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2014 Heisman Trophy Preview
By Matt Horkman

Heisman TrophyAside from an Olympic gold medal, you can make the argument that the Heisman Trophy is the most prestigious individual award in amateur sports.

The reigning Hesiman trophy winner is Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. He’ll look to become just the second player ever to win the award twice. Chasing trophy No. 2 has been a re-occurring theme in college football, in large part because underclassmen have begun to dominate the award. The last two winners (Winston and Johnny Manziel) were freshman. In 2007, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first ever sophomore to win the award, setting off a chain of years that saw Mark Ingram (2008) and Sam Bradford (2009) also win the award as sophomores. The last senior to win the trophy was Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith (2006).

Despite the run of underclassmen, we’ve yet to see a serious challenge for a repeat. Tebow finished third in ‘09, though both he and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy were within striking distance of Bradford.

Winston is just as credible as Tebow was coming off a Heisman win. Frankly, he‘s more credible than Manziel from a year ago. While Manziel brought excitement to the game, Winston brings a sense of inevitability. He’s going to be a top-flight NFL draft pick one day, and he plays on a dominating team. Tebow’s team certainly didn’t let him down, but there were questions regarding his ability to translate to the NFL. That’s not case for Winston. He seems to be the total package.

Will the Florida State signal caller make history this year?

Here’s my early breakdown of the 2014 Heisman Trophy field:

The Frontrunners

Georgia RB Todd Gurley
2013 Stats: 1,430 total yards & 16 touchdowns

Preview: Last year, a sprained ankle cut short what could‘ve been a promising Heisman campaign for Gurley. In fact, injuries led to the demise of Georgia last season, forcing Gurley out of Heisman contention all together. Still, overlook him at your own peril this year. Gurley got off to a dominate start last year, rushing for 377 yards in the first three games. Had he kept up that pace for a full season, he would’ve finished with 1,508 rushing yards. He enters this season with a new quarterback behind center, meaning Georgia will lean on him early and often.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota
2013 Stats: 4,380 total yards (715 rushing), 40 touchdowns (9 rushing), & 4 interceptions

Preview: A late-season injury and loss to Stanford took Mariota out of the Heisman running last season. However, prior to his fall, he was Jameis Winston’s biggest rival. Thorough the first eight games, Mariota had 20 touchdowns and no interceptions. Additionally, he eclipsed 300 yards passing in four of those games. A new year brings new hope to Mariota and Oregon. The Ducks expect to contend for a national championship, in large part because of an offense that returns eight starters from a season ago. The offensive line in front of Mariota should keep him healthy in the pocket, though he’ll need to protect himself when running in the open field. Ironically, the asset of his game that could lead to an injury and sink his Heisman campaign also has the potential to enhance it. Because of his ability to run the football, Mariota could very well account for 50 touchdowns in ‘13, with 10 or so coming via the ground game. Those are special numbers, but then again, Mariota is a special player.

Baylor QB Bryce Petty
2013 Stats: 4,409 total yards (209 rushing), 46 touchdowns (14 rushing), & 3 interceptions

Preview: The Heisman committee snubbed Petty last season by not inviting him to the New York presentation. Voters also snubbed him by not giving him the respect he deserved. All he did was lead Baylor to their first conference title in school history, while having numbers comparable to all of the elite quarterbacks, yet he didn’t finish in the top five in voting. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch probably siphoned several votes away from Petty, preventing the Baylor signal caller from receiving his due. It’ll be hard to ignore him after another season with 4,000-plus yards and 40-plus touchdowns, especially if those numbers help produce a second consecutive conference title.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston
2013 Stats: 4,276 total yards (219 rushing), 44 touchdowns (4 rushing), & 10 interceptions

Preview: Putting forth a dominate performance on a dominate team made Winston an easy choice to win last year’s Heisman. Simply put, he was the best player in college football. Denying him a second Heisman will be difficult, as Winston is only going to improve, and Florida State should be able to run the table once again. Going against him, though, is the unwillingness of voters in allowing anyone to join former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin as a two-time Heisman winner. Tebow couldn‘t do it, and he led his team to the BCS championship in his attempt at a repeat. Manziel was the latest to attempt this feat, but turnovers and a poor team performance sunk his candidacy. Team performance shouldn’t be a problem for Winston, though reaching the national title (or in this case, the college football playoffs) doesn’t guarantee anything. Just ask Tebow.

Contenders

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
2013 Stats: 1,609 rushing yards & 12 touchdowns

Preview: If the Badgers are going to win the Big Ten, they’ll need Gordon to channel his inner Ron Dayne. Gordon’s split time in recent seasons with Montee Ball and James White. The latter received 221 carries last year, 15 more than the 206 Gordon received. There’s no dispute heading into this year, though, as Gordon sits atop the depth chart. A potential 300-carry season along with a favorable schedule could land Gordon an invite to New York. 

UCLA QB Brett Hundley
2013 Stats: 3,819 total yards (748 rushing), 35 touchdowns (11 rushing), & 9 interceptions

Preview: Much of the hype regarding college quarterbacks centers on Mariota and Winston. However, Hundley isn’t far behind them, both as a Heisman candidate and NFL draft prospect. What makes him one of the top contenders is the fact he’ll receive an opportunity to play Mariota at least once, maybe twice. If Hundley is able to lead UCLA to a Pac-12 title over Mariota and Oregon, it’ll put UCLA in position receive an invite to the college football playoffs. A Heisman trophy may just follow. 

Auburn QB Nick Marshall
2013 Stats: 3,044 total yards (1,068 rushing), 26 touchdowns (12 rushing), 6 interceptions

Preview: All of Marshall’s Heisman hype rests on Gene Chizik’s ability to replicate last year’s success. Simply put, Auburn must debunk the notion they were a fluke, and Marshall is the key. We know what he can do with his legs, but if he can provide enough passing to force opponents to back off, then he could end up with 3,500 total yards and 30-40 touchdowns.

Lurking in the Shadows

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
2013 Stats: 1,690 rushing yards & 11 touchdowns (2 receiving)

Preview: With Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller sidelined for the season, the Big Ten is now a wide-open race. Along with Michigan State and Wisconsin, Nebraska could be one of the biggest benefactors. The Cornhuskers believe this is the best team they’ve had since joining the Big Ten in 2011. Abdullah is a big reason why. Nebraska doesn’t boast much of a passing attack, so they’ll lean heavily on the senior running back. Nebraska winning the Big Ten and Abdullah running for 2,000 yards would position the Cornhusker running back well in the Heisman race. 
Rakeem Cato
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
2013 Stats: 4,210 total yards (294 rushing), 45 touchdowns (6 rushing), & 9 interceptions

Preview: Marshall is good, very good. The Thundering Herd has a legitimate chance to finish with 11 or 12 wins. A perfect 12-0 regular-season record would give them an outside shot at receiving a bid to partake in the college football playoff. Such a scenario would significantly boost Cato’s Heisman odds. Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is Marshall wins 11 games, receives a bid to a major bowl (but not the playoffs), and Cato is this year’s version of Jordan Lynch.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis
2013 Stats: 1,535 total yards (352 receiving) & 11 touchdowns

Preview: Whether South Carolina makes a run in the SEC championship rests on the legs of Davis and the running game. Davis will have the luxury of running behind one of the SEC’s top offensive lines, so there’s reason to believe he’ll advance his stock after coming off a solid junior campaign. An invite to New York could be waiting for him if he leads the Gamecocks to their first SEC championship.

UCLA LB/RB Myles Jack
2013 Stats: 77 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 267 rushing yards, & 7 touchdowns

Preview: If you were to name the reigning Pac-12 defensive and offensive freshman of the year, you’d name the same player. Jack played both linebacker and running back for UCLA last year and his two-way status is here to stay. The workman-like effort Jack provides could make him appealing to media hype, especially if he leads the Bruins in tackles and rushing yards. Because of his versatility, he’s a fun player to root for, but a lot -- including Jack overtaking Hundley as UCLA’s most valuable player -- would need to happen for him to mount a serious challenge for the Heisman.

Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly
2013 Stats: 4,243 total yards (608 rushing), 37 touchdowns (9 rushing), & 12 interceptions

Preview: The best passing combination in college football is Kelly to Jaelen Strong. The latter will definitely help elevate Kelly, who quarterbacks one of the year’s top sleeper picks. Arizona State has the talent to win the Pac-12 south, setting up a probable matchup with Oregon in the Pac-12 title. A victory over the Ducks would put the Sun Devils in position to receive an invite to the college football playoff. Such a result would boost Kelly’s Hesiman stock. 

Don’t Sleep on Us

Alabama RB Derrick Henry
2013 Stats: 443 total yards (61 receiving) & 4 touchdowns (1 receiving)

Preview: All due respect to T.J. Yeldon, Henry is the rightful heir in the succession of great Alabama running backs. His combination of size (238 pounds) and speed makes him one of the country’s most intimidating talents. The buzz in Tuscaloosa about their sophomore running back is justifiable. Nonetheless, Alabama won’t abandon Yeldon in favor of Henry, so expect a timeshare comparable to the one Yeldon had with Eddie Lacy in 2012. In terms of Heisman stock, though, Henry possesses more upside.

Miami (FL) RB Duke Johnson
2013 Stats: 920 rushing yards & 6 touchdowns

Preview: One of college football’s most explosive players, Johnson is among the longest of long shots. He’ll have his share of exciting plays, but Miami (FL) will need to return to national prominence for him to make a serious challenge for the Heisman. Can it happen? Yes, but they’ll need to topple Florida State, a task easier said than done.

Stanford WR Ty Montgomery
2013 Stats: 61 receptions, 1,117 total yards (159 rushing), & 14 touchdowns (2 rushing & 2 returning)

Preview: I’ve written in the past about what Montgomery brings to the table. Simply put, he is the most explosive wide receiver in college football. He reminds me of Green Bay wide receiver Randall Cobb, but Seattle wide receiver Percy Harvin is also a favorable comparison. Montgomery will make an impact out of the backfield as well as receiver. Much as it was for Charles Woodson, Montgomery's ability in the return game could be a difference maker.

Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
2013 Stats: 3,701 total yards (355 rushing), 24 touchdowns (6 rushing), & 10 interceptions

Preview: You wouldn’t know it based on coverage, but only Johnny Manziel accounted for more total yards than Wallace did a year ago, and the Ole Miss quarterback battled injuries for much of the season. He’s healthy now and quarterbacking perhaps the biggest sleeper in all of college football. The Rebels return 16 starters from a team that won eight games a year ago. You can argue, with the exception of Auburn and Oklahoma, they played Alabama better than any opponent the Crimson Tide faced. They play Alabama at home in what could be the Rebels’ ascension to the national stage, and the beginning of Wallace’s Heisman campaign.

And the Winner Is…

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota -- The Oregon signal caller has all the pedigree to bring home the school’s first Heisman trophy. He’ll have the numbers, assuming he stays healthy. He also happens to be one of the top draft-eligible players for the 2015 NFL Draft. Overlooked, though, is the fact he’ll avoid scrutiny. Many well-hyped players, especially quarterbacks, receive extra scrutiny. The media loves building up players only to tear them down. Matt Barkley, Matt Leinart, and Brady Quinn immediately come to mind. Even Manziel received his share of scrutiny, and he was one of the greatest players in SEC history. In any other year, a player the caliber of Mariota would feel the wrath of the media. This isn’t any other year, though. The media’s laser is currently aiming for Famous Jameis, not Mariota. It seems trivial, but don’t be surprised to see Winston (and in general, Florida State) built up as the villains of college football, while Mariota and the fast-paced Ducks assume the role as protagonist.

Note: Stay with Row12 all year, as we'll be bringing you a weekly Heisman Watch.

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