Posted: Wednesday August 22, 2012 3:57PM ; Updated: Wednesday August 22, 2012 4:07PM
Stewart Mandel

Dark horse 2012 Heisman Trophy contenders; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

Last impressions are increasingly power in the Heisman Trophy race

Brian Kelly's Notre Dame offense could get a boost from a redshirt QB

Plus: Dabo Swinney's job security; decline of preseason polls; more

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Barrett Jones
Alabama's versatile Barrett Jones could become the first offensive lineman to be a Heisman Trophy finalist since 1996.
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMI

Can we please just go ahead and fast forward to this time next week? Or better yet, next Thursday night?

Hey Stewart -- I saw the video of you and Andy Staples SI Videodiscussing Heisman candidates. What is your recipe for dark horse candidates? Do you see anyone other than a QB or RB who will get enough votes to end up at the ceremony this year?
-- Will, Hoboken, N.J.

Twice in the past three years a defensive player has reached New York, and both times the player was barely on the radar going into the last week. In 2009, Ndamukong Suh garnered a little bit of Heisman buzz during the season, but I'd guess 80 to 90 percent of the votes he got came from a dominating performance (12 tackles, 4.5 sacks) against Texas in a much-watched Big 12 title game. Last year, Tyrann Mathieu became a household name starting in Week 1 against Oregon, but most assumed he'd lost his shot at the Heisman following his one-game suspension midway through the year. But his game-turning punt returns in the SEC title game against Georgia (on the heels of another the week before against Arkansas) likely pushed him past idle Matt Barkley as the fifth finalist.

Last impressions are always powerful, but I've noticed the past few years that the first Saturday of December is carrying more and more weight in the Heisman race. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising in today's media climate; on Twitter, guys win, lose, then re-win the Heisman with each drive of each game. It's not like a player can be a complete nobody the first 13 weeks and then win with a huge final performance, but RGIII doesn't win last year without the strong finish against Texas. Ditto Mark Ingram against Florida in 2009. Unless a guy completely blows away the rest of the field, a la Cam Newton two years ago or Tim Tebow in 2007, that last game takes on paramount importance. And that in turn can benefit a so-called dark horse candidate who makes a strong last impression.

As for this year, if ever an offensive lineman was going to make it to New York (for the first time since Ohio State's Orlando Pace in 1996), you would think Andy's favorite guy, Alabama center Barrett Jones, would be the one. He's been around so long and received so much acclaim that he's got to be the most recognizable offensive lineman in many years. Considering Tide quarterback AJ McCarron isn't likely to put up Heisman-type numbers, Jones or one of the Tide's other preseason All-America O-linemen (tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack) might be that team's best bet. But it would likely require both 'Bama reaching the SEC title game and Gary Danielson spending at least a quarter dissecting isolation shots of the Tide's blocking techniques.

A quarterback or running back will still win the thing.

Do you think we've seen Brian Kelly's "true" offense at Notre Dame? When he was hired from Cincinnati a few years back I thought he'd bring a fast-paced, quick strike offense to South Bend. If we haven't seen it, why? Is it the QB options he had available to begin with? Would making Everett Golson the starter make a difference?
-- Micah, Colorado Springs, Colo.

I suppose you want me to answer this differently than most of the readers would like me to, which is of course, Notre Dame's overrated/the coach is a joke/the program is irrelevant/why are you even writing about them?

I don't think you can pin Kelly's offensive struggles entirely on the quarterback. For one thing, to run a fast offense, you need fast players. Kelly has more now than when he got there (particularly at running back), but he started with very little speed. He also needs the offensive line to execute better than it has. But yes, the single biggest sticking point has been quarterback. To run an up-tempo offense with precision you need a quarterback who makes quick and correct decisions. Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees weren't that guy. Rees alone had 19 turnovers last season. Nothing slows an offense to a halt more than that.

