The rash of late-breaking Heisman winners in recent years can be partially blamed on the dearth of high profile September matchups in college football. Heisman voters need information on how players perform against quality opponents and, lately, that data hasn’t reached a critical mass until rivalry week or the conference championship games.
But this Saturday’s game between No. 7 Michigan State and No. 3 Oregon gives voters a rare early-season opportunity to make a clean assessment of the qualifications of current Heisman front runner Marcus Mariota.
Not only do we have two ranked teams from power conferences meeting up for the first time since 1999, we also have two distinct styles colliding as Oregon’s uptempo spread offense goes up against the physical, swarming, 4-3 defense of defending Rose Bowl champ Michigan State.
All eyes will be on Eugene for this one. If you have any questions about Mariota, they should be answered.
Not that those tuning in will be doubting Mariota’s physical talent; there is broad consensus that his skill set will lead to a very early selection in next year’s NFL draft (though he is eligible to return to Oregon for one more season). Nationally, the Ducks command a tremendous amount of respect as a program due to their 67 wins in the last six seasons. But the one thing Oregon has missed during the Mariota years is a signature win over a top 10 opponent.
That’s what voters will be looking for on Saturday. They want to see a transcendent Mariota.
Simply put, if Mariota works his magic against Pat Narduzzi’s defense while leading the Ducks to a victory, the Heisman will be his to lose. It’s not common for that to be the case so early in the season, but the level of respect for Michigan State’s defensive prowess is so high right now that any player who can make it look mortal will be seen as superhuman — if not Heisman worthy. All else being equal, a win over the Spartans would be Mariota’s trump card against his Heisman competition.
Though the rewards will be great if Mariota shines, this game is also fraught with peril for his candidacy. If he stumbles against the Spartans and his team falls, then the margin of error for reviving his quest will be razor thin the rest of the way.
I doubt we’ll get a mixed Heisman outcome from this matchup. Afterwards, I think we’ll either be exalting Mariota’s talents, or shaking our heads in amazement over that Spartan defense.