Heisman Watch: Collin Klein still leads, but Kenjon Barner becomes contender

Kansas State beat Oklahoma State by two touchdowns last week, and Collin Klein put up solid numbers in the first three quarters. So his Heisman Trophy status didn’t take much of a hit, even though he missed the entire fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury.

As long as he stays healthy enough to start and K-State remains unbeaten, the award is his to lose.

But he does have a legitimate challenger chasing him now in Oregon’s Kenjon Barner. The running back exploded for 321 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a victory over USC. With nearly 1,300 rushing yards this season, and as the focal point of Oregon’s high-powered offense, he is the first player I’ve seen who has a realistic chance of catching Klein.

Most online Heisman polls, including mine, have him as the current runner-up. And if he continues to perform the way he did in Los Angeles, he will eclipse the 2,000-yard mark. That will get him some attention if Oregon goes undefeated.

I’m still not sure that will be enough for him to pass Klein if K-State wins out, but voters will take a long look at him.

One thing that could make a Klein vs. Barner race interesting is the approach their schools take in publicizing them.

Oregon, as you probably know, has a history of taking an aggressive approach. K-State does not, though it did send out a nifty mailer a few weeks back, complete with a band-aid on the cover, to promote Klein.

“We have done some specific, targeted mailers really promoting and making sure folks around the country realize how special this team is,” K-State athletic director John Currie said. “You saw the number of people we talked about beyond Collin Klein, who is our centerpiece. We are going to continue to be strategic, but we’re not going to go out and buy a billboard in Times Square. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is not reflective of who we are.”

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron might also benefit from manufactured publicity. But he is coming off a nice week. The Crimson Tide beat LSU, thanks to a last-minute drive led by McCarron. That impressed some, but I still have him outside of my top three. The key play on his comeback drive was a screen pass.

He will need to do more to pass Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o in my mind, though Notre Dame’s defense didn’t look great against Pittsburgh last week.

Te’o has never felt like a legitimate contender to win the award, though. Neither has McCarron or anyone else since Klein led K-State to a blowout win over West Virginia. Barner is the most attractive challenger we’ve seen.

MY HEISMAN RANKINGS
This will be my fourth straight year as a Heisman voter. Here is how I would vote today:

1. Collin Klein – 1,875 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, 698 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.

2. Kenjon Barner – 1,295 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns, 184 yards receiving and a touchdown.

3. Manti Te’o – 85 tackles and five interceptions.