The 2014 preseason HeismanPundit Heisman Watch


The 2014 season is finally upon us.

Training camps have wound down. The first top 25 poll has been released. Every outlet imaginable has put out a preseason All-American team.

All that’s left on which to speculate is the race for the most prestigious award in sports.

Here are the 10 players with the best chance of actually winning the Heisman heading into 2014. The most effective way to look at this list is to imagine all of the players having huge statistical seasons while leading their teams to undefeated seasons. All those things being equal, who would the voters pick and why?

This list balances my educated guess of the likelihood of these players performing at a Heisman-worthy level with the built-in advantages they already possess with the Heisman electorate. In a sense, it is an odds list. Can a player not on this list win the Heisman or come close?  Absolutely. But predicting who will win the Heisman before the season starts is often a fool’s errand — see the last few years.  So we’ll be adjusting this list as the weeks go on. Players will come and go depending on the circumstances.

So without further ado, here is the 2014 Preseason Heisman Watch:

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, JR, Oregon

Mariota checks almost all the Heisman boxes. He the third-year starting quarterback for a national title contending team. He has excellent name recognition and he plays in an offense that allows him to put up big numbers. He’s considered an elite football talent with a bright future and he’ll play high profile games against Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford. The main obstacles to Mariota’s candidacy are the expectation levels placed on him and his team. Those can be tricky to navigate, which explains why Mariota failed to finish in the top 10 of last year’s vote despite a stellar season. If he can help his team get over the hump and avoid that yearly letdown, voters will reward him accordingly.

2. Nick Marshall, QB, SR, Auburn

Marshall led Auburn on the most unlikely run to the BCS title game in history. What’s remarkable is that he did so in his first year as a starter, which makes you wonder what he can do in his second season in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Big things, I think. With Tre Mason gone, he’ll be the focal point for the Tigers, who are once again national title contenders. Malzahn has sent two players to New York in his last three seasons at Auburn. Marshall has a good chance to make it three in four.

3. Trevor Knight, QB, SO, Oklahoma

Knight’s placement at No. 3 is not entirely due to his performance against Alabama in this past year’s Sugar Bowl. But that game did tell us a lot about his untapped potential. He has the skill set to put together the kind of season we’ve been seeing from Heisman winners of late. Playing for a traditional Heisman power that is also a national title contender helps, too. If he plays all season like he did against Alabama, he’ll become Bob Stoops’ third Heisman winner.

4. Brett Hundley, QB, JR, UCLA

As with the other spread quarterbacks on this list, Hundley has the chance to put up big numbers for a team that is considered a legit national title contender. Hundley’s profile and name recognition rose in the offseason as various pundits began touting him as a potential Heisman candidate and high NFL draft pick. He’s got a tough schedule ahead of him, but if he can bring his team through it mostly unscathed, he’ll likely be a Heisman finalist.

5. Bryce Petty, QB, SR, Baylor

Petty’s first year as a starter was excellent, as he led Baylor to the Big 12 title on his way to finishing seventh in the Heisman voting. He should be even better as a senior and one shudders to think what kind of production he’ll have in Art Briles’ system. Games against Texas and Oklahoma give him a chance to showcase his Heisman credentials and, if things fall his way, he could be Baylor’s second Heisman winner in four years.

6. Melvin Gordon, RB, JR, Wisconsin

Running backs have taken a back seat to spread quarterbacks in the last eight seasons, with only one (Mark Ingram) winning the Heisman (in 2009). But Gordon is a special back who plays in a system that could allow him to approach or surpass the magical 2,000 yard mark — a statistical accomplishment that almost always guarantees a trip to New York for a player at an FBS school. He had 1,609 yards last season while sharing carries with a now-graduated back (James White) who gained 1,444. It’s certainly possible that Gordon’s new backup Corey Clement duplicates White’s production, but it seems reasonable to suggest that Gordon will increase his production this year if he stays healthy. And that should mean a huge season with a good deal of Heisman votes to go with it.

