As with any college football season, this year has been defined by its Heisman contenders. The race for one of the most storied trophies in sports has written much of the narrative of the first half, and the frontrunners have turned into stars. In August, Geno Smith, Manti Te'o and Collin Klein were standouts preparing for their senior seasons. By mid-October, they've become national sensations.
Of course, while Smith, Te'o and Klein deserve much of the credit for their team's respective success, they've had plenty of help. And some of it has come from unheralded sources. K-State safety Ty Zimmerman has interceptions in each of the Wildcats' last three games, while Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt -- who is starting to gain national recognition -- ranks among the FBS leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. The best players don't always wins games; the best teams typically do.
With that in mind, this week's Spotlight zeroes in on some of the first half's unsung heroes -- contributors who could take on starring roles during the national title hunt.
These five players from top teams are among those who deserve recognition for their impressive first-half performances, efforts that have boosted their programs' BCS chances.
Christy is averaging 46.4 yards per punt, the sixth-highest total in the nation. He pinned LSU inside its own 10-yard line three times during Florida's Oct. 6 win over the Tigers, and he already has 11 punts of 50 yards or longer. Outside of quarterback Jeff Driskel, running back Mike Gillislee and a handful of defensive headliners (safety Matt Elam, linebacker Jonathan Bostic and safety Josh Evans), Christy has been the most valuable cog behind the Gators' 6-0 start.
Crichton bulked up during the offseason and currently has 11 tackles for loss, fourth in the FBS. And he could be primed to wreak even more havoc in the second half. He forced six fumbles in 2011 as a freshman -- four of which came after the midway point of the season. Along with corner Jordan Poyer (more on him below), Crichton has keyed the surprising Beavers' strong defensive start.
When Finney arrived in Manhattan out of Andale (Kan.) High in 2010, he joined the Wildcats' roster as a walk-on. The former two-star recruit redshirted before earning a starting spot last season, and he's trotted out with the first team in each of K-State's last 18 games. But most importantly, he's anchored the line amid transition. Fellow starters Clyde Aufner, Colten Freeze and Zach Hanson all graduated last spring, but the Wildcats have only come back stronger. They've allowed just four sacks through six games and have paved the way for the nation's 11th-ranked rushing offense, one averaging 248.5 yards per game. "I knew what was going to be expected of me as soon as the season was over last year," Finney recently told
Though Jones is still emerging as an integral part of the passing attack (he has 11 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns), he's shown flashes of his immense potential. He currently ranks second on the Tide with 522 all-purpose yards, and he's already amassed 357 combined return yards and a score, the latter coming on a 99-yard runback just seconds after 'Bama faced its only deficit of the season at Ole Miss. His game-breaking ability could rise to the fore when the Tide face tougher SEC competition such as Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M in the second half.
Lyerla has 24 offensive touches in 2012 (12 carries, 12 receptions). He's scored five Oregon touchdowns. Expect the versatile sophomore -- who racked up 1,519 rushing yards, 352 receiving yards and 45 tackles as a two-way star during his senior year at Hillsboro (Ore.) High -- to continue to emerge as a red-zone matchup nightmare as the Ducks hit the teeth of their Pac-12 schedule.
Like several of the players mentioned above, Oregon State defensive back Poyer is starting to generate some buzz. He leads the FBS with five interceptions through five games, and he's made many of his picks in pivotal moments: His third interception against Washington State clinched a 19-6 win, and his fourth-quarter pick-six at BYU capped last Saturday's 42-24 triumph.
Still, when talking about players responsible for the Beavers' resurgence, his name is often omitted from the list. It shouldn't be. Oregon State's pass efficiency defense has skyrocketed from 104th to 24th in the nation, and Poyer has been the man leading the charge.
"We came together at the end of last season after we lost to Oregon and finished 3-9 and basically told each other, 'We know this feeling and we don't want to feel like this again,'" said Poyer. "So this offseason, the leaders came up, guys like Markus Wheaton, Sean Mannion, me, Andrew Seumalo, we all came together and pushed these guys to work hard. It's really paying off for us."
His success is a product of several causes. First there's his motivation: representing his small community of Astoria, Ore., an inspiration
"I'm able to just read quarterbacks' eyes," Poyer said. "Against Washington State, I had three interceptions. All three times, I just understood what was coming. When you're able to do that and you know you have help with the safety, it's easy to be athletic and make plays."
Here's a look at three under-the-radar freshmen who could factor into the BCS picture in the second half.
There are plenty of other players who could have been spotlighted in this piece. Almost every team still in BCS contention has key contributors lacking proper recognition, an unfortunate byproduct of the mass of attention paid to each of the top team's stars.
But as the second half kicks off and the Heisman hunt intensifies, keep this in mind: Sometimes the lesser-known players make the biggest impact. When someone eventually hoists the crystal ball in January, it could have as much do to with a Poyer, Jones or Finney as it could a Smith, Te'o or Klein.