Posted: Tuesday August 28, 2012 12:43PM ; Updated: Tuesday August 28, 2012 2:19PM
Cory McCartney
Cory McCartney>HEISMAN WATCH

Power positions dominate realistic 2012 preseason Heisman Watch

Story Highlights

The Heisman has gone to a quarterback or running back 71 out of 76 years

USC's Matt Barkley must overcome the hype of being the preseason favorite

Back from injury, SEC RBs Marcus Lattimore and Knile Davis will be factors

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Heisman Watch: Preseason debate
Source: SI
Stewart Mandel and Andy Staples debate which favorites are best positioned to stay in the Heisman hunt.

Quarterbacks and running backs. Those are the positions of power in the Heisman Trophy race, a reign ushered in when Chicago running back Jay Berwanger won the first award in 1935 and Yale quarterback Clint Frank received it two years later. In all, 71 of the 76 winners have been either quarterbacks or running backs, including last year's winner, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.

That stranglehold has grown tighter in the 14 years since cornerback Charles Woodson won, with the two power positions claiming every trophy. In fact, the closest a non-quarterback or running back has come to breaking through was wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who finished second in 2003. Fitzgerald was 128 points behind winner Jason White, a quarterback.

It's with that domination in mind that we look at the players who are most likely to win this year's award. You'll find no offensive linemen (because an O-lineman has never won), only one defender (Woodson is the only one to claim the trophy) and a truncated list of wide receivers (the position has produced only two winners). This list is steeped in the reality of Heisman history.

STAPLES: Annual non-traditional Heisman Watch

Quarterback

USC quarterback Matt Barkley will have to overcome the hype that stems from being the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley will have to overcome the hype that stems from being the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite.
Peter Read Miller/SI

The best bet: Matt Barkley, USC, Sr. All the pieces are in place for Barkley. He has name recognition as a four-year starter at a glamor program, he should put up monster numbers once again with the receiver duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and his preseason No. 1 Trojans figure to be a BCS title contender. The only thing that could work against Barkley is the hype. Being the preseason favorite has proven perilous -- just ask Andrew Luck, Terrelle Pryor, Colt McCoy or anyone else who's recently shouldered that title. The last preseason frontrunner to actually win the award was another USC quarterback: Matt Leinart in 2004.

Next in line: Denard Robinson, Michigan, Sr. Dual-threat quarterbacks have become the flavor of choice, with Cam Newton and Griffin winning the last two seasons. Shoelace could make it three straight. He has a chance to equal Brad Smith (2002, '03 and '05) and Colin Kaepernick (2008-10) as the only players in FBS history with three seasons of at least 1,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. But as dazzling as Robinson has been, accuracy remains a concern after he completed 55 percent his passes last season and threw a Big Ten-worst 15 interceptions. Still, Robinson has a chance to seize the early lead in this race if he can dominate a season-opening game against No. 2 Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

In the hunt: Geno Smith, West Virginia, Sr. Numbers shouldn't be a problem. In his first season in Dana Holgorsen's offense, Smith threw for 4,385 yards (fourth in the FBS) and 31 touchdowns, including six scores in an Orange Bowl rout of Clemson. He's bound to improve on those stats as the Mountaineers move to the Big 12, where they'll face just one passing defense that ranked higher than 66th last season. On the flip side, West Virginia's new league is home to five teams that enter the year ranked, and WVU will face all of them within a six-game span from Oct. 6-Nov. 17. That stretch will be the key to Smith becoming, at the least, the program's first finalist since Major Harris.

The dark horse: Landry Jones, Oklahoma, Sr. He's the nation's active leader with 12,379 yards and 93 touchdowns (both Sooners records), but Jones isn't the Heisman favorite, and he wasn't the pick for Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year (that honor went to Smith). Those slights, and the fact that he inhabits the dark horse spot, are a result of how Jones ended 2011. Jones passed for at least 363 yards in seven of the first eight games last year before favorite target Ryan Broyles suffered a season-ending knee injury, but averaged 273.8 yards per game the rest of the way and completed less than 54 percent of his passes three times. If he can find another go-to receiver in Kenny Stills or Trey Metoyer, Jones could become a bigger threat.

