Big Ten dark-horse Heisman candidates

The Big Ten hasn't produced a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Big Ten players really haven't been serious contenders in the Heisman races of the past three seasons. Colleague KC Joyner has no Big Ten players on his list of off-the-radar Heisman contendersInsider.

But this is a new year, and while most of the preseason Heisman buzz will be outside Big Ten country, this league has some players who could work their way onto the radar.

I wish Heisman races weren't based so much on preseason hype, but they largely are. I also wish the Heisman didn't always go to quarterbacks or running backs. Players usually need to have some degree of national name recognition -- or play for national programs -- to have a chance at the award.

With that in mind, here are several potential Heisman candidates from the Big Ten.

1. Michigan QB Denard Robinson: Yes, he's adjusting to a new offense that likely won't showcase his talents quite like the spread did. To expect Robinson to replicate what he did in 2010 seems unrealistic. But several factors help Robinson. First, he's a nationally known name who plays for a program everybody watches. Also, he's the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. And he's really fast and athletic and exciting. He might have to reinvent himself a bit this fall, but to dismiss "Shoelace" is foolish.

2. Northwestern QB Dan Persa: Northwestern players always face an uphill climb to gain national recognition, but Persa has navigated this issue better than most. People around the country know about him, partly because of the incredible numbers he put up in 2010 and also because of the way his season ended (injury throwing a game-winning touchdown pass). Persa must show he's the same player after a long rehab from Achilles' tendon surgery. Northwestern also can help Persa's cause by competing for a division title and notching some signature wins.

3. Wisconsin RBs Montee Ball and James White: It'll be interesting to see how Wisconsin divides the carries, but both Ball and White could work their way into the Heisman mix. Ball had a Heisman-caliber finish to the 2010 season, racking up 127 rush yards or more in each of Wisconsin's final five games (777 total yards, 15 touchdowns). If he can take another step and perform like that for a full season, he'll be on the radar. White is the flashier back who could provide the highlight-reel runs to generate Heisman buzz.

Others in the mix: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Michigan State RB Edwin Baker