Another exciting season of college football is upon us and a whole new cast of game changers await our attention. Heisman hopefuls already have their school public relations departments pleading their cases to the football crazed public. It is not easy to predict who will win this most coveted prize, but every good race has its favorites and the Heisman Trophy race is no exception.
In the PAC-12 conference, it is the year of the quarterback while the SEC lost enough signal callers to make returning running backs more significant threats. As in any major race, the Heisman race also has its share of long shots from less than 'major' conference schools. Schools like Marshall, Navy and Utah State have some talented players who will be fun to watch.
The following players have enough skill and talent to make them contenders for the prestigious Heisman award. Time for all the hype to begin and the season along with it.
Honorable Mention: Sean Mannion, QB - Oregon State, Derrick Henry, RB - Alabama, Braxton Miller, QB - Ohio State (Injured)
Rakeem Cato is considered small for a QB (6'1"), but he can certainly put up some big numbers. Cato passed for 3,916 yards and 39 touchdowns in 2013 to go along with 294 yards and 6 scores he had on the ground. In 2012, Cato led the nation in passing yards per game with 350.1, finishing the season with 4,201 yards. Since Cato plays for Marshall, he really needs to ramp it up in 2014 to remain on this list while also working on his completion percentage that fell in 2013. If he can pass for over 4,000 yards again and complete over 65% of his passes, he might still need to throw for over 50 touchdowns to get the consideration he deserves.
To say that Myles Jack is a 'jack of all trades' might actually diminish how good he is at playing linebacker. In 2013, Jack was the PAC-12 Defensive and Offensive Freshman Player of The Year and a member of the Sporting News Freshman All-American Team. Jack started 12 games at linebacker and 1 game at running back in 2013, scoring 1 touchdown on defense and 7 touchdowns on offense. He rushed for 267 yards on 38 carries and also recorded 76 tackles and 1 sacks on defense, all as a freshman. It remains to be seen how he will be used in 2014, but any improvement on these numbers with a solid Bruins team will more than likely get noticed.
Chuckie Keeton's quest for notoriety was derailed by a season ending knee injury in 2013. Up to that point, Keeton was completing almost 70% of his passes and had 18 touchdown passes versus only 2 interceptions. Keeton can be a dual-threat quarterback as evidenced by his 619 yards of rushing in 2012, but his biggest threat to opposing defenses is still through the air. In 2012, Keeton had 3,373 yards passing with 27 touchdowns. His great accuracy is what separates him from many quarterbacks on this list. Keeton has only 13 interceptions in 777 collegiate passing attempts. If Utah State has a magical season, Keeton can easily move up this list.
What would a Heisman list be without long shots? Keenan Reynolds might not be a household name, but he just might be the best quarterback to ever run Navy's triple-option offense. Reynolds has guided Navy to a 15-6 record as a starting quarterback and has been a solid leader in the process. Last year, Reynolds rushed for 1,346 yards and an incredible 31 rushing touchdowns while also throwing for 1,057 yards and another 8 scores. In two seasons, he has thrown for 17 touchdowns versus only 4 interceptions while rushing for almost 2,000 yards with 41 touchdowns. Sure he plays for Navy, but so did Roger Staubach.
Everett Golson sat out the 2013 season for academic reasons, but has enough raw talent to top this list. It will be hard to tell how Golson will handle the layoff in 2014, but glimpses of what Golson is capable of being came through in 2012. Golson finished the 2012 season with 2,405 yards passing with 12 touchdowns, while only throwing 6 interceptions. He also finished with 298 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns, while also leading Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game. Golson has a good arm and plays for a high profile program that is on TV every weekend. However, he will need to significantly improve on his 2012 season to move up this talent laden list.
Many quarterbacks had better stats than Cook in 2013, but Cook put up over 300 yards in the last two games of the season against prominent teams, Ohio State and Stanford. Cook finished the season with 2,755 yards passing and 22 touchdowns, while only throwing 6 interceptions. Cook is a good leader on a talent laden Spartans squad and should get noticed every Saturday. The formula worked well for AJ McCarron and with continued improvement, Cook could earn the same amount of acclaim. He probably will not pass for 4,000 yards, but a solid 3,000 plus yard season and a few more touchdowns might do more than get Cook a little more attention.
Mike Davis had a very consistent season in 2013, rushing for 1,183 yards on 203 carries with 11 rushing touchdowns. Davis rushed for over 100 yards in seven games last year. In addition to running the ball, he also caught 34 passes for 352 yards and even had 10 receptions in a single game against Missouri. Former starting quarterback Connor Shaw is gone and the solid 225 pound running back could see the ball even more in 2014. Being a feature back at a high profile SEC school makes Davis a solid Heisman candidate, even if he might receive even more attention from the great run stuffing defenses in the SEC.
Duke Johnson couldn't finish the season in 2013, leaving the field with a broken ankle against Florida State with four games left in the season. He still finished with 920 yards rushing. Johnson managed to gain 532 yards rushing in his last four games of 2013, including the game against the Seminoles where he made an early exit. Prior to Johnson's injury the Hurricanes were 7-0, with wins against Florida and Georgia Tech. Quarterback Stephen Morris is gone, but that should put more emphasis on the ground game and give Johnson more chances to prove his worth.
One of the many PAC-12 signal callers who are in the 2014 Heisman race, Taylor Kelly's stats stack up against the best. Kelly started the 2013 season with five straight games with over 300 yards passing and wins against Wisconsin and USC. He finished with 3,635 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, but will have to improve upon his 12 interceptions in 2014. Kelly is not exactly a speedster, but did have 608 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns on 173 rushing attempts. If Kelly cuts down on his interceptions and Arizona State has a good season, he could easily move up this list.
