad game. And until that happens, it's going to be difficult for the three very alluring-but-somewhat-flawed candidates giving chase behind him to overtake him.

Now for this week's Heisman Watch.

Remember that the goal of this 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. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State -- Klein came back from injury and was solid in leading the Wildcats to a win over a pesky TCU team. He's on pace to have 3,333 yards running and passing plus a combined 37 touchdowns by the time the Heisman vote is due. His steady, MVP-like season has his team in line to challenge for the national title, and that's why he remains the strong front-runner for the Heisman.

2. Marqise Lee, WR, USC -- The versatile Lee is carrying a disappointing USC team on his shoulders while leading the nation in catches and placing second in all-purpose yardage. Assuming he makes it to the Pac-12 title game, he's on pace to have a remarkable 2,904 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns when ballots are due. He's a longshot at this point. But if he puts on spectacular displays against UCLA, Notre Dame and Oregon, he could conceivably steal the Heisman away from Klein.

3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M -- Manziel's performance against Alabama has turned the Heisman race upside down. Johnny Football is set to become the first 3,000/1,000 player in SEC history, and doing what he did against the nation's best defense proves it's not a fluke. But his biggest challenge from here will be to overcome the historical and structural bias against freshmen that exists within the Heisman electorate. Can he do it?

4. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon -- Barner squandered the momentum from his huge game against USC by rushing for just 65 yards against California. He's now on pace to have 1,768 yards and 26 touchdowns, but that probably won't be enough to overtake Klein. He needs to close out with a couple of very productive outings against the stalwart rush defenses of Stanford and Oregon State to have a chance.

Others to watch: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon; Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame

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