College Football 2013; Preseason Heisman Watchlist

Daniel KellerContributor IIAugust 30, 2013

College Football 2013; Preseason Heisman Watchlist

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    College football is upon us, and with it, the commencement of the race for the 2013 Heisman Trophy.

    Like any other institution, the Heisman race is far from a perfect system and has certain observable tendencies.

    For better or worse, there will always be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to the preseason favorites. Being human driven, the Heisman will always give the advantage to the players who are the most likable. Also, the quarterback of the No. 1 ranked team will always be a candidate.

    These are more or less the facts of life when it comes to Heisman hopefuls, and there are eight players who stand out before the season.

1)A.J. McCarron, Alabama

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    A.J McCarron is a good quarterback. In 2012, he threw 29 touchdown passes to just three interceptions.

    Most good quarterbacks have seven or eight interception-free games in a season, and last year McCarron had 12. And the only game in which he did not throw a touchdown pass was a 42-10 win over Missouri where the Crimson Tide rushed for 362 yards.

    He's consistent and he doesn't make mistakes. He's John Parker Wilson. He's Greg McElroy. He's Alabama's quarterback.

    He also won’t ever jump off the television screen the way most of the other players on this list will. In 2012, McCarron passed for 2,933 yards, just 62 more than Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez who is, by most counts, a running quarterback. You can literally count on one hand the number of rushing yards McCarron had last season.

    Three. He had three rushing yards.

    It’s not his fault. He's part of a system that puts virtually no pressure on the quarterback. Anyone who watched last year’s BCS National Championship Game knows how well this team runs the ball. The last four starting Alabama running backs have been drafted 74th, 28th, 3rd and 64th, respectively. In 2012, the Crimson Tide had two 1,000-yard rushers and averaged 227.5 yards per game on the ground.

    No matter how good his rollout footwork may be, no quarterback has ever been invited to New York for how well he hands the ball off.

    However, McCarron might be.

    After one 300-yard game in 2012 against Tennessee—a team that finished 108th nationally in pass defense—McCarron could be a Heisman finalist if everything keeps going exactly the way it has.

    Other than a starting pitcher in baseball, quarterbacks are often the only player in sports who are given credit (or blame) for their team’s wins and losses. McCarron is 26-2 as a starter with two BCS National Championships. There is one team in the country, Texas A&M, that has a winning record against Alabama while McCarron has been calling the signals.

    If this year’s Heisman class ends up being the kind that leaves voters wanting more, they might settle for the poster child of the Crimson Tide Machine.

     

    Braxton Miller, Ohio State

    Just like Alabama, Ohio State is a machine. Unlike Alabama, Ohio State is a machine in a big conference that still won’t be as tough as it used to be in 2013. But whether or not Buckeyes can compete outside the Big Ten is irrelevant to Braxton Miller’s Heisman campaign, because the voting takes place before the bowl season.

    Ohio State’s last Heisman Trophy winner—Troy Smith—had six yards of total offense in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game against Florida, but that was after he had already won the Heisman.

    Miller might experience similar exposure this year with Ohio State back in title contention after a two-year hiatus from postseason play.

    He might live up to the hype, or he might not—but it won’t matter.

    Miller’s numbers are a little flashier than McCarron’s from a year ago, during the Buckeyes’ 12-0 regular season he passed for 2,039 yards and rushed for 1,271. In a league with more than one good dual-threat quarterback, he was a better scrambler than Taylor Martinez and a better passer than Denard Robinson.

    Ohio State loses Carlos Hyde this season after a 970-yard output in 2012, but they should have a good defense and Urban Meyer is without doubt the best coach in the Big Ten. And, perhaps most importantly, Miller’s potential invite to New York will happen before Ohio State has to leave the safety of the Big Ten bubble.

    Even if Miller’s progression as a quarterback is stagnant and he does exactly what he did last year, he could still enter this year’s Heisman ceremony riding a 25-game winning streak as a starter. Mathematically, not even McCarron will have close to that.

