On the 75th anniversary of the award, the top three vote-getters from last season return to make another run for the coveted statue. Quarterbacks Sam Bradford (the 2008 recipient) of Oklahoma and Tim Tebow ('07) of Florida have a shot at joining Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974 and '75) as a two-time winner. But Texas passer Colt McCoy, the runner-up last season, will have something to say about that, and some long shots are bound to move into contention as the season progresses. Follow the can't-miss games below and decide for yourself before the presentation on Dec. 12
NO. 1 /// SEPT. 5
BYU vs. Oklahoma
Sooners junior SAM BRADFORD—the 11th player to return to school after winning the Heisman—opens his bid to repeat at the Dallas Cowboys' sparkling new stadium, in a matchup that shapes up as a shootout. Facing a thin BYU secondary, which ranked 74th in the nation against the pass in '08, Bradford should pick up where he left off last season, when he threw for 4,720 yards and 50 TDs (and became the fifth Oklahoma player to win the Heisman). But can another trophy hopeful, Cougars senior quarterback MAX HALL (above), steal the show? Following in the footsteps of BYU greats, including Gifford Nielsen, Jim McMahon and Heisman winner Ty Detmer, Hall directed the nation's sixth-ranked passing attack last year, and if he can orchestrate an opening-week stunner—the Sooners were 99th in pass defense in 2008—he could go from Heisman dark horse to contender overnight.
NO. 2 /// SEPT. 12
USC at Ohio State
We'll find out fast if TERRELLE PRYOR (above) is ready to be a national star. The Ohio State sophomore gets the opportunity to make an early statement against a USC defense that brings back only three starters. But which Pryor will show up: the jittery underclassman who committed a pair of costly turnovers late in a 13--6 loss to Penn State last October or the playmaker who showed great poise against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl?
NO. 3 /// SEPT. 19
Utah at Oregon
Ducks quarterback JEREMIAH MASOLI dazzled as a sophomore at the end of last season, running and passing for a total of 13 touchdowns in victories over Arizona, Oregon State and Oklahoma State. No wonder the Oregon faithful are calling him the Tim Tebow of the West. A dual threat in coach Chip Kelly's heart-stopping spread-option offense, Masoli could move up in the Heisman race with a big game against last season's undefeated BCS buster.
NO. 4 /// SEPT. 19
Tennessee at Florida
He was the first sophomore to win the Heisman, in '07. He was the starting quarterback on the national championship team in '08. An undefeated season, a national title and, of course, another Heisman are on his to-do list for '09. After opening with a pair of cupcakes (Charleston Southern and Troy), TIM TEBOW (below) gets down to business in his third run at a Heisman (he was No. 3 in the voting last year), when the Gators host Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin in his SEC debut. Originally a run-first quarterback who has continually evolved as a passer, Tebow will unveil an over-the-top throwing motion he has been working on with new quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler (Tom Brady's tutor at Michigan). Will that translate to an NFL-caliber aerial game? The first test will come against what should be a strong Volunteers defense, coached by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane's dad.
NO. 5 /// OCT. 3
USC at Cal
Despite nagging foot, ankle and elbow injuries, Cal's JAHVID BEST rushed for 1,580 yards last year, fifth best in the nation. Now he's fully recovered from two surgeries, stronger after adding 10 pounds over the off-season (a more muscular 195) and ready to crash the Heisman party. The 5'10" junior is the most electric running back in the land, with six touchdown dashes of 60 yards or more as a sophomore. He finished 2008 with a bang, running for 311 yards and four TDs in less than three quarters against Washington and then 186 yards and two TDs in an Emerald Bowl win over Miami. Heisman voters won't be able to ignore Best if he has a monster game against the Trojans.
NO. 6 /// OCT. 10
Alabama at Ole Miss
Quarterback JEVAN SNEAD turned heads with the Rebels' upset of Florida at the Swamp last season, and a victory over defensive-minded Alabama could catapult the junior into the Heisman mix. Coach Houston Nutt says he's putting more on the shoulders of Snead, and why not? The transfer from Texas threw for a combined 779 yards and nine touchdowns in the Rebels' final three outings, including a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech. Expect more of the same with a schedule that includes two I-AA schools (Southeastern Louisiana and Northern Arizona), plus Alabama-Birmingham and Memphis.
NO. 7 /// OCT. 17
Texas vs. Oklahoma
A Big 12 title shot, an invite to the BCS championship game and the Heisman could be on the line when the bitter rivals meet at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. In last year's game Heisman runner-up COLT McCOY (above) made the difference for the Longhorns with his poise and ability to make plays with his feet. He passed for 277 yards, didn't turn the ball over and completed 4 of 6 for 59 yards on third downs in the second half. BRADFORD (left) will get a chance to make up for an uneven performance in the 45--35 loss, in which he threw for 387 yards and five touchdowns but also tossed a pair of interceptions.
NO. 8 /// OCT. 31
Florida vs. Georgia
The Gators' last big challenge of the regular season will come in Jacksonville, at the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Two years ago TEBOW was sacked six times and had the worst game of his career in a loss to Georgia. Last year he accounted for five TDs in a 49--10 rout that ended the Dawgs' national title hopes.
NO. 9 /// OCT. 31
Texas at Oklahoma State
This will be the Horns' toughest game on hostile turf. Last year MCCOY threw for 391 yards in a 28--24 squeaker in Austin, but this time an enemy wideout could upstage him. Overshadowed by Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree last year, Oklahoma State's DEZ BRYANT (above) warrants Heisman hype. The high-flying junior is not only the nation's top returning receiver—87 catches, 19 touchdowns in 2008, with Zac Robinson throwing to him again this fall—but he is also a game-changer on special teams (punt returns of 78 and 71 yards for TDs).
NO. 10 /// NOV. 7
Ohio State at Penn State
Looking for a sleeper to enter the Heisman debate late in the season? Keep an eye on Penn State quarterback DARYLL CLARK (below). The Nittany Lions lost three All--Big Ten offensive linemen and two of Clark's favorite receivers, but the dynamic senior, who threw for 19 touchdowns and ran for another 10 last year, can handle the extra load. If Clark leads Penn State to an undefeated season—the game against Ohio State being the primary obstacle—he will have punched his ticket to New York.
NO. 11 /// DEC. 5
Big 12 Championship Game
A Heisman candidate makes a final statement at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, but will it be BRADFORD or MCCOY (above)? Last year Bradford sealed his Heisman with a 384-yard outing against Missouri in the conference title game.
NO. 12 /// DEC. 5
SEC Championship Game
The fourth quarter of last year's SEC title game was vintage TEBOW, who rallied Florida to victory over Alabama and gave Heisman voters reason to pause. The stage in Atlanta figures to belong to Tebow again when the defending national champions attempt to send their star signal-caller out on top.
And SI's projected winner is ... McCoy, who will lead the Longhorns to 13 consecutive victories and become the fifth Heisman runner-up to be named college football's player of the year the following season.
Beginning on Aug. 26, vote for your favorite Heisman-crowning moment of all time and watch videos of SI's top 16 picks, including Tim Tebow's jump pass against Kentucky in 2007, Doug Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami in 1984 and Herschel Walker's trampling of Florida in 1982. Also, check out Gene Menez's Heisman Watch each week during the season, as well as weekly highlights of the Heisman front-runners.
LOUIS LOPEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA
ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP
PETER GREGOIRE (TROPHY)