If you think that winning the Heisman Trophy doesn't have a direct correlation on life in the NFL, let me share a story. After Tony Dorsett's junior year at Pittsburgh, he was set on leaving school and going to the Canadian Football League. Pitt coach Johnny Majors, a friend of mine, asked me to talk with Dorsett, which I did. I explained to him that among the many reasons to stay in school was the chance to win the Heisman as college football's best player -- and that, while the Heisman has no bearing on where NFL teams might draft him, it would translate into more money as a pro.
Sure enough, Dorsett went on to win the 1976 Heisman and then the Cowboys made him a first-round draft pick in 1977. And sure enough, when it came time for me to negotiate his rookie contract, Dorsett was quick to remind me that Heisman equals money.
Dorsett is one of eight Heisman Trophy winners in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It remains to be seen if the 2011 Heisman winner will have that kind of career, but this year's top candidates are outstanding. In fact, it might be one of the deepest groups of worthy candidates in recent memory. The deadline for voters is Dec. 5 and the award gets handed out Dec. 10. I've spent most of the fall watching practices, games and game tapes; I do not have a vote myself, but if I did, here's how my ballot would look. Actually, voters are supposed to select their first three choices -- I'll give you my top eight:
1) Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama:After going to the same high school as Emmitt Smith, he's spent the past two years backing up 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram. Even as a backup, I'm still impressed by the game he had as a true freshman against a very good Texas defense in the 2009 BCS game. Richardson has blossomed as a starter this year, running very hard and showing great moves. He evades tacklers, catches the ball well, blocks well and even excelled on special teams early in his career. He has great speed, strength and character. And his team is 35-2 in his three years.
Brooks: The total package
2) Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford:It's impressive to note that Stanford has won 31 games in Luck's three years as the starter. And it's even more impressive when you consider the Cardinal won all of 12 games in the previous three years before his arrival. He's won more games than any QB drafted from Stanford, including that John Elway guy. Luck is very accurate, very smart -- both on and off the field -- and he does not have a weakness as a player. He doesn't have the velocity of 2010 Heisman winner Cam Newton, but he throws a very catchable ball.
3) Matt Barkley, QB, USC:In 2009, Barkley became the first true freshman to start on opening day for USC. In 2010, he became the first sophomore to be named USC captain. But what he's done in 2011 has been most impressive, as he is the main reason why the Trojans have had such a successful season. Barkley has improved greatly. He had six TD passes in a rout of rival UCLA last week, which came a week after his outstanding performance at Oregon, which is a tough place to play. He sees the field well and finds the open receivers; I don't see any weaknesses in his game.
4) Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma:Jones was named after Tom Landry, so forgive me if I have a soft spot for him. Objectively speaking, though, the kid has talent. He's started 33 consecutive games for the Sooners, holds the school record with six TD passes in a game, and had a whopping 617 attempts in 2010 -- completing 66 percent of those passes for 48 touchdowns. Jones has a strong arm with good accuracy and a quick release. He throws well on the move, is very smart and good at running the no-huddle offense. To Jones' credit, he continued to play well this year even after the Sooners lost their best receiver early in the season.
5) Russell Wilson, QB, Wisconsin:Wilson started 36 games in three years at N.C. State before transferring. And while he didn't enter Wisconsin until July of this year, he still was voted captain for 2011, a sign of his leadership skills. A very good athlete who can run or pass, Wilson makes up for a lack of height by possessing everything else needed to be a winning QB, including arm strength and accuracy. Wisconsin might be two plays from being an unbeaten team this year. He's the main reason the Badgers have run the ball so well this season, which is why I rate him a better Heisman candidate than prolific running back Montee Ball.
6) Kellen Moore, QB, Boise State:All he does is win -- his 48 victories as a starting QB are most in NCAA history. He wins games, plain and simple, because of his abiity. The only negative is that he's 5-foot-11 5/8 (half an inch shorter than Drew Brees). But he has good arm strength, outstanding accuracy and a feel for the game. He's won big games on the road, including at Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, and Georgia. He's only lost three games in his college career - and those three losses were by a total of four points.
7) Case Keenum, QB, Houston:The Cougars are 11-0 with one game left, and Keenum is the reason. Houston went 5-7 in 2010, when Keenum missed all but two games to injury -- and the 2011 squad is mostly the same players. So Keenum is the difference. He's very accurate and productive -- he already holds many NCAA passing records. He's not real tall or fast, just very productive. Like Moore, he is the son of a high school coach. And he's a great character player.
8) Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State:The Cowboys are one tipped pass from being undefeated this season, which would have given Weeden more of a chance here. After being drafted in baseball and spending time with the Yankees, Weeden is actually 28 days older than Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. His age is a factor in his leadership ability, but he is also an outstanding athlete with good accuracy and a strong arm. I spent time recently talking about quarterbacks with Phil Simms, and this is the guy Simms liked the most in terms of his ability to get the ball out of his hands.
And the winner is…
I like Richardson to make it two Heisman Trophy winners in the last three years for Alabama. Not just because I think he is the best player in college football this year. If you're making predictions, you need to consider the regional voting. I can see Luck and Barkley splitting the votes in the West, with Jones, Keenum and Widen all getting votes in the Midwest. Richardson has the best shot.
Game of the week: Packers at Giants
These original NFL franchises have played since 1928 -- and they've met for either the NFL or NFC championship on six occasions. The Giants come into this game against the 11-0 Packers on a three-game losing streak. But don't forget: It was a very average Giants team in 1998 that shocked an undefeated Broncos team.
Eli Manning vs. Charles Woodson is a big matchup here. Manning has been playing the best football of his career -- putting up great numbers even as he's throwing to an injury-depleted group of receivers. Woodson will be all over the field, lining up everywhere in coverage and blitzing as well. Manning will look to see where he is on every play.
On the other side, Aaron Rodgers vs. Corey Webster is key. I don't think Green Bay can win with a running game against the Giants, so Rodgers has to be the man. Rodgers, of course, is having a once-in-a-lifetime season. He has no trouble spreading the ball around to his many weapons, but that will be even more important if Webster can shut down Greg Jennings. Forcing Rodgers to look elsewhere will be a big key to this game.