Originally written on Crystal Ball Run  |  Last updated 12/12/11

The 77th annual Heisman Memorial Trophy was awarded to Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III on Saturday night. However, it is never too early to look at who may the leading candidates entering 2012.

First, the obvious. Trent Richardson (Alabama RB), Montee Ball (Wisconsin RB), Tyrann Mathieu (L.S.U DB) and Matt Barkley (USC QB) – who finished in that order behind Robert Griffin III – are all underclassmen (including RG3). Sans Tyrann Mathieu (Sophomore), the Heisman finalists are all draft eligible and in the event that any return for their senior season, all will be considered Heisman favorites. (I also do not expect Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon or Oklahoma QB Landry Jones to return)

Now for the remaining 2012 players to watch.

Denard Robinson QB Michigan Wolverines:

Entering the 2011 season, Denard Robinson was lauded as a Heisman frontrunner, following a 2010 season of ascendancy. Robinson blossomed in 2010 with 2,570 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 11 interceptions as well as 1,702 yards rushing and 14 more touchdowns. Because of it, the Heisman talk was well-founded.

Following the coaching change from Rich Rodriguez to Brady Hoke though, Robinson was not asked to do many discrepant things on the football field. It took time for Robinson to acclimate to Hoke's scheme. Robinson finished the 2011 regular season with 2,056 yards passing, 18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and added 1,163 yards rushing with 16 touchdowns.

If Robinson can bottle the flawless passing we witnessed versus Ohio State and constrict his interceptions, he could comfortably be a finalist in New York City come 2012. Barring injury, Robinson will continue to dazzle in the shoes he forgoes lacing. Should he have a potential third consecutive season of surpassing 1,000 yards rushing while exhibiting an elevated passing skill-set, he will be hard to ignore.

Michigan, who returns to a BCS bowl this season for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl, can help Robinson’s chances if its upward trek continues next season. A Big 10 Championship berth, or more, would certainly boost Robinson’s Heisman hopes.

Collin Klein QB Kansas State Wildcats:

Could Collin Klein be next season’s RG3? The acronym of C.K. would not nearly be as fearsome; that is, until…you see…him play.

Klein bombarded the national spotlight in 2011, leading Kansas State to a 7-0 start before the team ultimately finished 10-2. On the season, he amassed 2,844 yards of total offense and a momentous 38 touchdowns. Klein threw for 1,745 yards, 12 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, while rushing for 1099 yards and 26 touchdowns.

The argument could be made that Klein had similar, if not better, numbers than RG3. Like Kansas State, Klein – for the most part – was ignored for the season he constructed.

In a Big XII conference that will have no sure-fire elite teams in 2012, Kansas State and Collin Klein could reap the rewards with a Heisman. Maybe more.

Geno Smith QB West Virginia:

During year one under the offensive virtuoso Dana Holgorsen, Geno Smith flourished. The most notable game for Smith that will carry weight moving to 2012, is his performance versus L.S.U., when the QB threw for a season-high 463 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He finished this season throwing for 3,978 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Considering it was Smith’s first in an unaccustomed system, the year he delivered is to be commended.

Need more reason to believe Geno Smith has a shot at the beloved Heisman? The Mountaineers top three receivers – Stedman Bailey (67 catches and 1,197 yards), Tavon Austin (89 and 1,063) and Ivan McCartney (47 and 572) –return next year. West Virginia’s leading rusher  Dustin Garrison (136 carries for 742) will also be back.

Year two under Holgorsen- Geno’s third as a starter- could be enough to net West Virginia its first ever Heisman winner.

Tajh Boyd QB Clemson:

Tajh Boyd, like Geno Smith, is another quarterback who enjoyed successes under a new offensive system. Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, has been a breath of fresh air for the sophomore signal caller.

Boyd’s season numbers of 3,578 yards passing, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions have been gaudy at worst. In 2012, however, Boyd must continue to make strides in his decision-making, an area that faltered down the stretch in the waning weeks of the season.

Back in 2012 for Boyd will be: Freshman phenom Sammy Watkins (78 catches, 1159 yards), sophomore DeAndre Hopkins (61, 854), junior Jaron Brown (29, 382) as well as freshman Martavis Bryant, junior Brandon Ford and fellow freshman Adam Humphries. The one notable omissions I do not expect to return in 2012 is junior tight end, Dwayne Allen (47 catches for 571 yards).

Aaron Murray QB Georgia:

It’s been many years since a Georgia Bulldog last won a Heisman Trophy (Herschel Walker in 1982).

Murray – who threw for 2,861 yards, 33 touchdowns and 12 interceptions – will not have an A.J Green-type receiver to target next season – nor did he this year – but freshman Malcolm Mitchell is a rising star.

I would not count on Orson Charles – arguably the best tight end in the country – to be back next year, and sans Charles, it does dampen Murray’s Heisman hopes. Murray did not have anyone elite to throw to this season, but that same group of Mitchell, Tavarres King, Michael Bennett, Chris Conley and Marlon Brown will all be back; a year stronger and a year smarter.

Murray – a draft-eligible sophomore – may have a little added incentive for a breakout, or breakaway, season in 2012.

