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ANDREW LUCK, QB, Stanford, Junior
If he'd turned pro, he'd have been the surefire No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and a millionaire many times over. Instead, last season's Heisman runner-up returns as this year's favorite.
There's no shortage of challenges, though. Luck has to at least match last year's prolific numbers (3,338 passing yards, 32 TDs, eight interceptions and a 12--1 record). And he'll have to do it without his top two receivers from 2010 and three starters on the offensive line. Then there's the question of how the loss of coach Jim Harbaugh (along with key members of the staff) to the NFL will affect Luck's performance. He is also battling history: A runner-up has returned and won the award just four times, and it hasn't happened since Herschel Walker did it in 1982.
But Luck has much working in his favor. He has name recognition, arguably the most important currency a Heisman candidate can own. Then there's Stanford's schedule. The Cardinal closes out the regular season with three high-profile games on the Farm (Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame) and could qualify for the inaugural Pac-12 championship game, giving Luck the stage to leave a lasting impression in voters' minds. It all sets up for Luck to bring Stanford its first Heisman since Jim Plunkett was honored in 1970.
There is no better game-breaker in college football than Oregon's diminutive (5'9", 195 pounds) yet dynamic running back. The nation's reigning rushing champion (1,731 yards, 21 TDs in 2010), James will once again be the bell cow of a high-scoring, spread attack that has the pieces to land the Ducks back in the BCS title game. He has an outside shot at cracking the 2,000-yard mark.
If he can run wild in an opening-week megamatchup against LSU in Arlington, Texas, James will have everyone else playing catch-up. His campaign, however, hinges largely on how well he fares in a Nov. 12 showdown against Luck and Stanford in what is a de facto Heisman elimination game. The first Heisman Trophy in Oregon history may be on the line.