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Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead
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In his old stomping grounds of the Big Ten, he tsk-tsks the traditional powers for their recent struggles. “I’ve been surprised by how, in the last five years, the Big Ten has just been kind of OK. They’ve got to get the bell cows in the conference — not just Ohio State, but Penn State and Michigan — to play at a higher level.”

He downplays Penn State’s chances in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal and wonders if expectations might be too high at Michigan, given the graduations of wide receiver Junior Hemingway and defensive lineman Mike Martin. A ?semi-stealth candidate for last team standing? Nebraska, which counts a pair of elite players (quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead) in its offensive backfield.

Finally, in the Pac-12, Herbstreit remains impressed by the overcaffeinated Oregon offense but is banking on USC’s resurgence. “The one knock on them could be the lack of depth, due to their scholarship reductions, but that offense has three potential first-rounders [quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee],” he says.

Barkley’s powerhouse receiving corps could cost him some support for the ?Heisman Trophy, Herbstreit notes. That said, he believes that “whether it’s fair or not, the winner will be the player who’s having a great year individually for a top-five team.” Last year, LSU cornerback/return man Tyrann Mathieu received Herbstreit’s vote, because “he was the best player in the nation based on what he did for 13 games,” and Herbstreit expects Mathieu will return to Heisman contention if LSU approaches last year’s excellence. Other candidates include South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore (“there will be highlights that make people go ‘Wow!’ ”), Georgia ?quarterback Aaron Murray (“right now, he’s off the radar”), West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith (“he’ll put up some ridiculous numbers”) and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (“a dynamic playmaker”).

As for his championship pick, Herbstreit sees LSU defeating USC on Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami, in what will be the final BCS title game before the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision playoff system begins. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out,” Herbstreit says of the four-team playoff. “I think it’ll be good for the game.”