Quinn, Peterson front-runners in Heisman race

The theme for the week: Question all you believe in.

With Pluto no longer a planet -- and I hear it has filed a grievance over its shocking demotion -- it's officially open season on everything. That includes the Heisman Trophy.

In the last 19 years, only one Heisman winner has been the No. 1 NFL draft pick (take a bow, Carson Palmer). So we can dismiss the long-held belief that the award goes to the best player in college football. (Actually, Eric Crouch dismissed that belief single-handedly in 2001.)

But that doesn't mean we've stopped caring who wins the award. The media still will conduct Heisman straw polls every five minutes from now through early December. And we'll monitor the weekly ebbs and flows of candidates as if this were the run-up to the New Hampshire primary.

It's the Heisman Trophy, after all. The name and statuette carry more clout than any other individual hardware in sports -- or a lot of other walks of life. You have to figure that a Heisman winner would be more popular at most cocktail parties than a Pulitzer winner.

That's why it's time to handicap the field for this year's future cocktail party guest of honor. In inverse order, here are your top dozen candidates to take home the stiff-armer in 2006, odds of winning included:

12. Dwayne Jarrett, WR, USC

Strike the Pose: What's a Heisman race without a Trojan? Jarrett rides the coattails of 2004 winner Matt Leinart and '05 winner Reggie Bush into the discussion. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he's an impossible matchup who should break the USC and Pac-10 career touchdown reception records before September is over -- and he's just a junior.

Spike the Pose: Life was easy when Leinart was lobbing TD passes Jarrett's way. Now he has to get in synch with new starting QB John David Booty. A receiver's numbers are always at the mercy of the quality of the guy throwing it to him -- and although every indication is that Booty is ready for the task, he's not necessarily ready to replicate Leinart's brilliance.

Numbers Game: He's already got 29 touchdowns in 26 college games. If Jarrett racks up 20 TDs and 1,500 receiving yards, and USC keeps on winning games, he'll be hard to ignore.

Circle the Dates: USC plays host to Nebraska Sept. 16. That game will get enough attention that a big Jarrett performance could lift him right into the debate. On Nov. 25 Notre Dame comes to the L.A. Coliseum for a game that undoubtedly will get enough attention to make a hero out of whoever plays well -- and Jarrett has had more than 100 receiving yards in both previous games against the Fighting Irish.

Hype Meter: 9.5 on a scale of 10. The only thing that doesn't put USC over the top are the occasional West Coast night games that end after midnight in the East. But you don't really have to go begging for attention when you're USC.

Odds: 30-1. No wide receiver has won the award since Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991, and he helped raise his profile by returning kicks. Wideouts -- even USC wideouts -- can be undervalued. And some voters might be experiencing USC fatigue.

11. Chad Henne, QB, Michigan

Strike the Pose: He's started every game since he's been on campus and appears well on his way to becoming Michigan's career passing leader -- at a school that had five quarterbacks in the NFL in 2005. If the Wolverines stage a renaissance in 2006, it could easily be because Henne made it happen -- and he could reap the rewards.

Spike the Pose: Henne was only seventh in the Big Ten in passing efficiency last year and completed less than 50 percent of his passes in four of Michigan's five losses. If those numbers don't improve, neither will his Heisman stock.

Numbers Game: Henne needs to produce more wins, first and foremost. Michigan hasn't had double-digit victories since he arrived. Individually, it would help to keep pace with the Quinns, the Leaks and the Brohms, which means something in the neighborhood of 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns, with at least a 60 percent completion rate.

Circle the Dates: On Sept. 16, Henne goes head-to-head with August Heisman favorite Brady Quinn in South Bend. At season's end he goes head-to-head with another Heisman front-runner, Ohio State's Troy Smith. Outplaying them would boost his stock tremendously.

Hype Meter: 9 on a scale of 10. The bright lights find Michigan easily enough. This isn't America's most media-friendly school and it is absolutely gimmick-phobic, but Henne will get all the media attention he can handle if things go well for the maize and blue.

Odds: 25-1. Henne has to prove he can be a great QB without Braylon Edwards as a security blanket. Last year he seemed to miss his go-to target from his freshman season. Then his team has to win like a big-time Michigan team. If those things happen, he's got a chance.