Tyler Wilson QB Arkansas:

The commander of the Arkansas high-octane offense, junior quarterback Tyler Wilson, will (should) be back for the 2012 season.

Having thrown for 3,422 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, Wilson has had an exceptional season. While Wilson will hope to move his 2011 momentum to 2012, he will have to do so without Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright – all seniors who have accounted for 1,851 yards receiving and 128 receptions. Arkansas will look for Cobi Hamilton, Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Marquel Wade to all step up next season.

Having Knile Davis back to run alongside Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. will not hurt.

Marcus Lattimore RB South Carolina:

Following a 2010 freshman season which he finished with 1,197 yards rushing, 412 yards receiving and a combined 19 touchdowns, Marcus Lattimore was looking favorable for the Heisman as a sophomore. A disastrous knee injury halted his Heisman hope for 2011, hopefully not for 2012 too. I truly hope Lattimore returns to full-health next season. He is a player that is fun to watch, you impulsively pull for him. He will need to be at full health for South Carolina to make another S.E.C run, as well as a Heisman run to New York City.

Knile Davis RB Arkansas:

Another running back returning from injury in 2012 will be Arkansas back Knile Davis. As a sophomore in 2010, Knile Davis may have been the best running back in the country. His 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns led the way for the Hogs in 2010.

The Arkansas offensive line promises to be another good one in 2012, as Davis hopes to rekindle his running ways.

Sammy Watkins WR Clemson:

As we have noted, Clemson’s freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins will be pivotal in Tajh Boyd’s hopes for a Heisman in 2012. Following 78 receptions for 1,159 yards and 11 touchdowns and entering his sophomore season, Watkins may present a compelling argument for Heisman, himself.

Watkins hype took shape early, when college football pundits nationwide took heed of his throttling the defending national champion Auburn Tigers with 10 receptions for 155 yards and two touchdowns back in early September. Though Watkins was tamed a bit afterward, the receiving phenom proved to be talented well beyond his years.

Watkins promises to become an even greater exaction inside the resurgent Clemson offense in 2012 and as dangersome as he is lining up out wide, he is just as deadly, if not more, returning kickoffs. Watkins averaged over 26 yards per kickoff return in 2011; breaking one for a score.

The Watkins-Boyd one two punch is assured to be one of college football’s most dangerous next season.

Robert Woods/Marqise Lee (Matt Barkley) WR U.S.C:

The sophomore hailing from Southern Cal, Robert Woods, was a pass-catching machine this season; hauling in 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns. Marqise Lee, a freshman, was just as potent a receiver as was Woods, with 73 receptions, 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Having two receivers as productive as Woods and Lee is problematic when considering the Heisman, and even more so if Matt Barkley does indeed return for his senior season. I am sure the Trojans would trade a Heisman trip for a chance at a crystal ball though, right?

In the event that Barkley rebuffs NFL overtures, Woods and Lee will eliminate each other, propelling Barkley to a seat at the Heisman ceremonies in New York City.

Kenjon Barner RB Oregon:

It is assumed that Oregon’s junior running back LaMichael James will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. If you are Oregon fan, have no fear, Barner is here.

Junior running back Kenjon Barner nearly eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this season spelling LaMichael James. Akin to James, Barner is just the burner. On the season, Barner has 909 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns.

To help Barner’s Heisman hopes: Quarterback Darron Thomas, running back De’Anthony Thomas, wide receiver Josh Huff and others return to, once again, provide a potent Oregon offense.

Eddie Lacy RB Alabama:

You remember Mark Ingram, you know Trent Richardson; but if you do not know Eddie Lacy, you should.

Lacy, in mostly mop-up-duty, provided no rest for opposing defenses averaging nearly 8 yards per rush in 2011 for 631 yards and 7 touchdowns. Playing for Alabama, Lacy has the built in advantage of publicity as well as the tremendous job the Saban staff have done in recruiting.

Lacy will be running behind another solid offensive line, will play on a national stage weekly and A.J McCarron - with another year under his belt - may help to propel the Lacy’s chances.

The best of the rest:

Quarterbacks:

  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State: Urban Meyer anyone?
  • Blake Bell, Oklahoma: Stoops recruits like a mad man here. Numbers will be there.
  • E.J Manuel, Florida State: Can he stay healthy?

Running backs:

  • James White, Wisconsin: System gives the backs big numbers.
  • Giovani Bernard, North Carolina: Freshman who burst onto scene with 13 rushing touchdowns.
  • Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State: A dark-horse, but the numbers will gaudy.
  • David Wilson, Virginia Tech: Coming off a solid 1,600 yard year.
  • Henry Josey, Missouri: Sophomore, returning from injury.
  • Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State: 1,645 yard season and a touchdown machine of 25 scores.

Wide receivers:

  • Stedman Bailey, West Virginia: Solid 1,197 yard season with Geno Smith returning.
  • Kenny Stills, Oklahoma: Top returning receiver for Oklahoma next season.

Follow Regie Eller on Twitter @CFBRocker.

Follow Crystal Ball Run @CrystalBallRun.

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