2)Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    Just like Alabama, Ohio State is a machine. Unlike Alabama, Ohio State is a machine in a big conference that still won’t be as tough as it used to be in 2013. But whether or not Buckeyes can compete outside the Big Ten is irrelevant to Braxton Miller’s Heisman campaign, because the voting takes place before the bowl season.

    Ohio State’s last Heisman Trophy winner—Troy Smith—had six yards of total offense in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game against Florida, but that was after he had already won the Heisman.

    Miller might experience similar exposure this year with Ohio State back in title contention after a two-year hiatus from postseason play.

    He might live up to the hype, or he might not—but it won’t matter.

    Miller’s numbers are a little flashier than McCarron’s from a year ago, during the Buckeyes’ 12-0 regular season he passed for 2,039 yards and rushed for 1,271. In a league with more than one good dual-threat quarterback, he was a better scrambler than Taylor Martinez and a better passer than Denard Robinson.

    Ohio State loses Carlos Hyde this season after a 970-yard output in 2012, but they should have a good defense and Urban Meyer is without doubt the best coach in the Big Ten. And, perhaps most importantly, Miller’s potential invite to New York will happen before Ohio State has to leave the safety of the Big Ten bubble.

    Even if Miller’s progression as a quarterback is stagnant and he does exactly what he did last year, he could still enter this year’s Heisman ceremony riding a 25-game winning streak as a starter. Mathematically, not even McCarron will have close to that.

3)Taylor Martinez, Nebraska

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    Taylor Martinez has been at Nebraska for what seems like an eternity. The fifth-year senior from Carona, California is entering his fourth consecutive season as the Cornhuskers’ primary signal caller.

    Known more for his abilities as a runner, Martinez showed marked improvement as a passer in 2012 when he threw for 2,871 yards on 228 completions—both career highs by a considerable margin. His 23 touchdown passes from a year ago matched his total from his freshman and sophomore seasons combined.

    Michigan State was ranked eighth in the nation in both run and pass defense in 2012, and probably the best defensive unit Nebraska faced during the regular season. It should be counted as no small feat, then, that Martinez gashed the Spartans for 365 yards of total offense and 4 total touchdowns in the Huskers’ 28-24 come-from-behind win.

    In 2013, T-Magic will be armed with one of the best receiving corps Nebraska has had in years, along with a seasoned offensive line and a proven run game that should help take some off some of the pressure.

    What all this means is that Martinez is primed to have possibly his best season yet as a Cornhusker.

    Just like Tajh Boyd, the asset that bodes the strongest for Martinez will be the sheer volume of his statistics by the end of his senior campaign. Martinez is already the all-time leader in total offense at the fifth winningest program in college football.

    Headed into 2013, Martinez has 9,449 yards of total offense and has accounted for 79 touchdowns. He also boasts 28 wins as a starter in three seasons, leaving the 40-win plateau not mathematically out of reach.

    The thing that has held Taylor Martinez back the most has been Taylor Martinez.

    He has rather astonishingly led the nation in fumbles lost three consecutive years and had four multiple-interception games in 2012. Save for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, there may not be a more dynamic playmaker on this list, but he’ll have to quit being his own worst enemy.

    Nebraska plays without doubt their easiest schedule yet as a member of the Big Ten. For financial reasons benefiting both schools, Southern Miss agreed to play Nebraska in Lincoln instead of Hattiesburg, giving the Cornhuskers an extra home game.

    In conference play, they swap out Ohio State and Wisconsin for Purdue and Illinois. There’s no reason why this team cannot repeat as Legends Division champions which—barring another train wreck at Lucas Oil Stadium—will give Heisman voters a lot to think about with regards to Taylor Martinez.

4)Tajh Boyd, Clemson

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    There are a few things in the sports world that one can be absolutely sure of. College football’s postseason format will never be as good as college basketball’s, the Cubs will never win a world series and Clemson’s football team will always look like someone cloned Captain America 22 times.

    Traditionally, the Clemson Tigers have better athletes than pretty much anyone they play. Guys like Da’Quan Bowers, C.J. Spiller and Sammy Watkins are recruiting gems for most teams, and pretty normal at Clemson.