10. Michael Hart, RB, Michigan

Strike the Pose: He was a yardage machine as a freshman, racking up nearly 1,500 yards in just eight starts. If he stays healthy all year and a rebuilt offensive line opens some holes, he should have a huge junior year and jump into contention.

Spike the Pose: At 5-foot-8 and a shade under 200 pounds, there isn't much Mike Hart to go around. He was banged up last year and will face durability questions into this year. He'll also have some Heisman competition in his own backfield from Henne.

Numbers Game: If Hart can crank out 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns for a Michigan team that wins some big games, he could be in Manhattan for the ceremony -- at least.

Circle the Dates: It could hardly be more obvious: at Notre Dame on Sept. 16, and at Ohio State on Nov. 18. Michigan is 0-4 against those two marquee rivals since Hart came to campus, and his total collegiate rushing yardage against the Fighting Irish and Buckeyes is 107 yards in those four games. This would be an excellent time to turn those stats around.

Hype Meter: 9 on a scale of 10. Same as Henne.

Odds: 24-1. Given the durability questions, the competition from his own teammate and Michigan's seemingly annual close loss or two, Hart starts from the outside. But that doesn't mean he'll stay there.

9. Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville

Strike the Pose: Brohm can win the Heisman because he rivals Brady Quinn for technical precision and grasp of an offense. His team should be a lock to average 40-plus points per game, and last year's No. 2-rated passer nationally could wind up No. 1 this time around. He's an NFL prototype QB playing for one of the best offensive minds in the game, Bobby Petrino.

Spike the Pose: He's pushing himself back in nine months' time from reconstructive knee surgery, which is cutting it close. Louisville believes he's ready to go, but his brother and quarterback coach, Jeff, said Brian could be a bit off in terms of sharpness and speed in the opener Sept. 3 against Kentucky. A Heisman candidate from Louisville doesn't have much margin for error, so an upset loss or slow start could put him far behind.

Numbers Game: Brohm easily could put up 3,000 yards, 25 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 170 or higher. If he combines that with 11 or 12 wins, he probably can book a flight to New York.

Circle the Dates: The big early opportunity is a home game against Miami on Sept. 16. Louisville's program got a big boost in credibility two years ago when it nearly upset the Hurricanes in Miami, and finishing the job this time would be huge. The November showcase is a Thursday night ESPN game against West Virginia that could decide a Big East championship and BCS berth.

Hype meter: 6.5 on a scale of 10. Louisville's exposure has mushroomed in recent years because of its frequent ESPN television experiences and flashy offense. But the Cardinals still rank a good distance behind Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Michigan when it comes to exposure, so the school will have to keep pushing for pub as the season progresses.

Odds: 22-1. There is the potential for a split vote with teammate Michael Bush, or simply being underappreciated at a nontraditional powerhouse. Plus, Brohm must prove he's 100 percent. But the opportunities against Miami and West Virginia could turn an outsider into a front-runner.

8. Michael Bush, RB, Louisville

Strike the Pose: Bush is the Baby Bus, possessing a Jerome Bettis-like combination of size and athleticism. Few 250-pounders have feet like his. Bush led the nation in scoring last year (14.4 points per game) and could do the same this time around. He's in the best shape of his life and that could translate to 25 carries and a handful of pass receptions per game.

Spike the Pose: A converted high school quarterback, Bush still is not a completely instinctive runner -- not using his shoulder pads or a stiff-arm very often to defeat tacklers and gain extra. That could be especially important this year running behind a line that graduated its two best blockers from a year ago. All it takes is one bad game to slip off Heisman radar at Louisville.

Numbers Game: If he stays healthy and gets enough carries, Bush could rack up 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. If he adds 25 receptions and even throws a big pass or two, he'll be in contention.

Circle the Dates: Same as Brohm. The West Virginia game especially could loom large for Bush, since he'll be head-to-head with Mountaineers running back Steve Slaton. Last year, Bush's 159 yards and four touchdowns against West Virginia were overshadowed by Slaton's 188 yards and five scores.

Hype Meter: Same as Brohm, with an added challenge. Louisville is accustomed to hyping big-number quarterbacks. This is the first time it's had a runner worthy of national awards.

Odds: 20-1. Bush probably has a slightly better chance, simply because Brohm still has to answer some questions about his rebuilt knee.

7. Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Ohio State

Strike the Pose: He's the biggest big-play threat and the most versatile player among the top contenders. Ginn can find the end zone from anywhere in the stadium, and from all kinds of positions: receiver, runner, kick returner -- he's even been known to line up at quarterback on occasion. Average distance of his 15 career touchdowns: 58 yards. Heisman voters remember the spectacular, and nobody makes more spectacular plays than Ginn.

Spike the Pose: Question is, does Ginn make enough of the routine plays? He averaged only about five touches per game from scrimmage last year. That number should go up this year, but so will the attention from defenses. Ginn could also split votes with teammate Troy Smith, who has the ball in his hands more.

Numbers Game: As a receiver/kick returner, Ginn's numbers will be harder to pin down. He'll probably need something in the neighborhood of 60 catches, 1,000 receiving yards and 10 receiving TDs, plus multiple touchdowns in the return game. With 2,000 all-purpose yards -- rushing, receiving and returning -- plus half a dozen highlight-reel plays and 11 Ohio State victories, Ginn could be in the mix.

Circle the Dates: At Texas, Sept. 9. Last year that game helped vault Vince Young to the Heisman forefront and effectively ended Ginn's Heisman campaign. He'll have a chance to change that. And, of course, he'll have the high-profile opportunity at season's end against Michigan.

Hype Meter: 9 on a scale of 10. It's always high at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are national title contenders, TV regulars and play a high-wattage schedule. Combine that with Ginn's penchant for "SportsCenter"-caliber plays, and he should get all the pub he can handle.

Odds: 15-1. It's historically tough for a nonquarterback/non-running back to win this award. Ginn's explosiveness will give him an opportunity to turn heads, but a few low-impact games, where the Buckeyes struggle to get him the ball, could doom his chances.

6. Marshawn Lynch, RB, California

Strike the Pose: Has the speed to run away and, at 217 pounds, the power to run over -- now he just needs to add the carries to make sure you notice him. Lynch has averaged a whopping 7.0 yards per carry his first two years of college football, plus he's a solid receiver, returns kickoffs and even threw a touchdown pass last year.

Spike the Pose: If you're from the Pac-10 and don't play for USC, good luck getting near the statue. Last non-Trojan from that conference to win it was Stanford's Jim Plunkett in 1970. The combination of a bad time zone and a bad conference TV package hurts, and so does the fact that Lynch will have to surrender some carries to backup Justin Forsett, who ran for 999 yards last year.

Numbers Game: Put it this way: A 2,000-yard season could get former Cal tailback J.J. Arrington only to eighth in the Heisman voting two years ago. Lynch has better preseason name recognition, but he'll probably still need at least that many yards and 20 touchdowns. More important, he'll need Cal to win at least 10 games -- and one of them needs to be USC.

Circle the Dates: Lynch gets a glorious chance to boost his stock in his very first game, when Cal travels to play Tennessee in one of the best games of the opening weekend. A big game and a Bears win could move him closer to front-runner territory. Then he'll have a great opportunity late, on Nov. 18, when Cal visits USC.

Hype Meter: 7 on a scale of 10. It's not running terribly high at Cal. In addition to the previously referenced problems with time zones and TV exposure, the Golden Bears missed a golden chance at some preseason pub for Lynch when they didn't bring him to Pac-10 Media Day in late July. Hey, at Cal you have to try a little harder, not a little less.

Odds: 12-1. Not quite in the top five, but there is potential for upward mobility. Starting with victories and big yardage against an SEC team and a Big Ten team (Minnesota is second on the schedule) would definitely help.

5. Chris Leak, QB, Florida

Strike the Pose: No active Division I-A player has thrown more than Leak's 65 career touchdowns. He struggled a bit in making the transition to Urban Meyer's spread offense last year, but if he takes a major step forward this year -- and that corresponds to more victories for the Gators -- Leak will have his chance to win the stiff-armer. College football history is full of players who had everything click their senior year, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see that happen to Leak.

Spike the Pose: The knock on Leak is that he's been something of a paper tiger -- all of the stats, none of the titles. He was supposed to be the guy who got the Gators back in the business of winning the SEC East and competing for the national title, but they've lost 13 games in Leak's three years on campus. And if Leak struggles early, fans will be clamoring for the next hotshot Florida QB, Tim Tebow, to take his place.