Running back

If he's healthy, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore should be the SEC's best shot at a fourth Heisman in six seasons.
If he's healthy, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore should be the SEC's best shot at a fourth Heisman in six seasons.
AP

The best bet: Monteé Ball, Wisconsin, Sr. Ball was overshadowed by teammate Russell Wilson for much of last season, but a late surge got him to fourth in the Heisman voting. Ball won't be fighting for attention this time around, having tied Barry Sanders' record for touchdowns in a season with 39 and lead the nation in rushing with 1,923 yards. Replicating those stats would be difficult even if the Badgers didn't have a new offensive coordinator, quarterback and fullback and a rebuilt line. Still, the formula should be the same for a team that's defined by the run. Ball will get his touches as he tries to join Gary Beban (1967), Tony Dorsett (1976) and Charles White (1979) as the only players to win after coming in fourth the previous year.

Next in line: Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, Jr. If he's fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury, Lattimore will be the SEC's strongest chance for a fourth trophy in six seasons. While the power runner has built his reputation as a workhorse -- he posted games of 37 and 40 carries as a freshman and averaged 23.2 attempts per game last season before tearing his ACL Oct. 15 against Mississippi State -- it's imperative the Gamecocks lighten his load if he's to give South Carolina its first finalist since George Rogers' win in 1980. Luckily, quarterback Connor Shaw (525 yards, 8 touchdowns) and running back Brandon Wilds (486 yards, 3 touchdowns) emerged in Lattimore's absence and could help his carries become more about quality than quantity.

In the hunt: De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon, So. Every time Thomas touches the ball, there's potential for a highlight-worthy moment. As a freshman, he racked up 2,235 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns and stole the show in the Rose Bowl with a 91-yard run that was part of a 314-yard day. At preseason Pac-12 Media Day, coach Chip Kelly said the Ducks will keep adding ways to involve Thomas, who scored rushing, receiving and kick-return touchdowns last year. Oregon will need him, with former Heisman finalist LaMichael James now in the NFL. But as explosive as Thomas is, he still has competition in his own backfield from underrated running back Kenjon Barner, who ran for 939 yards last year.

The dark horse: Knile Davis, Arkansas, Jr. Like his competitor Lattimore, Davis is coming back from a season-ending injury. He was the SEC's top back in 2010 with 1,322 yards, but broke his ankle last August and missed the season. Unlike Lattimore, Davis has another contender on his own roster in quarterback Tyler Wilson. Since 1992, only three players have won with a teammate also finishing in the top 10 in voting (Gino Torretta, Eddie George and Leinart). Davis will have a chance to separate from the pack during spotlight games against preseason No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU. If he shines in those matchups, he could distance himself from Wilson.

Wide receiver

The best bet: Robert Woods, USC, Jr. Arguably the nation's best wide receiver, Woods broke Keyshawn Johnson's team and conference records with 111 receptions for 1,292 yards and 15 scores as a sophomore. While Woods fits the mold of the other receivers who have won the award in Tim Brown and Desmond Howard, both of whom were also involved in the return game, no receiver has finished in the top three since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003. Plus, Barkley's shadow looms large. Even if Woods can gain enough support to challenge his quarterback, we've seen how the QB-WR debate usually goes: Graham Harrell finished ahead of two-time Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree in 2008.

Woods earns this spot instead of Clemson's Sammy Watkins because no player in the modern era has won after missing more than one game, and Watkins is suspended for the first two games following his arrest on drug-related charges. Watkins can work his way back, but he doesn't make the preseason cut.

Defender

The best bet: Jarvis Jones, Georgia LB, Sr. Even Woodson, the only winner who was primarily a defender, wasn't just a defender. He also played receiver and was involved in the return game for Michigan. The return element also helped LSU's Tyrann Mathieu reach New York last season. If we're strictly talking defenders, the measuring stick is Hugh Green, the Pitt end who finished second to Rogers in '80.

It's a stretch to think Jones can make a run at Green when no player who only plays defense has finished higher than fourth since. Still, the Georgia linebacker should earn some votes. He racked up 13.5 sacks last season, his first in the SEC after transferring from USC, and he said this summer he still "has a lot of room for improvement." He could be in for another monster year as part of a stout Georgia unit.

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