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Big Ten's dark horse Heisman candidates

The Big Ten's Heisman Trophy drought has reached four years, and the league lacks a ton of clear-cut candidates for the 2011 award.

Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was the Heisman frontrunner through the first month of the 2010 season and should appear on most preseason Heisman watch lists. His ups and downs in Big Ten play, his injury issues and a transition to a new offense, however, make "Shoelace" a bit of a hard sell.

Robinson still should appear on the same page with Stanford's Andrew Luck, Boise State's Kellen Moore, Oregon's LaMichael James and the other leading contenders.

Does the Big Ten have any dark horse Heisman candidates? Colleague Bruce Feldman recently compiled a national list of Heisman dark horses, and it includes two Big Ten players.

No. 2: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska

No. 7: Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State

Agree? Disagree? Surprised? Feldman makes a case for both players.

On Martinez: "I realize he still has to beat out junior Cody Green, but I believe the 2010 Big 12 offensive freshman of the year can be very special for a storied program as it moves into a new era in the Big Ten. .... My hunch is that the change of offensive coordinators from Shawn Watson to Tim Beck will help Martinez, and in Kenny Bell and junior college transfer Stanley Jean-Baptiste, he'll have some talented newcomers to help out at wide receiver."

On Baker: One of the most underrated backs in college football, Baker had a strong sophomore season for the 11-2 Spartans, running for 1,201 yards, 5.8 yards per carry and 13 TDs. The downside: He was a non-factor against some of the best defenses MSU saw (nine carries for 21 yards versus the Iowa Hawkeyes and 12 carries for 14 yards against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Capital One Bowl). He also competes for carries with Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper.

Three other Big Ten players "just missed the cut" for Feldman's list: Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Wisconsin running back Montee Ball.

Some interesting choices, to say the least. Feldman clearly likes Miller's chances to win Ohio State's starting job entering the season -- and keep it even after Terrelle Pryor finishes serving his suspension. Miller will need a great spring, but anything is possible.

Martinez showed some dynamic skills last season, but I don't know if he'll adjust quickly enough to a new offense to put himself in position for college football's top award.

Persa, Baker and Ball all are more intriguing candidates in my mind.

Persa can put up Heisman caliber numbers and has enough name recognition after a strong junior season and because of the way it ended (rupturing his Achilles' after throwing a game-winning TD). But he's also coming off of a serious injury and plays for a program that won't generate much national buzz unless it contends for a league title.

If Baker puts together a full season like his first half of 2010, he can put himself in the Heisman mix. He'll need to distance himself from Bell and Caper and turn in big performances against top defenses like Ohio State.

Ball finished the 2010 season as one of the nation's top running backs. His biggest obstacle could be fellow running back James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. White's explosive running style makes him easy to notice, and he could overshadow Ball even if Ball is the more productive back.

Several other Big Ten players could put themselves on the radar, especially if their teams perform well.

Here are a few names to watch: