A disclaimer right up front: for Houston's quarterback to have any prayer of even sniffing the Heisman, Houston will have to win out. That's far from a sure thing against some good teams in SMU, Tulsa and (potentially) Southern Miss, but it's enough of a possibility that the discussion is worth having.
As is the case with most trophies and awards, the selection criteria for the Heisman Trophy is more complicated than it sounds on the surface. Much like pro sports' MVP awards spark annual debates on the definition of the word "valuable", arguing what makes an individual deserving of the Heisman (supposedly given to simply "the most outstanding player in college football") is bound to happen yearly, with the unwritten rules constantly changing, based on which candidate you like.
While I'll openly admit I'm pretty far from the most unbiased voice out there, I'm of the opinion that if you take a look at the race as objectively as possible, there are two candidates who stand out above the rest.
Case Keenum is one of them. Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson are not.
The sole reason Keenum hasn't been presented the trophy already is Houston's membership in Conference USA. You would have to go back to 1990 to find the last time a team in one of the current non-major conferences won the award, in Ty Detmer of BYU, then a member of the WAC. The year before, it was UH's own Andre Ware, although the Cougars were, at the time, a member of the Southwest Conference, a power conference in every sense of the word. The last Heisman winner before then to come from a school that, in the present day, doesn't have BCS ties? That'd be Roger Staubach of Navy in 1963.
The point is, the conference affiliation is a big deal. Ask an SEC fan, they'll be glad to tell you all about it.
What Keenum does (potentially) have going for him is the Cougars' ability to grab a BCS berth if they win out. Eleven of the last twelve Heisman winners have come from teams that ended up playing in BCS bowl games, so if the Cougars can finish the regular season 13-0, that'll significantly legitimize Keenum's candidacy.
You'll hear plenty of critics citing strength of schedule, although the defenses Houston has faced aren't as much worse than those faced by other Heisman front-runners as you'd probably think. No, the Cougars haven't faced a team the caliber of LSU (like Trent Richardson has) or Oregon (like Andrew Luck has). But you can't use the strength of schedule argument in favor of those players, because they played themselves out of contention in those games.
The only two good teams Stanford has faced are USC and Oregon. (Seriously, look at their schedule, find me another one.) In the USC game, Luck threw a late pick six that nearly doomed his team, before the Cardinal pulled the game out in triple overtime. Against Oregon, Luck threw two interceptions, managed just 271 passing yards on 41 attempts, and his team lost by 23 at home.
I understand that there are plenty of Heisman winners who have flopped in the pros, which may be a distasteful trend to some voters. But while we can argue 'til we're blue in the face about what the voting criteria for the award should be, we should all be able to agree that it is absolutely not about who the best NFL prospect is. That's really all Luck has going for him.
Since LSU doesn't have a viable Heisman candidate, SEC backers will tout Trent Richardson of Alabama. But speaking of strength of schedule, of the five games Richardson has picked up at least 120 yards on the ground, exactly one of them came against a team in the top half of the NCAA in rush defense. (Florida checks in at a robust 45th.) Richardson's 5.9 yard rush average puts him over half a yard per carry behind power conference rushers David WIlson of Virginia Tech, Montee Ball of Wisconsin, LaMichael James of Oregon and Henry Josey of Missouri.
If nothing else, keep in mind that in voting for Richardson, you're voting for an offensive player whose team lost its biggest game of the year, at home, by a 9-6 score.
Standby arguments typically used to dismiss small school candidates, like, "Anybody could be successful in that offense" or "He'd get crushed if they ever played a real team" don't make sense when discussing Keenum, because the team went 3-6 without him last year, and Keenum has already played plenty of "real teams" and won. Teams like #5 ranked Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and the SEC's own Mississippi State (in Starkville, back in '09 when the Bulldogs nearly beat LSU and Florida) spring to mind. Yes, I understand that the Heisman is a one-year award, so those games don't towards his resume this year, but they do dispel the notion that Keenum is incapable of playing against top-tier competition, when given the chance.
The only candidate with the profile to match, or even arguably surpass Keenum is Brandon Weeden, who has put up consistently big numbers for a BCS-caliber Oklahoma State squad. Truth be told, it wouldn't hurt my feelings to see Keenum lose to him.
But what upsets me is hearing even UH's own fans saying things like, "I just hope Case gets an invite to New York", essentially conceding the victory to a player like Luck or Richardson. And that is, most likely, the way it will play out. But that doesn't mean that fans of Houston, small schools, or common sense have to accept it calmly. Because Keenum is a more deserving candidate than either. Objectively.