Numbers Game: Three thousand passing yards and 30 touchdowns are a good place to start. He's going to put up plenty of individual numbers, but the key numbers for him are 11, 13 and 14: 11 victories would probably yield a 13th game in the SEC championship game -- something Leak has never played in. And that could result in a 14th game in a BCS bowl -- another new frontier for Leak.

Circle the Dates: Sept. 16 at Tennessee. This is the game that kept another four-year starting QB (Peyton Manning) from winning the Heisman. Leak can't win it that day, but he can lose it -- or play his way into better position. The key later date could be the Thanksgiving weekend showdown at Florida State. The Heisman and much more could be on the line that day in Tallahassee.

Hype Meter: 8.5 on a scale of 10. Quarterbacks at Florida always attract hype -- especially when they arrive with all-world credentials like Leak. If anything, Leak might be suffering from overexposure -- we've seen his every move for three years and picked apart every weakness. But exposure always works for you when you're winning.

Odds: 10-1. Starting the year as the centerpiece of a top-10 team will help. Heisman voters probably will put Leak on as short a leash as Florida fans: Early returns will help his stock greatly, while early struggles might lead some to give up on him prematurely.

4. Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia

Strike the Pose: He's the fastest running back among Heisman contenders, clocked at 4.3 in the 40. But even at a wiry 195 pounds, he's tough to bring down and has a nose for the end zone, reaching it once every 11 times he touched the ball as a true freshman. Slaton could have the chance for 30 carries a game, and a soft early schedule makes West Virginia a strong candidate to be 7-0 heading into November.

Spike the Pose: It's not crystal clear that Slaton is the best player -- or even the best runner -- on his own team. Quarterback Pat White averaged more yards per carry and could end up overshadowing his backfield buddy if his passing numbers improve. Besides that, voters will be skeptical of giving the stiff-armer to a guy from a conference as unimposing as the Big East.

Numbers game: Last year Slaton started just seven games. In that time he averaged 155 yards rushing and scored 19 touchdowns. If he duplicates that over the course of 12 games that would be 1,861 yards and a stunning 33 TDs. That and an unbeaten season would propel Slaton somewhere near the top of the list.

Circle the Dates: Can you win the Heisman Trophy on Thursday nights? Slaton is going to try. A mid-September Thursday game against Maryland will give Slaton a chance for early exposure. Then comes a Nov. 2 Thursday showdown against Louisville, which has Heisman contenders of its own. Finally the Mountaineers visit Pittsburgh on a Thursday in mid-November -- one more chance for big numbers on national television, when nobody else is playing.

Hype Meter: 7.5 on a scale of 10. It normally doesn't go very high in Morgantown -- but that was before last season, when the Moutaineers went 11-1 and shocked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Momentum from that game and a lot of returning talent made West Virginia the trendy media stop during the spring, so voters and fans should have an eye on the Mountaineers from the get-go this season.

Odds: 8-1. Slaton probably can't win without big numbers and an undefeated regular season, and even that is no guarantee. The best Major Harris could do as quarterback of the unbeaten Mountaineers in 1988 was fifth in the Heisman voting. But that West Virginia team came from out of nowhere, and this one starts the season in every top 10. That gives him a chance.

3. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State

Strike the Pose: Nobody is riding more momentum into 2006 than Smith, who lit up Notre Dame and Michigan in successive games to end last season and establish himself among the elite quarterbacks in the nation. He's the best dual-threat QB in the Heisman field, making big plays with both his arm and his legs, and he's leading a strong national title contender.

Spike the Pose: Smith could split votes with teammate Ginn. He's also quarterbacking for Jim Tressel, a guy who would rather win with defense and the kicking game than offensive pyrotechnics. Tressel has to open it up this year, with a suspect defense, but Smith still might not have the offensive opportunities afforded to competitors Brady Quinn, Chris Leak and Brian Brohm.

Numbers Game: If Smith can throw for 2,500 yards and 20-plus touchdowns and run for another 700 yards and 10 scores, he'd have to be in the argument. Those aren't quite Vince Young 2005 numbers -- but then again, Troy Smith isn't quite Vince Young. Nobody is.

Circle the Dates: Smith has a golden early chance at Texas on Sept. 9. A victory there and some individual heroics in a hugely anticipated prime-time rematch of '05 probably would put him near the front of the pack. At season's end there is the annual showdown with Michigan, where many Heismans have been sewn up over the years.

