Sports

2011 Heisman Watch: Luck, Wilson, James, Blackmon and More

| by Sports Nickel

The college football season is now in full swing, and while it is hard to get a good read on the candidates after just one week -- especially with a lot of them going up against cupcake opponent and padding their stats -- we'll do what we can.

In this first in-season edition of Heisman Watch, I will highlight the five front runners as it stands now, a couple of players that are falling off the pace after just one week, and a few sleepers that made some noise in week one.

THE FRONT RUNNERS

Andrew Luck (QB/Stanford) — The Stanford quarterback finished runner-up to Cam Newton in the Heisman race last season, and opened up as the favorite to win the stiff-arm in 2011. He certainly did nothing to hurt himself in the season opener on Saturday in Palo Alto. He completed 17 of his 26 pass attempts for 171 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the Cardinal made short work of San Jose State in a 57-3 blowout win. He shouldn’t have much trouble padding his stats next week as Stanford heads to Durham to play a Duke team coming off of a loss against FCS opponent Richmond. The game against the Blue Devils is the last tune-up for Stanford before they play nine straight Pac-12 games before finishing the season against Notre Dame.

Landry Jones (QB/Oklahoma) — Landry Jones and the Sooners had little problem dispelling Tulsa in Norman on Saturday, beating the Golden Hurricane 47-14. Jones carved up the Tulsa secondary, throwing for 375 yards on 35 of 47 passing, but only finding the endzone through the air a single time. Even without the gaudy touchdown numbers, Jones still threw for a lot of yards and completed 74.5% of his passes. Again, you have to remember the level of competition, but he certainly did nothing to hurt himself on Saturday. Now, Oklahoma gets a bye week before heading to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. Jones will get his chance to seize control early of the Heisman race if he can have a big performance against the ‘Noles while leading the Sooners to a victory in Doak Campbell.

Kellen Moore (QB/Boise State) — The only player that saw their Heisman hopes on the line in the opening weekend was Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore. A loss to Georgia in Atlanta would end the Broncos’ chances of playing in a BCS game, and would almost certainly end Moore’s last chase of the Heisman Trophy. But, like we have seen so many times during his run in Boise, Moore delivered on the biggest of stages as he led the Broncos to a 35-21 win over Georgia in essentially a road game at the Georgia Dome. Moore made one mistake the whole game, as he tossed a rare interception, but other than that he was flawless. He completed 28 of  34 passes for 261 yards and 3 touchdowns to the 1 pick. Not even an SEC defense could throw Moore out of his rhythm as he tries to lead Boise State not just to a BCS bowl game, but to New Orleans for the National Title game.

Robert Griffin III (QB/Baylor) — There was not a more impressive player in the first week of college football than Baylor QB Robert Griffin III. He eviscerated the lauded TCU defense, finishing with an otherworldly QB rating of 250.6. He threw 26 passes, completing 21 of them for 359 yards (77.8 cmp%) and 5 touchdown passes to no interceptions. He did have a costly fumble, but made up for that later on by leading the Bears on a game winning drive to lift them to the 50-48 win. To go along with all the passing statistics, Griffin rushed for 38 yards and had a crucial CATCH on a third-down conversion in the 4th quarter with Baylor trailing. It was a superhuman performance by the junior quarterback, and he was undoubtedly the best player in college football during the first week.

Trent Richardson (RB/Alabama) — It wasn’t the best performance we have ever seen from Trent Richardson, but it was also a season opener in which he didn’t see near the number of carries he will command in other weeks. He only rushed for 37 yards against Kent State, but only carried the ball 13 times. He did, however, find the endzone three times to help in the Crimson Tide’s 48-7 blowout win over the Golden Flashes. Richardson never really found a rhythm, but this game isn’t going to help or hurt him much in the long run. It’s all about how you play against the upper-echelon opponents, and Richardson will get the chance to showcase his ability on the ground against Penn State in Happy Valley next  Saturday afternoon.

FALLING OFF THE PACE

LaMichael James (RB/Oregon) — LaMichael James isn’t out of the Heisman race by any stretch, but he did take a step back on the first weekend with a subpar performance in a loss against LSU to all but end the Ducks chances in the BCS Title hunt. He had only 54  yards on 18 carries and a touchdown to go along with 61 receiving yards. James will have plenty of chances to pad his numbers in the coming weeks, but he was unable to put  it all together on a big stage in Arlington. The next two games for Oregon — Nevada and Missouri State — should allow James to put up the numbers to get himself back into the Heisman conversation. He’ll have some other chances in the national spotlight to prove himself.

Justin Blackmon (WR/Oklahoma State) — I know what you’re thinking. How could Justin Blackmon be falling off the Heisman pace after an 8-catch 144-yard performance against UL Lafayette? Well, it wasn’t anything Blackmon did or didn’t do, it’s all about how other wide receivers performed on the opening weekend. The likes of Kendall Wright, Ryan Broyles, and Robert Woods all had big games, which makes it that much tougher for Blackmon to get the Heisman love. It appears that it’s going to be a highly contested race for the Biletnikoff this season, and Justin Blackmon isn’t going to just run away with it like last season.

SLEEPERS

Ray Graham (RB/Pittsburgh)– Pittsburgh’s offense wasn’t clicking on all cylinders on Saturday against Buffalo, so the team leaned on junior running back Ray Graham and he delivered to help the Panthers defeat the Bulls 35-16. Graham shouldered the load, carrying the ball 29 times for 201 yards and punching in 3 touchdowns. It’s hard to be to overwhelmed on Graham’s week one performance, especially against a defense that gave up 159 yards per game on the ground a game last season. Pittsburgh has one more tuneup next week against Maine before the Panthers get their first real test of the season on the road against Iowa.

Russell Wilson (QB/Wisconsin) — A lot of Wisconsin fans are clamoring for Badgers running back Montee Ball to get the Heisman love, but I was more impressed with Russell Wilson’s performance against UNLV than any other Wisconsin player. Wilson came to Madison just over two months ago via Raleigh, and was extremely impressive in his debut. Wilson completed 10 of his 13 passes for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while running ball twice for 62 yards including a 46-yard touchdown scamper. Of course, the level of competition has to be considered, and that’s why Wilson is just a sleeper at this point. But, if he keeps up this level of play, it won’t be long before he is included in the serious Heisman discussions.

Vontaze Burfict (LB/Arizona State) — If any defensive player has a shot at the Heisman Trophy this season, it’s Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict. He was thought to be one of the top defensive players in the nation coming into this season, and he lived up to the hype in the season opener against UC Davis with three sacks. It was against an FCS opponent, so it’s hard to put too much stock into the performance, but if it is a sign of things to come then Burfict should be in for a big 2011.

Robert Woods (WR/USC) — Robert Woods had a record-setting performance in the Trojans’ season opener against Minnesota on Saturday. He caught a USC record 17 passes for 177 yards and reached pay-dirt three times. The most amazing thing about it is that Woods is just a sophomore and may have just submitted himself as one of the best wide receivers in college football alongside Justin Blackmon, Ryan Broyles, and Alshon Jeffery.