Welcome to a new era of the Heisman Watch.
I'm taking the reins from the venerable Gene Menez, which means I'll be charged with sifting through the contenders, the pretenders and the attention-grabbing fliers and trinkets that wind up in my mailbox as we race toward the awarding of the 76th Heisman Trophy.
Think of me as your pilot on this four-month flight to New York, crisscrossing the nation in a 747 as we look for the next name to enshrine alongside the game's immortals. Don't worry: I've logged plenty of practice miles, voting in the last three races. (For the record, Tim Tebow topped my ballot in 2007 and'08 and Mark Ingram earned my vote last year.)
To kick things off, we'll be departing from the typical top 10 list. Instead, we'll begin with a tiered look at my leading candidates heading into the season, starting with the best bets to make it to New York City.
Disclaimers: Contenders are listed in alphabetical order in each tier. You won't find a defensive player listed, because, well, I'm a realist.
RB Mark Ingram, Jr., Alabama
2009 stats: 271 carries, 1,658 rushing yards, 17 TDs
Ingram's recently injured knee doesn't change the fact that he's the returning winner, or that he plays for the nation's No. 1 team. As of now Ingram is only supposed to miss the opener against San Jose State, and unless that recovery timetable changes, the junior should remain in the conversation all season. The thing that may hurt Ingram is the same problem that beset the likes of Matt Leinart and Jason White -- competition on his own team. With Trent Richardson taking away some carries and the Crimson Tide expected to throw more to a healthy Julio Jones, the spotlight won't be on Ingram like it was last year. It will probably take a 2,000-yard season for Ingram to mount a serious run at joining Archie Griffin as a two-time winner.
QB, Ryan Mallett, Jr., Arkansas
2009 stats: 225-of-403 passing, 3,624 yards, 30 TDs, 7 INT
There may not be a better quarterback in the country than the Michigan transfer. He made a splash in his first year in Bobby Petrino's system, setting or tying 16 school records and leading the SEC in passing. He's bound to put up even bigger numbers this year, but his Heisman hopes will likely hinge on a four-week stretch that includes Georgia on the road, Alabama, Texas A&M in Cowboys Stadium and a trip to Auburn.
QB, Kellen Moore, Jr., Boise State
2009 stats: 277-of-431 passing, 3,536 yards, 39 TDs, 3 INT
The junior is the poster boy for the lovable little team that could make a run at the national title. Moore is coming off a sophomore season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes and just three interceptions while ranking second nationally in passing efficiency. Whether or not the Broncos can break into the BCS title game has been a major preseason debate, but an even bigger question is whether a player from a non-AQ school can win over voters. No player from outside the current BCS conferences has won the Heisman since Ty Detmer in 1990.
LoGiurato: Non-BCS hopefuls must be perfect to earn invite
QB Terrelle Pryor, Jr., Ohio State
2009 stats: 167-of-295 passing, 2,094 yards, 18 TDs, 11 INT; 162 carries, 779 yards, 7 TDs
Was Pryor's Rose Bowl performance a preview of what's to come? Jim Tressel took the leash off his QB in the win over Oregon, and Pryor threw for a career-high 266 yards and two TDs and ran for 72 yards. But let's not forget that we've been down this road before with Tressel: He opened the playbook in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, only to return to his button-downed ways the next fall. If Tressel is serious about giving Pryor an offense more suited to his unique gifts, the junior should be a real threat.
QB Case Keenum, Sr., Houston
2009 stats: 492-of-700 passing, 5,641 yards, 44 TDs, 15 INT
He'll certainly post mind-boggling numbers. After throwing for a nation's-best 5,671 yards and 44 scores last season, 6,000 yards isn't entirely preposterous. Houston returns three 1,000-yard receivers and the schedule includes six teams that ranked 98th or worse in pass defense last year. But Keenum has two things going against him: 1) There's not a marquee game on the schedule with a nonconference slate of UCLA, Mississippi State and Texas Tech and 2) Voters have been desensitized to mammoth passing numbers since the days of Andre Ware and Detmer -- just ask David Klingler, Timmy Chang, Colt Brennan or any of Texas Tech's QBs.
RB, Dion Lewis, So., Pitt
2009 stats: 325 carries, 1,799 rushing yards, 17 TDs
The nation's returning leading rusher burst onto the scene as a freshman, racking up more yards (1,799 yards) and more 100-yard games (10) than Ingram, and doing so while playing one fewer game. He also proved he can shoulder a load with 325 carries, second-most in the nation. Lewis could become the fourth straight sophomore to win the award, but he needs a Pitt program that has a history of underachieving to remain in the Big East hunt despite starting a new quarterback and three new offensive linemen.
RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Jr., Oregon State
2009 stats: 273 carries, 1,440 yards rushing, 21 TDs; 78 catches, 522 yards receiving, 1 TD
After amassing 2,693 yards and 32 touchdowns in his first two seasons, Quizz has become one of the nation's most exciting players. He could be in for a huge year statistically, with the Beavers likely leaning on him as they break in a first-year starting quarterback. But no one on this list will be tested as much, as early: Quizz faces No. 6 TCU and No. 3 Boise State in the first three weeks of the season. If he gets off to a slow start, his candidacy could end before it really begins, no matter how many yards he ends up recording.
QB Ricky Dobbs, Sr., Navy
2009 stats: 56-of-105 passing, 1,031 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INT; 315 carries, 1,203 yards rushing, 27 TDs
The secret is clearly out on the Midshipmen quarterback. There's an unofficial twitter feed (@DobbsForHeisman) supporting Dobbs' candidacy, and the dual-threat QB even drew the attention of President Obama when Navy picked up its latest Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. The senior is coming off a record-setting season in which he broke Tim Tebow's mark for rushing TDs by a quarterback in one season (27) while rushing for 1,203 yards and throwing for 1,031 more. But considering no service academy player has finished higher than sixth in Heisman voting since Navy's Roger Staubach won in 1963, there may not be a bigger long shot on this list.
QB Jake Locker, Sr., Washington
2009 stats: 230-of-394 passing, 2,800 yards, 21 TDs, 11 INT; 112 carries, 388 yards rushing, 7 TDs
Locker's getting plenty of love after a summer media tour that included a stop at Sports illustrated, and NFL draftniks have been fawning over him for years. But no matter how pro-ready Locker may be, the fact remains that he has yet to put together a winning season in Seattle, and only one former Heisman winner (Paul Hornung in 1956) has played for a losing team. Locker has to put the Huskies in Pac-10 contention and take advantage of early dates with BYU and Nebraska to solidify his campaign.
RB Ryan Williams, So., Virginia Tech
2009 stats: 293 carries, 1,655 yards rushing, 21 TDs
He's arguably the best running back in the country and last year became the first freshman in ACC history to lead the conference in rushing (1,655 yards) and scoring (21 TDs). In any other year he'd be one of the favorites, but with the return of 1,000-yard rusher Darren Evans to the Hokies' lineup and the pair expected to split carries, Williams' production could suffer -- along with his case for the Heisman.