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Heisman Watch: Ten players other than Luck who can take the crown

Stanford is not staging an elaborate Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Andrew Luck. And why would it? Last season's runner-up kick-started his 2011 campaign on Jan. 7 by announcing he would forgo the NFL draft in order to return to college, saying "I am committed to earning my degree in architectural design from Stanford University." In an era of scandals, putting off millions to pursue graduation is the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. No mass mailing could spark that kind of publicity.

In generating a predictive formula based on past voting trends for Sports Illustrated's college football preview issue, Luck was my runaway favorite. He plays a position that has produced the winner 28 times; his team figures to be in the chase for a BCS berth; he has name recognition; and he has plenty of big games in which to impress voters.

But let's not hand Luck the Heisman just yet. We went down this road when another surefire No. 1 pick, Peyton Manning, returned in 1997; he finished second to Charles Woodson. The last time a runner-up took the crown the following season? Herschel Walker in 1982. And as good as Luck is, he faces some on-the-field obstacles with the Cardinal replacing two receivers, three offensive line starters and an elite head coach.

Luck enters the season as the favorite, but he has plenty of challengers, including four others who finished in the top 10 in voting last season. Here's a look at 10 players other than Luck who could hoist the bronze trophy on Dec. 10.

With Reggie Bush's Heisman vacated, only one running back has officially won since 1999. James may be the position's next best bet. He led the nation in rushing yards (1,731) and yards per game (144.2) last season despite being suspended for the opener. In Chip Kelly's points-a-minute offense, James could make a legitimate run at 2,000 yards.

James can make a statement in the opener against LSU, but the real key is a possible Heisman elimination game against Luck and Stanford on Nov. 12 in Palo Alto. Whoever wins that showdown could assume favorite status.

The odds for a returning third-place finisher are better than for a runner-up, but barely. Those players have won six times compared to four times for second-placers, and it has happened more recently, with Florida's Danny Wuerffel in 1996.

It's rare that a player who has been a backup enters a season with Heisman name recognition, but like winners Tim Tebow (2007) and Barry Sanders (1988) before him, Richardson is already in the spotlight.

As a freshman Richardson rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the BCS title game. As a sophomore he turned in a 144-yard, two score performance against Penn State while filling in for the injured Mark Ingram. He totaled 700 yards, six touchdowns and 6.3 yards per carry in 2010.

With a sample size like that, there's no reason to question Richardson's ability to handle the bulk of the carries. And with Alabama breaking in two new quarterbacks and a veteran offensive line boasting an SEC-best 90 career starts in place, it's reasonable to assume Richardson can make a run at Ingram's school record of 1,658 yards.

Much like Richardson at Alabama, Sam Bradford's former backup is trying to help the Sooners go from one Heisman winner to another.

He'll certainly put up Heisman-level stats; no one attempted more passes last year than Jones' 617, and he finished second nationally with 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns. Quarterbacking a national-title contender doesn't hurt either, as seven of the last 11 winners have piloted teams that played for the BCS crown.

But with three of last year's finalists returning, Jones is playing from behind. A winner has come off a top 10 finish 32 times, and Jones didn't make the top 10 last year. Of course, neither did the last two Oklahoma quarterbacks to win the award: Jason White in 2003 and Bradford in 2008.

Moore finished fourth in voting a year ago. If he makes a return trip to New York, he'll likely do so as the winningest quarterback in NCAA history. (He currently stands eight wins from Colt McCoy's record of 45.)

Voters know what they're getting with Moore. He's accurate, leading all FBS passers with a 182.6 rating last season, and he's improved his passing yards and touchdowns in each of his three seasons as a starter.

Yet despite the level of respect non-AQ powers have earned, the Heisman seemingly remains out of reach. In the BCS era, no player has finished higher than Colt Brennan's third-place in 2007. Could that change if Moore takes No. 5 Boise State where no non-AQ team has ever been: the national title game?

Lattimore has made no bones about his desire to deliver South Carolina' first Heisman since George Rogers in 1980, saying at last month's SEC Media Days, "I want to win the Heisman." Coach Steve Spurrier, who knows a thing or two about claiming the trophy (he won in 1966 and coached Wuerffel) has since told his sophomore star to back off and let his playing do the talking.

Lattimore did that as a freshman, rushing for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns despite getting 20 or more carries just four times and missing a full game and parts of two others because of injury.

Three of the last five winners have been sophomores (Tebow, Bradford and Ingram) and Lattimore might be the class' best bet to win again. His biggest challenge will be distancing himself from rival SEC candidate Richardson.

Blackmon burst onto the scene last season, leading the nation with 148.5 receiving yards per game and 20 touchdowns. He totaled 1,782 yards and went on to win the Biletnikoff Award and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and finished fifth in Heisman voting.

He'll surely put up numbers that warrant serious consideration, but his candidacy faces some long odds.

Only two wide receivers have ever won (Tim Brown in 1987 and Desmond Howard in 1991), and they were both also involved in the return game. Blackmon's only special teams contribution to date has been a blocked punt returned for a touchdown last season. His prolific receiving stats may not be enough.

Shoelace sat atop this list for five weeks last season and was the pick for SI.com's Halfway Heisman. He was erratic down the stretch, costing him a shot at the Wolverines' first Heisman win since Woodson's. But when Robinson was on, he was electric.

The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year posted nine games with at least 313 yards of total offense, including 502 at Notre Dame, and went on to finish sixth in the Heisman voting.

But with Rich Rodriguez's spread gone and Brady Hoke's conventional offense in place, we may not see the same Shoelace. From Michigan's perspective, limiting the amount of times Robinson runs and the hits he takes may be wise considering he missed parts of 10 games last season while amassing 256 rushing attempts.

Martinez ran for 870 yards over his first seven games, including a Nebraska quarterback record 241 yards against Kansas State. But foot and ankle injuries slowed him down the stretch, and he managed just 95 rushing yards the rest of the season.

The word out of Lincoln is that Martinez is fully healed. If he stays that way, he could be Nebraska's best offensive threat for the award since Eric Crouch won in 2001. But Martinez will have to adapt to a new offense -- Bo Pelini has charged first-year coordinator Tim Beck with finding some balance after the unit ranked 113th in passing, which could limit T-Magic's rushing opportunities -- three new starting linemen and a new conference.

It's worth noting the Huskers open with Chattanooga, which has faced the last three winners.

Smith fits the Cam Newton/Ingram mold in one sense: He's a more under-the-radar candidate than the names above him on this list.

In his first season as a starter, Smith completed a Big East-best 64.7 percent of his passes in throwing for a team-record 2,763 yards and 24 scores. With the arrival of new coach Dana Holgorsen, the architect of the Oklahoma State Air Raid offense that averaged 520.2 yards per game last season, Smith's yardage could be in excess of 4,000 yards this year. (Every quarterback Holgorsen has coached since he became Texas Tech's coordinator in 2005 has hit that mark.)

Smith may not have the track record, but he certainly has tantalizing potential.

Thomas rarely looked like a first-year starter in throwing for 2,881 yards and 30 touchdowns on the way to the BCS title game, where he proceeded to pick apart Auburn for 363 yards and two scores in a loss. That performance may have been a prelude of what's to come.

It stands to reason that Thomas will improve in Year 2, and the clip at which Oregon scores makes him a viable candidate.

But no matter how productive Thomas is, he'll likely be overshadowed by James on his team and Luck in his conference. It could take astronomical numbers to get Thomas to New York.

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