7. Todd Gurley, RB, JR, Georgia

Gurley is oozing with talent and has put up two strong seasons for the Bulldogs so far. If he can stay healthy, he should have a very productive fall, which will keep him on the short list of Heisman contenders. Unlike Gordon, he probably does not need to rush or 2,000 yards to make it to New York thanks to the SEC’s lingering reputation for defensive prowess. The schedule is friendly and gives him the opportunity to finish strong. If Georgia wins 10 games and Gurley performs at a high level, he’ll be a Heisman finalist.

8. Ameer Abdullah, RB, SR, Nebraska

It’s been so long since a Nebraska running back has warranted Heisman attention. Abdullah has quietly put together a fine career for the Cornhuskers and this could be the year that he makes it into the spotlight. The schedule lacks many high-profile games for him to make his case, but if he leads Nebraska to a division title and approaches Rozier-like levels of production, he’ll have a shot at the Heisman.

9. Everett Golson, QB, JR, Notre Dame

Golson led Notre Dame to a 12-1 record and a spot in the BCS title game as a redshirt freshman. He sat out last year due to academic issues, but he’s back again as quarterback of the Irish. He has the potential to produce a very good season and, as history shows, a very good season for a Notre Dame quarterback almost always results in considerable Heisman attention. Golson is a long shot, but the infrastructure is in place for him to make a run at it.

10. Javorius Allen, RB, JR, USC

The USC running back position, like the Notre Dame quarterback, is well-suited for a Heisman run. All that is required is very good production, about nine or 10 wins and, voila. By the looks of it, Allen is primed for a big season. He had four 100-yard games and scored 13 touchdowns in his final six outings of 2013. He’s now in the same spread offensive system that enabled Bishop Sankey to run for over 1,800 yards and score 20 touchdowns last year. He’s got a good combination of size and speed and a full season should see his production soar. Gaining 1,700 yards for a USC team that manages to capture the Pac-12 South should get him to New York.

The Dark Horses:

Derrick Henry, Alabama; Taysom Hill, BYU; Leonard Fournette, LSU; Thomas Tyner, Oregon; Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

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Who are the new quarterbacks for 2014? (Pac-12 edition)

NCAA Football: Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl-Brigham Young vs Washington

Three of the last four Heisman winners have been quarterbacks who were first-time starters. To most observers, they seemingly came out of nowhere.

Could it happen again in 2014?

We’re taking a look at the first-time starters around the country to see if any of them have what it takes to challenge for the Heisman. If any of these players go on to win the Heisman, you won’t be able to say they came out of nowhere because we’re taking a good look at them now, right?

We  previewed the new SEC starters a couple days ago…now on to the Pac-12. We’ll rank them — all two of them! — in the order of how likely they are to mount an out-of-nowhere Heisman run.

1. Cyler Miles, Sophomore, Washington

Miles is an elite talent with great size, mobility and arm strength. His skill set is similar to that of Cam Newton’s. He started a couple games last season for the Huskies when Keith Price was hurt and he did a decent job, throwing for 418 yards and four touchdowns with two picks. He also ran for 200 yards on the year and averaged almost 9 yards per carry. He has to sit out the first game of the season against Hawaii due to an off-season altercation, but he should take up the starting mantle after that (or it could be Jeff Lindquist, a burgeoning talent in his own right). Miles has a chance to be a great college football player and, eventually, a high NFL draft pick — assuming he can develop the mental side of his game. Chris Petersen has a fantastic track record of developing quarterbacks and I’m sure he is salivating at the prospect of building his offense around Miles. Keep an eye on Miles, who could end up being one of the Pac-12’s best quarterbacks before the season is through.

2. Jerrard Randall, Junior, Arizona

Randall has actually made an appearance on HeismanPundit before, as I touted him as a future Heisman candidate from the class of 2011. He has had a checkered career, bouncing from Oregon to LSU to junior college and now to Arizona, where there’s no guarantee he’s even going to win the starting job for the Wildcats. But if he does, Randall’s combination of athleticism, speed and rocket arm should eventually produce big numbers in the Rich Rodriguez scheme. He has a chance to be scary good.

That’s it for the Pac-12 starters. Everyone else is back, including two or three Heisman candidates in their own right.

