By Matthew Osborne
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The ACC and SEC are littered with a new batch of Heisman hopefuls this season.
The coaches are ready to instruct, the fans are eager to cheer, and the stars are ready to shine, as we are now less than a week away from the official start of the 2012 college football season.
When looking over the rosters in the ACC and SEC, numerous players stand out as potential difference-makers for their teams this fall.
Only 14 of those players, however, stand out enough to be considered legitimate Heisman Trophy contenders.
Here are 14 ACC and SEC players who will campaign to bring home the most prestigious award in all of college football at the conclusion of the regular season.
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama
Lacy is just the next player in Alabama’s lineage of outstanding backs. Lacy averaged over seven yards per carry serving as Trent Richardson’s primary backup last season, and he will benefit enormously from running behind the best offensive line in college football. Alabama is committed to running the football, and Lacy’s physical running style is a perfect fit in the Crimson Tide’s system.
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas
Davis missed all of last season due to injury, but he will have a huge role in this Arkansas offense as the Razorbacks lose three of their top receivers from last fall. In 2010, Davis rushed for 1,322 yards despite not becoming the full-time starter until the fifth game of the season. His rare combination of speed and pure strength makes him one of the most dynamic runners in the entire country.
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
The Razorbacks lose three of their top receivers, but they return a first-team All-SEC quarterback in Wilson. In his first year as a starter, Wilson threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns. Perhaps more impressively, he tossed just six interceptions on the year in 438 attempts. Wilson is a likely first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, meaning that he is a serious contender to bring home some hardware in 2012.
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Boyd burst onto the national scene as a sophomore, accounting for over 4,000 yards of total offense and 38 touchdowns. With nearly all of his talented playmakers returning this season, Boyd will have no shortage of weapons at his disposal. As his knowledge of the offense is even greater in year two of Chad Morris’ spread attack, Boyd’s statistics could be scary good this fall.
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Watkins will be handicapped by his two-game suspension to start the season, but you can never count out one of the most dynamic players in the country. He shattered the ACC record for most receptions by a freshman last season, and the Tigers have enough weapons on offense to alleviate much of the pressure on his shoulders. Once he is back on the field, Watkins will make a profound impact on offense and in the return game in Death Valley.
QB E.J. Manuel, Florida State
Manuel underwhelmed with his play last season, but some of that can be attributed to porous offensive line play which routinely had him scrambling for his life. The offensive line should be improved this season, and the Seminoles have one of the best receiving corps in the nation. Manuel has failed to live up to his potential thus far in his career, but he very well could be due for a breakout senior campaign.
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
With Isaiah Crowell’s dismissal from the program, Mike Bobo is likely to rely on Murray’s throwing arm for production early in the year. A two-year starter, Murray already has 59 scoring tosses in his career. Although he lacks prototypical size for the position, Murray has proven to be an effective signal caller in the nation’s most difficult conference. With uncertainty in the running game, Murray could be airing it out frequently this fall.
QB James Franklin, Missouri
Franklin may have been a relative unknown playing the Big 12, but he is one of the nation’s elite dual-threat quarterbacks. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,865 yards, and rushed for 981 more. With Missouri entering the SEC, national pundits will certainly take notice of Franklin’s performance this season. Having talented wide receivers like T.J. Moe and Dorial Green-Beckham will also make Franklin’s job a little easier this fall.
RB Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
Bernard led the nation in rushing yards by a freshman in 2011 (1,253). Although Blake Anderson’s offensive attack is usually thought of as a pass-happy system, Bernard will likely see a steep increase in carries this fall. The Tar Heels do not have exceptional depth at running back, so Bernard will be counted on to shoulder the load for the majority of the year. With his talent and this new offense, Bernard should put up big numbers in 2012.
QB Bryn Renner, North Carolina
Renner was actually one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation last season, as he completed nearly 70% of his passes. His lone problem, however, was throwing interceptions. As Renner continues to master coverage concepts, his completion percentage could go through the roof this fall. Renner frequently gets overlooked in the ACC quarterback conversation, but his skill set is as good as any signal caller in the league.
QB Mike Glennon, NC State
Glennon threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season despite spending a good amount of time running from opposing defenders. With the Wolfpack returning four starters on the offensive line, Glennon should have plenty of time to use his incredibly strong arm to pick apart opposing secondaries. There are still some question marks at receiver for NC State, but Glennon’s talent will mask some of those concerns.
RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
When healthy, Lattimore is likely the top running back in the country. At 6-0, 220 pounds, Lattimore runs with tremendous power, and you rarely see him fall backwards when being tackled. The Gamecocks are waiting for playmakers to emerge at wide receiver, and Lattimore will serve as the safety blanket until the coaches feel comfortable with the passing game. Lattimore is going to get plenty of carries this fall, which means he will have impressive statistics.
QB Tyler Bray, Tennessee
Even with the recent loss of Da’Rick Rogers, the Volunteers still have one of the most electric corps of receivers in the nation. Bray has dealt with inconsistency and injuries throughout his first two seasons in Knoxville, but he has shown the capability to put up huge numbers as well. Tennessee was one of the worst rushing teams in the nation last fall, so Bray will undoubtedly have a chance to put up huge numbers in 2012.
QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
The Hokies have historically been known for the rushing prominence, but that could change this year with the loss of eight offensive starters. Thomas is considered to be one of the top quarterback prospects for next year’s NFL Draft, even though he is only a junior. With the Hokies committed to opening up the offense, Thomas should see tremendous statistical improvements over last season, when he still threw for over 3,000 yards.