    Tajh Boyd has more athleticism to work with at receiver than most quarterbacks will ever dream of, and has for the last two years. In 2012, four different Tiger receivers caught touchdown passes of more than 50 yards, three of them for more than 60.

    Entering his third season as Clemson’s starting quarterback, Boyd already has 8,053 career passing yards, and he’s broken the 3,800-yard barrier in each of the last two seasons.

    A breakout year could leave Heisman voters wondering whether or not a man with 12,000 career passing yards and running ability deserves to go his whole career without ever winning a Heisman Trophy.

    Clemson has always struggled a bit with national relevance. They are usually on the outside looking in on the BCS and their appearance in the Orange Bowl two years ago was an unmitigated disaster. They were able to upset LSU in last season’s Chick-fil-a Bowl for one of the program’s biggest wins in years.

    A little more of that will do nothing but strengthen Boyd’s case for the Heisman.

5)Aaron Murray, Georgia

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    Other than Alabama, Georgia has been the most consistently good team in the SEC over the past few seasons. The Bulldogs have won the SEC East each of the last two seasons, and are the odds-on favorite to win it again in 2013.

    Aaron Murray has a lot to do with that.

    Murray is perhaps the nation’s purest drop-back passer and was one of the most improved players in the country last season. After solid seasons in 2010 and 2011—eclipsing 3,000 passing yards during both—Murray gashed some of the nation’s best defenses for 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns last year.

    Compared to his sophomore season, Murray threw for 744 more yards on 17 fewer attempts as a junior.

    Agonizingly, Nebraska fans know as well as anyone just how good this kid is. In their meeting last year, Murray threw for a Capital One Bowl record 427 yards against a Nebraska secondary that finished the year ranked fourth in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 168.1 yards per game.

    Murray really only had one bad game in 2012, and the reason why is later down on this list. He threw for at least 250 yards nine different times and had 11 games with more than one touchdown pass.

    Georgia will be dangerous this year offensively, and Murray will be the face of it. The Bulldogs return 10 offensive starters from a team that averaged 37.8 points per game in a conference that had eight defensive players selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

    Murray poses no threat as a runner. He rushed for a negative 60 yards in 2012, but has the decision-making skills and offensive line to keep his lack of speed from being a liability.

    In three years as a starter, Murray has been sacked 82 times, just one more than Taylor Martinez in the same time period, despite Martinez having better running ability and fewer drop backs.

    There will be plenty of credit to go around for the Bulldogs offensive unit this season, all of which is going to make Murray look like a stronger choice in the eyes of Heisman voters.

     

    Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

    January 2, 2013 was something of a coming-out party for Teddy Bridgewater. Headed into Louisville’s final contest of the season, the 6’3”, 196-pound sophomore from Miami, Florida had yielded dynamic passing numbers en route to the Cardinals 10-2 regular season campaign.

    Still, his best chance, perhaps his only chance, for real validation as a future Heisman candidate rested on how he performed in the 2013 Allstate Sugar Bowl against the SEC’s at-large BCS bid, the University of Florida. Bridgewater did not disappoint, as he finished 20-of-32 for 266 yards and two touchdowns in Louisville’s unlikely 33-23 win over the ninth-ranked Gators.

    For many college football experts, this game confirmed what they already knew—that no matter who, when or where, Bridgewater can play some football.

    Though he isn’t a viable threat as a runner, Bridgewater was held under 200 yards passing just twice in 2012 compared to six 300-yard games. In total, he threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns while tossing just eight interceptions on 419 passing attempts.

    The importance of Louisville’s win over Florida last season will be monumental in Bridgewater’s 2013 Heisman campaign.

    Flashy statistics in conferences like the AAC are often taken with a grain of salt so a benchmark win over an elite non-conference opponent is essential for the validation Bridgewater will need to be taken seriously as a Heisman candidate.

    Look for Bridgewater’s numbers to be even better this season than they were last year as his Louisville squad rides the momentum of last year’s Sugar Bowl into the offseason.

