The 12 players of Heisman

Dave Martin/Associated Press file photo

For the first time in Heisman Trophy history, a candidate, should Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel decide to use all four years of his college football eligibility, will have three more chances to win the award a second time. Next year, Manziel will be a sophomore and chasing his second trophy; only Ohio State running back Archie Griffin has won the award twice.

By Paul Myerberg

Unlike previous winners, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will have three more years – if he chooses to use all of his eligibility – to take home his second Heisman and join former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin as the only two-time selections in the trophy’s history.

After winning the Heisman as a sophomore, Tim Tebow came in third as a junior and fifth as a senior.

Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman as a junior and came in third as a senior, far behind his teammate, Reggie Bush.

Former BYU quarterback Ty Detmer finished first in 1990 and third in 1991.

To follow in Griffin’s footsteps, Manziel would need to sidestep decades of Heisman Trophy tradition.

But by becoming the first freshman ever to win the trophy, Manziel has positioned himself to enter the 2013 season as the frontrunner to do so again – and again and again, until another challenger comes up and takes control of the Heisman conversation. (It eventually will happen.)

So a 2013 Heisman watch list picks up right where the 2012 voting left off, with Manziel in the top spot. Two questions: Will there be a Johnny Football backlash? And are there any defenders capable of making a Manti Te’o-like leap into the Heisman mix?

Here are the top 12 contenders followed by a short list of players to watch. (Those players that seem destined for the NFL a year early are not included.)

1. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (sophomore)

What does Johnny Football do for an encore? How does Manziel improve upon a banner debut? It won’t be easy, but consider why Manziel will be even better in 2013: a better supporting cast of playmakers, another year of experience, another year in A&M’s offense and another year of experience in the Southeastern Conference.

2. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State (junior)

Miller was a perfect fit for Urban Meyer’s offense, as most expected. What most didn’t expect was such improvement from Miller as a passer, and that points toward even greater progression during his second full season as the Buckeyes’ starter. Ohio State also will enter 2013 with a high ranking, which helps.

3. QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois (senior)

While coach Dave Doeren is gone, NIU won’t miss a beat in the transition to former offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Rod Carey. The Huskies bring back a tremendous amount of talent in 2013, beginning with Lynch. You could say that Lynch might help his 2013 campaign tremendously with a strong game against Florida State in this year’s Orange Bowl.

4. WR Marqise Lee, USC (junior)

The only question: Who’s throwing Lee the ball? While Lee remains the most dangerous skill player in college football, one only can wonder if the transition from Matt Barkley to USC’s next quarterback might lead to a slight decline in production. But Lee does it all, and he does it better than anyone else, which should allow him to remain a prime Heisman contender.

5. QB Aaron Murray, Georgia (senior)

Murray might test the draft waters, but he’d be wise to return to Georgia for his senior season. There’s much to be gained, from a higher draft slot in 2014 to the potential for another run at Alabama in the SEC. Murray and the next player on this list, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, also will need to fight Manziel to become the top quarterback coming out of the SEC.

6. QB A.J. McCarron, Alabama (senior)

McCarron’s looking at his second national title in as many years if Alabama beats Notre Dame on Jan. 7. Given his own statistical gains – he leads the nation in quarterback efficiency – his team’s consistent success with him under center might push the 2013 trophy McCarron’s way.

7. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon (sophomore)

The only issue is the potential that Oregon coach Chip Kelly leaves Oregon for the NFL after January’s Fiesta Bowl. The Ducks won’t drop off the map if Kelly departs, but it’s easy to see the offense take a slight step back – even if offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich takes the reins. Even a coaching change won’t stem Mariota’s development, however.

8. QB Taylor Martinez, Nebraska (senior)

The schedule works out nicely for Nebraska in 2013, which will help Martinez’s cause. He’ll also be teamed with a very experienced offense: Nebraska’s offensive line will be very good, the backfield loaded and the receiver corps the best in the Big Ten. Look for Martinez to have a tremendous final season.

9. QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville (junior)

Bridgewater hit a bump in October before closing the regular season with a bang. Traditionally, a quarterback takes the next step forward during his third season in the starting lineup – and it’s not like Bridgewater isn’t already playing at a high level.

10. DE Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina (junior)

Clowney is an unstoppable menace to all things offense. Come 2013, he’ll be the best player in college football. Can a true defensive player win the Heisman? Unless South Carolina works him into the offense – and I’m sure Steve Spurrier has things in mind – he’ll need, like Te’o, to lead the Gamecocks to a perfect season.

11. QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson (senior)

Why so low? Because of the potential that offensive coordinator Chad Morris will leave Clemson to become a head coach, perhaps at Texas Tech. If so, Boyd and his weapons at wide receiver will lose one of the great offensive coaches in the FBS. That would hurt the Tigers.

12. RB Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona (junior)

Very quietly, Carey’s 2012 season was one of the best from any player in college football. Like Arizona’s offense at large, Carey only is going to grow more comfortable in Rich Rodriguez’s system as he gains additional experience. All the Wildcats need to do is find a quarterback to help loosen up opposing defenses.

© 2012 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

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