Nick Marshall has had a college career full of disappointment until he finally hit his stride last year. Dismissed from Georgia in 2011 and forced to play in junior college for the 2012 season, Marshall proceeded to lead Auburn to the BCS National Championship Game in 2013. Marshall had only 1,976 yards passing and 14 touchdowns, but complemented his passing with 1,068 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. More than his stats, Marshall proved he could be a leader and take control of a team. Gus Malzahn and his offense is back and despite the loss of Tre Mason, there should be plenty of room for Marshall to improve.
A dark horse candidate from the independent BYU Cougars, Taysom Hill put up some impressive numbers last year. Any improvement in 2014 will vault him towards the top of this list. Hill did have some issues throwing the ball, completing only 53.9% of his passes, but still passed for just under 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns. What the dual-threat quarterback did really well was run the football. His work with his legs accounted for 1,344 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns. Running back Jamaal Williams (1,233 yards rushing) is back to help and if Hill finds some targets to replace receiver Cody Hoffman, he could make some Heisman noise.
Quietly, Ameer Abdullah has become one of the most productive backs in the nation. Abdullah gained 1,690 yards rushing last season to go along with 26 pass receptions and a total of 11 touchdowns. In what has become a rare occurrence these days, Abdullah returned for his senior season in order to earn his college degree. Topping his production in 2013 will certainly place him near the top of this list. Taylor Martinez is gone, but Tommy Armstrong appears ready to assume the quarterback position for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska will still likely lean on Abdullah to power their offense and more visits to the end zone could catapult him up this list.
In 2014, with the absence of AJ McCarron, Alabama will more than likely need to rely on its strong ground game. This should be just fine with T.J. Yeldon. The first-team 2013 All-SEC selection should improve on his 1,235 yards of rushing and maybe even his 14 rushing touchdowns. Yeldon will need to shine in order to stay ahead of Derrick Henry on the depth chart, which adds extra determination to his Heisman campaign. The question remains whether or not Alabama can keep pace with the loss of so many players, including offensive linemen, to the NFL. Also, will the passing game be able to keep defenses honest?
Jeremy Langford is a workhorse running back on a team with a good returning quarterback, Connor Cook. Langford gained 1,422 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in 2013, finishing the regular season with eight straight games with over 100 yards rushing. His rushing total was quite impressive considering the longest run he broke off was only 44 yards. Langford might be more solid than spectacular, but could move up this list if he picks up where he left off last season. To win the prize, he will need to be more than just consistent.
The speedy running back from Wisconsin gained 1,609 yards rushing in 2013 to go along with 12 touchdowns and a eye popping 7.8 yards per carry average. Playing behind Montee Ball in 2012 and sharing time with James White in 2013, Gordon finally has the opportunity to be the feature back in Wisconsin's offense. Quarterback Joel Stave is back and should be able to do more to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Gordon. With his 10.9 second 100-meter dash speed in a conference that traditionally lacks elite speed, Gordon can make huge waves.
Todd Gurley missed three games in 2013, but still finished with 989 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. The 230 pound running back even increased his pro stock in 2013 with 37 receptions out of the backfield for 441 yards and 6 touchdowns. Considering he rushed for 1,385 yards in 2012 as a freshman and has averaged over 6 yards a carry thus far in his collegiate career, expectations are high for the upcoming season. Starting quarterback Aaron Murray has moved on and more will be expected from Gurley. Playing for Georgia in the rugged SEC will be his only hurdle.
Brett Hundley has all the tools to help make this Heisman race interesting. UCLA has been a program on the rise and the dual-threat quarterback is a big reason why. Hundley had 3,071 yards passing and 748 yards rushing last season, but his leadership and ability to make big plays were more impressive than his statistics alone. He completed just under 67% of his passes last year and did pass for 3,740 yards in 2012, proving he is proficient at throwing the ball. Hundley has talent that had NFL scouts drooling, but he elected to forgo the NFL Draft to come back to school for some unfinished business.
The 2013 Big-12 Offensive Player of the Year passed for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns last season. If that wasn't impressive enough, Petty only threw 3 interceptions in 403 attempts and averaged a lofty 10.4 yards per pass attempt. Despite having only 209 rushing yards for the season, Petty managed to score a remarkable 14 touchdowns on the ground. In 2013, Baylor had one of its best seasons ever and Petty was a big reason why. The stats might be a bit gaudy, considering the Bears gave up over 30 points on five occasions in 2013, but Petty is certainly a worthy candidate.
Last year, Marcus Mariota had a better year statistically despite the loss of Chip Kelly and several key Oregon offensive players. Mariota passed for 3,665 yards with 31 touchdowns and only had 4 interceptions. On top of that, the dual-threat quarterback rushed for 715 yards with a 7.4 average per carry and 9 touchdowns. Mariota is considered to be one of the top prospects eligible for the 2015 draft and has the 6'4" frame that many NFL teams covet at the quarterback position. If Mariota improves on his 63.5% completion percentage and Oregon can make some noise, he has the talent to top this list.
The prohibitive favorite in this race has to be the winner from last year, Jameis Winston. All Winston did last year was lead a pretty much disrespected but undefeated 14-0 ACC team, Florida State, to a National Championship. Winston finished his freshman season with 4,057 yards passing and 40 touchdowns while also leading the Seminoles to the come from behind win against Auburn in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. Florida State lost two solid receivers, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but should have a good ground game led by Karlos Williams to support Winston's bid for a Heisman repeat.