    Even in a conference that does not typically produce contenders for the BCS National Championship, it will be hard to ignore any quarterback with 4,000 passing yards who has proven he can do it against anybody.

6)Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

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    January 2, 2013 was something of a coming-out party for Teddy Bridgewater. Headed into Louisville’s final contest of the season, the 6’3”, 196-pound sophomore from Miami, Florida had yielded dynamic passing numbers en route to the Cardinals 10-2 regular season campaign.

    Still, his best chance, perhaps his only chance, for real validation as a future Heisman candidate rested on how he performed in the 2013 Allstate Sugar Bowl against the SEC’s at-large BCS bid, the University of Florida. Bridgewater did not disappoint, as he finished 20-of-32 for 266 yards and two touchdowns in Louisville’s unlikely 33-23 win over the ninth-ranked Gators.

    For many college football experts, this game confirmed what they already knew—that no matter who, when or where, Bridgewater can play some football.

    Though he isn’t a viable threat as a runner, Bridgewater was held under 200 yards passing just twice in 2012 compared to six 300-yard games. In total, he threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns while tossing just eight interceptions on 419 passing attempts.

    The importance of Louisville’s win over Florida last season will be monumental in Bridgewater’s 2013 Heisman campaign.

    Flashy statistics in conferences like the AAC are often taken with a grain of salt so a benchmark win over an elite non-conference opponent is essential for the validation Bridgewater will need to be taken seriously as a Heisman candidate.

    Look for Bridgewater’s numbers to be even better this season than they were last year as his Louisville squad rides the momentum of last year’s Sugar Bowl into the offseason.

    Even in a conference that does not typically produce contenders for the BCS National Championship, it will be hard to ignore any quarterback with 4,000 passing yards who has proven he can do it against anybody.

7)Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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    It seems like the only person who can stop Johnny Manziel is Johnny Manziel.

    Manziel has received some bad publicity this offseason and will sit out for the first half of Texas A&M’s opener against Rice tomorrow. Missing two quarters of first-half action will hurt Manziel statistically and draw more attention to the fact that he spent far too much of the 2013 offseason in the news for the wrong reasons.

    Once he checks back into the game, and certainly by the time the Aggies kick off against Sam Houston State next Saturday, people are going to forget about underage benders and autograph scandals, and remember Johnny Football.

    It’s hard to overemphasize how important an elite offensive line is to the success of an offense, and Luke Joeckel might have been the best offensive linemen in the country a year ago. The 6’6”, 306-pound tackle was an All-American, he won the Outland Trophy and was selected second overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2013 NFL Draft. His absence, however, shouldn’t be anything that Manziel and the Texas A&M offensive juggernaut cannot overcome this season.  

    These guys were a video game set on easy last season, and Manziel was, and still is, the face of the unit. The Aggies scored over 40 points six times in 2012 with an average of 44.5 points per contest.

    Individually, Manziel passed for 3,607 yards in 2012 while running for 1,510. He had four 300-yard passing games and six games with at least 100 yards on the ground. On three occasions they were the same game.

    In addition to the plays he makes, it is his consistency to not make errors that sets Manziel apart. In 2012, Manziel was sacked just 22 times and threw only nine interceptions.

    In his redshirt freshman season, Manziel eclipsed players like Danny Wuerffel, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton in setting the SEC record for yards of total offense in a single season with 5,117. The argument can be made that the 11-2 Aggies were able to pad their stats against overmatched opponents and, to an extent, that argument is valid.

    The Aggies beat up on two FCS opponents--South Carolina State (70-14) and Sam Houston State (47-28), but that doesn’t change the fact that the Aggies played well enough to win on the road against Alabama. It also doesn't change the fact that Manziel ran over, through and around the Oklahoma defense to the tune of 516 yards in a 41-13 shellacking in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

    Manziel plays in the toughest defensive conference in the nation and will be doing so with a bullseye on his back from both the media—for his attention off the field—and opposing defensive coordinators—for what he does on it.