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Ohio State’s Braxton Miller is out for the season


Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has re-injured his right shoulder and is out for the season, according to reports.

With Miller gone, that means we’ve already got our first shake up of the 2014 Heisman race. I’ve not yet released my preseason Heisman Watch, but Miller would’ve placed second in it, meaning that his odds of winning heading into the season were the second-best of any other player.

The prime beneficiary of Miller’s exit should be Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. Miller was, by far, the Big Ten’s leading Heisman candidate and he would’ve garnered a ton of support in the Midwest region following a stellar season. Gordon now moves into the role of leading Big Ten candidate, though his hold on that spot isn’t nearly as strong as Miller’s was. If Gordon has a big season and the Heisman race is splintered, his Midwestern base could be decisive.

Miller’s exit should also help the other quarterbacks jockeying for the award, including Marcus Mariota, Bryce Petty and Brett Hundley. Those three won’t have to share the spotlight with Miller all season long and will now be able to attract MidWest voters who tend to favor dual-threat quarterbacks.

It just goes to show you how important health is to the Heisman race. One injury can jumble it up pretty quick.

As for Ohio State, it has a capable backup in J.T. Barrett. Miller’s injury could actually lead to a more balanced Buckeyes offense, which tended to rely on the do-everything quarterback too much the last couple seasons.

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The College Football Experience Podcast

Here’s a new feature at HP. It’s a podcast featuring David Caple (otherwise known as HeismanPundit Jr.) and college football aficionado Kent Brown. We’ll be hosting it here every week on HP. Enjoy.

Here’s part one of their premier episode:

And here is part two:

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Who are the new quarterbacks for 2014? (SEC Edition)


Three of the last four Heisman winners have been quarterbacks who were first-time starters. To most observers, they seemingly came out of nowhere.

Could it happen again in 2014?

Let’s go through the first-time starters around the country and see if any of them have what it takes to challenge for the Heisman. If any of these players go on to win the Heisman, you won’t be able to say they came out of nowhere because we’re taking a good look at them now, right?

First, let’s take a look at the new starting quarterbacks in the SEC, ranking them in order of their likelihood of making a run at the trophy.

1. Kenny Hill, Sophmore, Texas A&M

Kevin Sumlin named Hill the starter over true freshman Kyle Allen, which isn’t a huge surprise given Hill’s mobility and playmaking ability. Hill has a strong arm and, like Johnny Manziel before him, can gain yards on the ground. Sumlin’s quarterbacks put up numbers, so expect Hill to hit his stride at some point and finish with a big year statistically. He doesn’t have Manziel’s magic — who does? — but he makes up for it somewhat with his physical gifts. The attention he’ll get for following in Manziel’s footsteps will help his Heisman hopes if he happens to have a good season.

2. Anthony Jennings (Sophomore) or Brandon Harris (Freshman), LSU

I have a feeling that this year’s LSU’s offense will not be your father’s LSU offense. The Tigers under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have decisively moved in the direction of utilizing a mobile quarterback. Keep in mind that Cameron tutored Antwan Randle-El at Indiana, so he knows what he’s doing in this area. Harris has more physical talent than Jennings and I like his potential to be a big-time player down the road, but Jennings is a better passer right now and has the leg up in experience, which means he will probably get the start. Both could benefit from the presence of freshman running back Leonard Fournette, who should loosen up the running lanes a bit. Heisman voters love dual-threat quarterbacks and both Jennings and Harris fit that bill, but one of them would need to dominate from the getgo.

Anthony Jennings

Brandon Harris

3. Jacob Coker, Junior, Alabama

Coker will get attention because he plays at a high profile school. He also has the athletes around him to put up quality production. However, as with previous Alabama quarterbacks, it’s going to be difficult to compete for the Heisman in a system that does not put the fate of the game in the quarterback’s hands. He’ll also have to overcome the Lane Kiffin reverse-Midas-touch factor (though if he can manage to do so, he’ll probably deserve the Heisman).  I’m not high on Coker’s chances as he doesn’t look to me to be a special talent.