Hype Meter: 9 on a scale of 10. Being the QB of the preseason No. 1 team never hurts -- and after leading a breathtaking comeback to beat Michigan and then winning the Fiesta Bowl MVP, Smith has plenty of name recognition. He's ranked below several pure pocket passers in a lot of preseason magazines, but that doesn't mean he's any easier to defend. If Ohio State wins and Smith puts up good numbers, the attention will be there all year.

Odds: 6-1. Smith might not pile up passing stats like some of the others in the mix, but good numbers plus some rushing effectiveness plus big victories could be enough to carry the day. If he leads Ohio State to the BCS title game, he'll at least make the Heisman ceremony in Manhattan.

2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma

Strike the pose: Peterson might have won the award two years ago if he hadn't been a true freshman. His running was nothing short of dazzling, an intoxicating blend of power, speed, moves and sheer determination. Last year he was hurt and playing behind a leaky line on an uncharacteristically bad Oklahoma team. If his ankles hold up and he plays 12 games at 100 percent, he'll be difficult to stop.

Spike the pose: Peterson has had durability issues each of his two college seasons, struggling with injuries. And the jury remains out on how improved Oklahoma's offensive line will be after having to replace four starters. But the biggest problem could be the August dismissal of quarterback Rhett Bomar, which threatens to turn this into a repeat of 2005: eight defenders in the box, committed to stopping Peterson and making the Sooners prove they can throw it. If that's the case, every yard will be hard-earned.

Numbers Game: A repeat of his 1,900-yard freshman season might get it done this time around -- if the Sooners also manage to win at least 10 games. He might need two grand if the victory total is any lower.

Circle the Dates: The Oct. 7 showdown with Texas has become an annual Heisman proving ground, and will be again for Peterson. Big consecutive November games against Texas A&M and Texas Tech could put him over the top.

Hype Meter: 9 on a scale of 10. He's got the name recognition, and so does Oklahoma. Once the games start, everyone will stop talking about the Sooners' off-field problems in August and start watching No. 28. He'll get plenty of attention nationwide.

Odds: 5-1. Only Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn looks like a better bet so far -- but Peterson's odds have worsened with the dismissal of Bomar. Still, if Oklahoma overcomes the loss of its QB and has a big season, Peterson is probably the guy who would be most responsible for getting it done -- and that would help his chances immensely.

1. Brady Quinn, QB, Notre Dame

Strike the Pose: Simply put, Notre Dame is due. It hasn't had a Heisman winner in 19 years and hasn't had a Heisman-winning quarterback in 42 years. Now here comes Quinn with everything you need to win: whopper 2005 stats, a top-five ranking, a high-profile schedule, plenty of guys to throw to and all that Notre Dame tradition. He's your leading man in college football 2006.

Spike the Pose: It will take an injury or a disappointing win-loss record to knock Quinn out of the race. If he stays healthy, it's hard to envision him not putting up numbers. The only other thing that could trip him up is if someone else has a huge year on a better team. And there are candidates to do just that.

Numbers Game: If Quinn simply replicates last year's numbers and adds a couple more wins, it's his trophy. So another 3,900 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and just seven interceptions -- plus at least 10 Notre Dame victories -- should guarantee his Manhattan photo op. Unless, of course, somebody else simply plays better on a better team.

Circle the Dates: Nobody will have more must-see September games than Quinn. Any of the first three would fit: at Georgia Tech in the opener, then home against Penn State in Week 2 and Michigan in Week 3. Quinn could be miles ahead or playing catch-up, depending how the Irish do. Then how about at USC to close the regular season? On a weekend full of big games, that annual rivalry game could be the biggest.

Hype Meter: 10 on a scale of 10. Notre Dame is the ultimate hype magnet. But even so, the school didn't just sit around and wait for attention to come Quinn's way. In a deft move in April, ND invited a handful of national writers to South Bend for an in-depth, sit-down interview with Quinn. That put him ahead early in the exposure race.

Odds: 2-1. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your preseason favorite. With a fast start and a strong finish there might be no catching the mighty Quinn.

Honorable mention: Kenny Irons, RB, Auburn; James Davis, RB, Clemson; Drew Weatherford, QB, Florida State; Drew Tate, QB, Iowa; Drew Stanton, QB, Michigan State; JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU; Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech; Derrick Williams, WR, Penn State; Jordan Palmer, QB, UTEP; Garrett Wolfe, RB, Northern Illinois.