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July 29, 2011

Mailbag: From one Heisman winner to another

Usually, when a Heisman recipient completes his eligibility or leaves for the NFL, his school endures an almost-inevitable decline in production.

For instance, Florida suffered last season at quarterback without Tim Tebow, Florida State had quarterback issues for years after Chris Weinke and sophomore Marcus Lattimore is South Carolina's first true stud running back since George Rogers won in 1980.

Yet in rare instances, fortunate programs have replaced a Heisman recipient with a Heisman recipient. Indeed, USC has done it twice.

Trojans quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman in 2002. Matt Leinart, his replacement, won it two years later. And tailback Marcus Allen won in 1981, two years after predecessor Charles White.

Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli was the 1943 recipient. But after six games that season, he was activated by the Marine Corps. Johnny Lujack stepped in and helped the Irish complete an undefeated season. The next year, Lujack was called into military duty. He returned to Notre Dame in 1946 and won the Heisman in '47.

This season, there is a strong possibility that another program could replace a Heisman winner with a Heisman winner. Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, the replacement for '09 winner Mark Ingram, should be a strong contender. So is the quarterback of one of the nation's top teams. And as we see in this week's mailbag, quarterbacks of teams that reach the BCS championship game often have an edge in the Heisman race.

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Heisman hopefuls

How realistic is it to say that Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones will win the Heisman this season?
Ean in Pensacola, Fla.

Landry Jones definitely has a chance. He threw for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns last season, and he's guiding a team that likely will be ranked No. 1 in both preseason polls.

If Jones can lead the Sooners to the national championship game, his chances increase dramatically. Seven of the past 10 Heisman recipients were quarterbacks of teams that played in the BCS national championship game: Auburn's Cam Newton (2010), Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (2008), Ohio State's Troy Smith (2006), USC's Matt Leinart (2004), OU's Jason White (2003), Nebraska's Eric Crouch (2001) and Florida State's Chris Weinke (2000).

That doesn't include Florida's Tim Tebow, who won the trophy in 2007 and played in the championship game in '06 and '08. Furthermore, Texas' Colt McCoy (2009) and Vince Young (2005) were finalists when they led the Longhorns to national championship games.

If OU makes it that far, Jones will have a great chance even though he probably isn't the best player on the Sooners' offense (I'd say that would be wide receiver Ryan Broyles). But White won in 2003 even though a strong case could be made that receiver Mark Clayton, an eventual first-round choice in the NFL draft, was OU's best offensive player.

My choices as the top five Heisman contenders entering the season are Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Alabama tailback Trent Richardson, Oregon tailback LaMichael James, Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon.

I'd have Jones on my next list of five, along with Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, USC quarterback Matt Barkley, South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore and Arkansas tailback Knile Davis.


Under the radar?

Do you think West Virginia can be a dark-horse national title contender? Having coach Dana Holgorsen and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel on the same sideline has to help.
Brandon in Lewisburg, W.Va.

Over the past six seasons, Holgorsen has served as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. And in each of those six seasons, Holgorsen's teams ranked no lower than 13th in the nation in scoring offense and averaged no fewer than 34.5 points per game.

Look for the Mountaineers to put up some startling scores in 2011, especially with quarterback Geno Smith leading the way. Smith figures to flourish in Holgorsen's offense, and he has some big-play receivers with whom to work.

That's the good news. On the other side of the coin, there are issues along the offensive line and at running back. There also are questions about the defense, which returns only four starters. No one questions Casteel's credentials, but even the best coaches can only do so much without effective players.

Of course, few teams are loaded at every position. West Virginia could be a team that has to score in the 30s to win games. But WVU will be a team capable of consistently scoring in the 30s.

Could the Mountaineers be a dark-horse national championship contender? Why not? Most people didn't see Auburn as a serious national championship threat until October of last season.

But the feeling here is that while West Virginia will be good enough to win the Big East, it doesn't really have the horses to seriously contend for the national title. That said, if the Mountaineers upset LSU on Sept. 24, they will have to be considered legitimate contenders.


Bear market

What are your thoughts on Baylor for the upcoming season, as well as the future with coach Art Briles? Do you think Jared Johnson will be as dynamic as quarterback Robert Griffin in a couple of years?
John in Waco, Texas

Baylor finally broke out of a 16-year postseason drought last season, and I believe the Bears could make consecutive bowl game appearances for the first time since 1991-92.

It won't be easy, though. The Bears open with TCU and play Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma on the road. Texas will be seeking revenge for last season's loss, and Baylor always has a problem with Texas Tech.

The Bears are going to have to win every game in which they're favored and pull off an upset or two.

Still, I wouldn't count out any team with Griffin at quarterback. The Bears have a solid offensive line and an underrated group of receivers. They do need to find an adequate running back, though.

The biggest key for Baylor is upgrading a defense that gave up at least 38 points seven times last season. Phil Bennett, who's had success as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State, Texas A&M and Pittsburgh, was brought in to bolster that unit.

Bennett said Baylor's defensive personnel is better than he anticipated and that the Bears' problems last season largely was a matter of lining up out of position. We'll see.

Briles has taken over struggling programs at Houston and Baylor and turned them into bowl teams - no small accomplishments. If Baylor continues to improve, he'll surely be contacted by "bigger" programs seeking coaches.

Yet, Briles strikes me as content in Waco. He's a west Texas guy that puts family and faith ahead of making huge sums of money. And, by the way, he's making a seven-figure salary at Baylor.

Perhaps I'm being nave, but the bet here is Briles is in it at Baylor for the long haul, just as Grant Teaff was three decades ago.

Finally, Jared Johnson, a three-star dual-threat quarterback from Grand Prairie, Texas, is the No. 92 prospect in the state of Texas. He has committed to Baylor and eventually could be Griffin's successor. But I'd hold off on predicting he'll be as dynamic as Griffin, who I think is the best quarterback in the Big 12. Griffin was the state's No. 42 prospect in 2008 and obviously was underrated.

Johnson has good speed, but Griffin has world-class speed and is an accomplished passer. To predict Johnson will be as dynamic as Griffin would be unfair to Johnson.


Go west

I was looking at all the schedules and noticed that SEC teams play only two games outside the South. I hear all the time that they beat themselves up, but it would be nice if they would travel places.
Patrick in Hayward, Calif.

That's a common complaint that frequently comes from the West Coast. It's also misguided.

This season, Alabama plays at Penn State, LSU plays at West Virginia and Ole Miss plays at Fresno State. In addition, SEC teams will play twice in Arlington, Texas: Arkansas meets Texas A&M and LSU against Oregon.

Now, if you want to use Civil War states as a means to identify the "South," you've got a point. But in today's world of college football, Texas is Big 12 territory, which means that's a trip outside the SEC area for the Hogs and Tigers.

Furthermore, SEC teams can play opponents from other Big Six conferences, such as the Big 12, ACC and Big East, and still be in the South.

West Coast teams do travel more, but perhaps they have to. After all, the nearest Big Six conference opponent to a Pac-12 team would be Texas Tech.

Most West Coast teams schedule with geography in mind, too. For example, Nevada, San Jose State, Sacramento State, BYU, Eastern Washington, Fresno State, Idaho State, UNLV, San Diego State, UC Davis, Montana State, Northern Arizona and Colorado State are on Pac-12 non-conference schedules.

With travel costs as expensive as they are these days, it makes sense to schedule regionally.

Despite that, it's not uncommon for SEC teams to travel west. In the past four seasons, LSU has played at Washington, Georgia has played at Arizona State and Colorado, and Tennessee has played at California and UCLA.


Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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