Early 2012 Heisman favorites

Matt Barkley's strong finish to the 2011 season will help him in the 2012 Heisman race. Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

Technically, the Heisman Trophy is awarded to college football's most outstanding player. In reality, the award is given to the most outstanding player who was at his best when playing in the national spotlight.

Never was this reality more evident than in 2011. Robert Griffin III shined in nationally televised prime-time games against TCU and Oklahoma, while Andrew Luck actually looked mortal against USC and Oregon. The result was a fairly lopsided vote, in what had initially appeared to be one of the closest Heisman races in recent memory.

With that in mind, the following isn't necessarily a list of the best players in college football, or a projection of how the 2012 Heisman race will play out. Instead, the candidates are ranked in order of who has the best opportunity -- based on likely nationally televised games, team expectations and general public perception -- to hoist the trophy in December.

To determine each player's ranking, various plausible scenarios were run through the Heisman Predictor -- a formula designed to predict the Heisman winner based on various individual and team statistics. Throughout the season, candidates earn Predictor points based on their overall stats, as well as their performances in major games to account for the all-important "Heisman moments."

The Predictor allows for players to earn these points in a variety of ways, which accounts for the fact that no Heisman winner's résumé looks the same. For this reason, we've also included the most realistic winning résumé each candidate could put together, along with his expected Predictor points.

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC Trojans

While the results of the last few seasons have bucked this trend, historically, Heisman voters are drawn to players from traditional powers who enter the year as household names. If Barkley, coming off a sixth-place finish in the Heisman voting, simply matches his statistics from 2011 and leads USC to a BCS bowl game, he'll be a serious contender.

Barkley's biggest challenge could be USC's schedule. It's tough to win the award without playing on the national stage, and Barkley may not get many opportunities. The toughest opponent on the Trojans' schedule is Oregon, which, after losing Darron Thomas and LaMichael James to the NFL, may not be able to provide Barkley with the challenge he needs.

Barkley's Heisman scenario: Lead USC to BCS National Championship Game, 40+ TD; 150 Predictor points

2. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia Bulldogs