Though Kelly hasn't made it official yet, it sounds like the redshirt freshman Golson will be his guy. I remember talking to the coach the day after Signing Day in 2011, and you could tell even then this day would arrive quickly. It was clear he envisioned the dual-threat quarterback from South Carolina as the ideal fit for his preferred style of offense. According to this excellent South Bend Tribune profile, Kelly toyed much of last season with pulling Golson's redshirt and using him as a "changeup" guy but never pulled the trigger, in part because Golson was struggling academically. Golson could certainly become the playmaker Kelly needs to keep that offense humming. The question is, will a redshirt freshman quarterback be any less turnover-prone than his predecessors?

Is Dabo Swinney in trouble with a 7-6, or even an 8-5 season, depending on the identity of the opponents to whom he looses and the magnitude of the losses?
-- Oleg Zinchuk, New York

Are you kidding me? The guy just produced the school's first conference title in 20 years and you want to get rid of him?

If anything, Clemson has gone all in on Swinney and his staff. Swinney just got a three-year extension in June through 2017. Second-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris got a staggering six-year contract worth $1.3 million annually after Ohio State coach Urban Meyer tried to pry him away last December, and former Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whom Swinney brought in to replace Kevin Steele following the 70-point Orange Bowl debacle, has a guaranteed four-year deal that pays $800,000 this season. That's about as big a commitment as you're going to find for a head coach/offensive/defensive coordinator triumvirate. Clemson is banking on the hope that the long-middling program took the right step with last year's 8-0 start and ACC title game upset of Virginia Tech rather than hedging its bets after three late-season blowouts.

Of course, all of that will make Clemson fans extra frustrated if the Tigers regress this season. Swinney will certainly feel the heat if they don't at least contend with Florida State in the Atlantic Division. But there's reason to believe the offense will be even more dangerous in Year 2 with Morris, Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and while Venables had a rough ending in Norman, most programs would be very happy to land a guy who helped produce seven Big 12 championship defenses. Clemson has the makings of a consistently competitive program in the years to come, a stark contrast from the perennial underachievers we once all knew and loved.

Is there any remote possibility that preseason polls could be done away with moving forward? As the playoff structure seems to be unfolding, it seems much like the BCS that starting outside the Top 25 makes it extremely difficult to make the jump to the top four in the country, even with a perfect season. If the polls didn't come out until after the third week, it would at least be based on what is actually being done on the field.
-- Dan, Astoria, N.Y.

There will always be unofficial preseason polls (in large part because we know you will read them), presumably including the AP's and USA Today's. But the commissioners have stated pretty emphatically that once the playoff arrives, the selection committee will not use any criteria that include a preseason component.

Ideally, the members would sit down at the end of the season with a blank piece of paper, but that's probably not realistic. Much like the BCS standings, I imagine the new organization will send out periodic rankings starting in mid-October so that fans can follow along. Even if they don't, it would be na´ve to think the selectors would not be aware of the prevailing consensus, because they'll see the numbers in front of the teams' names when they watch games. But theoretically, preseason rankings will hold no official bearing on the playoff selection process. And that of course is a good thing.

Can we have a moment of silence for the death of the WAC?
-- Matt, Ypsilanti, Mich.

We can, and we must.



RIP, conference that brought us Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, David Carr, Colt Brennan, Ian Johnson, Kellen Moore and so many late-night score-a-thons. It's astounding that a conference can go from three BCS berths in four years (2006-09) to extinction less than four years later.

Stewart: What is going to happen to Idaho and New Mexico State now that the WAC won't have enough teams to qualify to be a FBS conference? Is independence the only possibility?
-- Steve, Chicago

Both schools have said they plan on playing as independents next season (Idaho is expected to join the Big Sky in other sports), which will undoubtedly be a scheduling nightmare. To maintain FBS status, they must play 60 percent of their games against FBS foes as well as play at least five home games against FBS foes. Idaho only has four opponents set for 2013 (Northern Illinois, at Ole Miss, at Wyoming and at Washington State). AD Rob Spear told the Idaho Statesman the Vandals may play New Mexico State twice next year. So mark your calendars for that.
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