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 Heismanpundit.com 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