The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the hardest award in all of sports to project. Last year I predicted that Braxton Miller would win the award, while Jameis was mentioned in the few more for the road section of my other contenders post.
If he wasn’t out for the year with a shoulder injury, I would probably again tell you that Miller was my preseason favorite to win the award. But unfortunately for Ohio State and Miller he won’t be playing this season, so here are my top preseason Heisman contenders.
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State QB: Last year Winston became the third Florida State quarterback to win the award as he led the Seminoles to a national title win over Auburn. This season he’ll try to become the first player since Archie Griffin in 1974 and ’75 to win back-to-back Heismans.
This year Winston will face even more scrutiny than he did last year in the midst of a sexual assault allegation that ultimately never led to any charges being filed. Every stone in Winston’s past has been overturned by the media since his breakout year, and his little crab legs incident during baseball season will give voters even more Winston fatigue this year.
Last year Winston was unreal as he completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4, 057 yards and 40 touchdowns. FSU is again loaded on offense, even with the departures of Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. Winston could very well be just as good as he was a season ago, but it will be hard to statistically do as well. Still if FSU is dominant again in 2014, then voters will have a hard time punishing Winston’s on-filed performance because of what they perceive about him off the gridiron.
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia RB: The Junior tailback is a different breed. He led Georgia in rushing despite playing in just 10 games as he battled an ankle injury. In those ten games Gurley averaged six yards per carry, ran for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, and senior Hutson Mason takes over the reigns at quarterback, meaning the heavy lifting will belong to Gurley. Unlike last year, there isn’t much star power in the SEC at quarterback- which means Gurley could become the darling of the country’s most poplular conference if UGA gets off to a great start against Clemson and South Carolina early in the year.
The biggest thing that could hamper Gurley is Mason’s inexperience and lack of a deep threat. Until Mason proves otherwise, teams will likely stack the box assuming the senior QB can’t beat them and they’ll need the extra man power to stop the 6-foot-1, 226-pounder running back.
3. Marcus Mariotta, Oregon QB: Marcus Mariotta may have the school record for career rushing yards by a QB with 1,467, but make no mistake this Duck is mostly an aerial threat. The Hawaii native has completed .658 percent of his career pass attempts. Last year he tossed 31 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
Like Gurley, Mariotta suffered an injury last season that prevented him from reaching his full potential, as the QB sprained his MCL midway through the year. Mariotta will have a chance in week two to announce his 2014 Heisman candidacy as Oregon hosts Michigan State in Eugene, Ore.
If the redshirt junior can lead Oregon past Michigan State early in the year he could be in the driver’s seat for the award for much of the year.
4. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama RB: Anytime you’re the featured back in Nick Saban’s offense at Alabama, you’re in the Heisman discussion. In his first season as the No. 1 running back in Alabama’s offense Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns. He averaged six yards per carry and 102.9 yards per game.
Despite not knowing who will start at quarterback, Alabama does have plenty of weapons at wideout that will prevent teams from stacking the box to contain Yeldon. Whether Jacob Coker or Blake Sims are under center, the offense will run through Yeldon.
Teammate Derrick Henry could pose a threat to Yeldon’s candidacy as he will have a large part in the offense this season too. The 241-pound sophomore could also play the role of touchdown vulture in goal-line situations that could make casual voters look past Yeldon’s overall role in the offense.
5. Myles Jack, UCLA LB/RB: Myles Jack is the most intriguing player in college football to me. Last year as a freshman he racked up 75 tackles on defense at linebacker, and ran for seven touchdowns on offense at running back. He was named Pac-12 freshman of the year on both offense and defense.
Jack had seven tackles for loss, one sack, and two interceptions, and averaged seven yards per carry. A defensive player hasn’t won the Heisman since Charles Woodson in 1997. Jack will play mostly linebacker this season, but even if he just 38 total carriers on offense like he did last year it could be enough to get him in the conversation.
In addition to playing primarily on defense Jack’s other uphill battle will be getting the West Coast vote. Jack isn’t the Bruin’s only Heisman candidate as UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is actually a 10/1 favorite to win the award according to Bovada. Jack will also have to try and sway votes away from Mariotta.
The advantage he will have for voters deciding which West Coast candidate is Heisman worthy, is that he will actually go head-to-head with Mariotta this season. Voters will only be able to compare stats and composure between Hundley and Mariotta, but Jack will have the chance to physically stop Mariotta while on defense. A game-changing sack or an interception against the Ducks would not only put UCLA in great position to win the conference, but it could push Jack to the forefront of voter’s minds.