    If he can replicate anything close to what he did in 2012 and maybe throw in an SEC Championship for good measure, we could see college football’s second-ever two-time Heisman Trophy winner in 2013.

     

    Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

    In the final minutes of the 2013 Outback Bowl with South Carolina trailing Michigan 22-21, the Wolverines tried a fairly standard inside zone run play to the side of the field not occupied by Jadeveon Clowney. With Michigan’s All-American junior left tackle, Taylor Lewan, leaving Clowney for his zone assignment, Vincent Smith received the handoff from Devin Gardner.

    That was the last thing I saw because Clowney hit Smith so hard that it broke my television.

    Clowney’s stats from a year ago are not as flashy as the last two defensive players to be invited to the Heisman ceremony. While the 6’6” 274-pound junior from Rock Hill, South Carolina recorded a solid 54 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2012, these numbers are not as imposing as Ndamukong Suh’s 85 tackles and 12 sacks in 2009 or Manti Te’o’s 110 tackles and seven interceptions last season.

    What Clowney brings to the table for the Gamecocks is the constant threat of offensive disruption that needs to be dealt with on each and every play which makes South Carolina’s other defensive players exponentially better.

    Aaron Murray had a quarterback rating of 92.6 in 2012, and his rating against South Carolina was 27.7.

    Tahj Boyd’s drop off in quarterback rating when Clemson and South Carolina faced off wasn’t as pronounced as Murray’s, but a rating of 63.6 from player whose average is 80.3 is far from negligible.

    Clowney is as fundamentally sound as he is athletic, and is as good a two-dimensional defensive lineman as there is in college football. A fierce pass rusher, Clowney diagnoses run plays as well as anyone and is the centerpiece of what should be one of the best defenses in the country this season.

    There have been two exclusively defensive players invited to New York in the last four years and Clowney might have more big-play potential than either of them.

    His Heisman campaign, like all the other players on this list, will rest not only on his individual performance this season but also on the number of wins his team is able to come away with.

    If South Carolina proves to be a legitimate national title contender, we might see the first ever one-way defensive player take home the Heisman Trophy.

8)Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina

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    In the final minutes of the 2013 Outback Bowl with South Carolina trailing Michigan 22-21, the Wolverines tried a fairly standard inside zone run play to the side of the field not occupied by Jadeveon Clowney. With Michigan’s All-American junior left tackle, Taylor Lewan, leaving Clowney for his zone assignment, Vincent Smith received the handoff from Devin Gardner.

    That was the last thing I saw because Clowney hit Smith so hard that it broke my television.

    Clowney’s stats from a year ago are not as flashy as the last two defensive players to be invited to the Heisman ceremony. While the 6’6” 274-pound junior from Rock Hill, South Carolina recorded a solid 54 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2012, these numbers are not as imposing as Ndamukong Suh’s 85 tackles and 12 sacks in 2009 or Manti Te’o’s 110 tackles and seven interceptions last season.

    What Clowney brings to the table for the Gamecocks is the constant threat of offensive disruption that needs to be dealt with on each and every play which makes South Carolina’s other defensive players exponentially better.

    Aaron Murray had a quarterback rating of 92.6 in 2012, and his rating against South Carolina was 27.7.

    Tahj Boyd’s drop off in quarterback rating when Clemson and South Carolina faced off wasn’t as pronounced as Murray’s, but a rating of 63.6 from player whose average is 80.3 is far from negligible.

    Clowney is as fundamentally sound as he is athletic, and is as good a two-dimensional defensive lineman as there is in college football. A fierce pass rusher, Clowney diagnoses run plays as well as anyone and is the centerpiece of what should be one of the best defenses in the country this season.

    There have been two exclusively defensive players invited to New York in the last four years and Clowney might have more big-play potential than either of them.

    His Heisman campaign, like all the other players on this list, will rest not only on his individual performance this season but also on the number of wins his team is able to come away with.

    If South Carolina proves to be a legitimate national title contender, we might see the first ever one-way defensive player take home the Heisman Trophy.