4. Hutson Mason, Senior, Georgia

Mason actually started some games last year when Aaron Murray got hurt and he acquitted himself well, throwing for 968 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions.  To compete for the Heisman, he would have to have the kind of season Murray — the SEC’s all-time leading passer — never had. More likely than not, Mason will be a solid stop-gap until some younger talent emerges.

5. Dylan Thompson, Senior, South Carolina

As with Mason, Thompson has some starts under his belt. He’s 3-0 as a starter in Steve Spurrier’s offense and has had some big games in the past in relief of Connor Shaw. Thompson has a good feel for the game, though he can be streaky with his accuracy. He’s got a good group of playmakers to throw to. It’s been a while since a Spurrier quarterback had a monster season so I see no reason to expect Thompson to do so.

6. Patton Robinette (Sophomore), Johnny McCrary (Redshirt Freshman), Vanderbilt

We likely won’t know who will earn the starting job for Vandy until the first game kicks off.  Robinette started three times last season and threw for 642 yards and four touchdowns with five picks. He also rushed for 214 yards and seven touchdowns. I like his potential and he could end up being the guy for the Commodores. McCary is a decent athlete who is still growing into his body, but he’s an excellent touch passer with a good feel for the game. Whatever the case, I don’t foresee any Vandy quarterbacks emerging as Heisman candidates this year.

7. Patrick Towles, Sophomore, Kentucky

Towles is a big dude at 6-5, 240 pounds. He played a little bit in 2012 and then redshirted last season. He’s got a bit of a slow release and his arm, while solid, isn’t elite. He’s not the most mobile guy, either. Bottom line: Don’t look for Towles to come out of nowhere to win the Heisman.

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True Freshmen: The final Heisman frontier

Leonard Fournette

The first 72 years of Heisman history were fairly predictable when it came to the class status of the winner. To wit: Every player who won the trophy from 1935 until 2006 was either a senior or a junior.

That all changed in 2007, when Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman. With Tebow’s win, the floodgates opened and he was followed by Sam Bradford (redshirt sophomore), Mark Ingram (true sophomore), Johnny Manziel (redshirt freshman) and Jameis Winston (redshirt freshman).

The reason for the sudden change wasn’t just about Tebow, though he personified the new era he helped usher in. Rather, it was the result of a combination of two things:

1. The new offensive styles that came to dominate college football from 2006 onward.

2. The digital media revolution.

If we made a chart of the statistical production of Heisman winners over the years, we’d see a fairly consistent range of values between 1974 and 2006 (with a few sudden blips here and there), then a hockey stick-like jump in the years since 2007. Of the last seven Heisman winners, six have been quarterbacks running a version of a ‘non-traditional’ offense. This means some permutation of the spread, or a no-huddle, from a shotgun and often with read option mixed in. These six quarterbacks averaged 49.6 combined touchdowns with 4,578 yards of total offense and a passer rating of 177. For comparison’s sake, Ty Detmer totaled 5,022 yards and 45 touchdowns with a rating of 155.9 in 1990, the year he won the Heisman. But Detmer’s win was seen at the time as a dramatic statistical outlier, one of the great Heisman seasons ever. We now see that kind of season every year, not just with the winner of the Heisman, but often with the contenders as well.

It seems unlikely that this recent swarm of underclass Heisman winners would’ve happened without the opportunities afforded them by the offensive philosophies currently in vogue. And because each of these players were highly-unique talents operating in systems that were easy to learn and molded to fit their skill set, they were able to produce these staggering numbers early on in their careers. The result was they became Heisman candidates much earlier, too.

The media change has been just as important and possibly even more dramatic. The Heisman is an election. And, as with all elections, the candidate who is the most familiar to the electorate generally has the best chance of winning. For years, this meant that juniors and seniors had the advantage since over the course of three to five years they tended to receive more exposure in the media. The more exposure in the media, the better known you become to voters and the better chance you have of building your brand as a Heisman candidate.

But the digital revolution changed all that. The proliferation of recruiting web sites means we learn about players at a much earlier point than before. Certain players are over-hyped in high school and are already seen as Heisman candidates the moment they step foot on campus. Meanwhile, social media provides multiple channels of access to players while schools promote them in new and innovative ways. A remarkable performance or a memorable play now spreads throughout the internet like wildfire thanks to a media eager to serve up the latest meme in ever-smaller and chewable bites. This means a player like Tebow is already a known commodity — nay, a legend — by the time he takes his first snap. It means Johnny Manziel’s nickname, Johnny Football, is in widespread use after one game. In other words, the old timeline for players to gain name recognition and media exposure has been condensed and the advantage that upperclassmen once had in this area has now been diluted.

Combine the new media environment with the new offenses and the result is five underclass Heisman winners since 2007.

But one more class frontier remains: The true freshman.

It could be argued that it’s even harder for a true freshman to win the Heisman now than it was in the 1970s. That’s mostly due to the aforementioned change in football over the last decade. But the 1970s and early 1980s were dominated by the running back and the offensive systems set up to feature that position — USC’s I-formation, Oklahoma’s wishbone, Nebraska’s I-bone, etc. The most talented player on the field in that era was the tailback and he played a position that was more conducive to early productivity. That’s why we saw instant success from players like Herschel Walker and Tony Dorsett.

But we are now in a quarterback-dominated era and the most talented players on offense are often taking the snaps.  But football is still football and the complexity of the game remains the biggest obstacle to young players in the Heisman race. As talented as Manziel and Jameis Winston are, they both needed a redshirt year to adjust to the speed of the game and to absorb their respective playbooks. Even then, they each had to have absurd statistical production to win the Heisman in their first years as starters.

Could a true freshman quarterback come in and dominate in the mold of Manziel and Winston? It seems unlikely. If it did happen, I’d assume it’d be a true freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Otherwise, we’re talking about a young player learning a system and taking over a team in a few short weeks. He would have to be a prodigy of a kind we’ve not seen before.

I suppose a true freshman running back could make a run at it. Adrian Petersen did so in 2004. But the bar for what constitutes a Heisman-worthy season has been raised since then. Meanwhile, the prominence of the running back position has receded a bit as the quarterback has taken center stage. Nonetheless, an elite talent like Leonard Fournette of LSU could certainly make some noise in this year’s Heisman race, though he’d probably need to break the 2,000-yard barrier and have the rest of the field implode to win. It’s also smart to keep an eye on the offensive systems that are best at generating yards, which is why Racean Thomas of Auburn is an intriguing prospect, too.

But the Heisman electorate is highly adaptive and I think the back-to-back crowning of redshirt freshmen — and all the issues that have surrounded these young men in their too-early exposures to college football immortality — could give some voters pause moving ahead. The Heisman is a great honor, but also a heavy burden to place on a young player’s shoulders. Herschel might’ve been able to handle it back in the days when one could go to a party without having the highlights appear on TMZ, but times have changed — maybe a little too much.

Voters might think twice before pushing this envelope any further, which is why I think the true freshman frontier won’t be crossed any time soon.

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Looking back at Archie Griffin’s Heisman repeat — and what it means for Jameis Winston

Since we once again have a player looking for that elusive second Heisman, I thought it would be appropriate to take a peek back at the circumstances that created the only two-time winner to date.griffin

Archie Griffin is probably a shade under 5-8, but his shadow looms large over Heisman history.  He won the award in 1974 after rushing for a Big Ten-record 1,620 yards and then returned in 1975 as the favorite to become the first two-time winner.

There weren’t a whole lot of established candidates to challenge Griffin in ’75.  Going in, his main competition was probably senior running back Joe Washington of Oklahoma, who was coming off a 1,321-yard (8.4 ypc) junior season in which he led the Sooners to a share of the national title.   Washington finished third in the 1974 Heisman voting, but he had one major hurdle to face in his quest for the 1975 trophy:  The Sooners were on probation and banned from television.  As we know, big performances on TV are key in the Heisman race.

Of the top 10 Heisman finalists in 1974, only Griffin and Washington returned in 1975.  That paved the way for some up-and-coming names to make a move in the race.

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