Now Is the Time for Marcus Mariota to Separate Himself in the Heisman Race

Brandon OliverContributor IOctober 11, 2013

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota can make a huge statement and creat some separation in the race for the Heisman on Saturday.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota can make a huge statement and creat some separation in the race for the Heisman on Saturday.Steve Dykes/Getty Images

There is a familiar group of names on nearly any list of 2013 Heisman Trophy candidates. Quarterbacks have dominated college football's most prestigious award in recent years, and it appears to be more of the same this year, with a bumper crop of quarterbacks leading the way.

Despite a 17-1 record as the Ducks' starter, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota might be the Heisman candidate with the most to prove. The 6'4" sophomore is among the leaders of many Heisman polls, but the other top quarterback candidates all have something to hang their hats on early in the season.

Despite being on the field for just 13 second-half drives this season, Mariota's numbers are comparable to the other leading Heisman candidates. He needs to improve his completion percentage, but his rushing statistics and lack of interceptions give him an advantage over the other candidates.

It is likely that Mariota will have three games versus ranked teams on the schedule: Washington on Saturday, UCLA on Oct. 26 and Stanford on Nov. 7. That will give Mariota an opportunity to blow the Heisman race open by the time votes are submitted. With teammate De'Anthony Thomas hobbled by an ankle injury, Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley are the West's top two candidates. 

The head-to-head matchup between the Ducks and Bruins in Eugene will set the stage for one of the sophomore quarterbacks to carry the Pac-12 torch to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

No Pac-12 player has won the award since USC's Reggie Bush did it in 2005. Mariota has the numbers and the cache to put the Oregon program and the Pac-12 at the top of the college football world.

Winning the Heisman Trophy wouldn't be a stretch for Mariota.
Winning the Heisman Trophy wouldn't be a stretch for Mariota.Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Mariota has thrown for 1,358 yards and 14 touchdowns and run for 338 yards and seven TDs. He has contributed a passing and rushing touchdown in each of Oregon's first five games. 

While he is one of the leaders in the Heisman race, Mariota has yet to have that "Heisman moment" that nearly all of the past winners have had. Oregon's schedule is tough the rest of the way, and Mariota will need to make his mark on the biggest of stages.

Despite coming out on the losing end in September's game, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel  put on a show in the epic rematch with Alabama. If he continues his torrid pace and guides the Aggies to victories through the rest of the SEC schedule, he'll likely be headed back to New York in December.

Manziel won the Heisman Trophy last year by riding a wave of momentum after he led Texas A&M to a monumental upset over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Teddy Bridgewater is living off the momentum he built by leading Louisville to a huge upset over Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Safety Shaq Thompson leads an improved Husky defense.
Safety Shaq Thompson leads an improved Husky defense.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Tajh Boyd beat Aaron Murray and Georgia. Jameis Winston has been great and has more opportunities to stake his claim to the trophy, with games against Clemson, Miami and Florida remaining on the schedule.

Mariota and the Ducks will have plenty of chances to impress the voters later this season. Their first opportunity comes this weekend against an angry Washington team that is coming off a tough 31-28 loss to Stanford.

For the Huskies to maintain a realistic shot in the Pac-12 North race, they need to beat the Ducks this weekend. With their backs against the wall and the raucous Husky Stadium crowd behind them, the Huskies will pull out all the stops to slow down Mariota and the second-ranked Ducks.

Stanford grounded Mariota and the Ducks in 2012.
Stanford grounded Mariota and the Ducks in 2012.Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Playing on the road against a ranked opponent and doing so in front of a national television audience will provide Mariota his first true test of the season. The Huskies defense is much improved and should be able to keep the Ducks from matching their video-game numbers from the first five games of the season.

If Mariota produces numbers Saturday similar to what he has posted against the easy part of the Oregon schedule, he will likely become the favorite in the race. It is a long season, but leading the Ducks to a 10th consecutive win over their rivals to the North would give him a leg up on the rest of the pack.

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is behind the proverbial eight-ball as the Cardinals' lackluster schedule doesn't provide any marquee games for him to make a statement. He has the name recognition and is the unquestioned leader of a Cardinals team that should wind up undefeated.

Clemson QB Tajh Boyd has been in the race before, but now he has an early-season win over Georgia to boost his stock. He'll have another opportunity to cement his spot in the race when the Tigers host Florida State next weekend.

Speaking of the Seminoles, Florida State QB Jameis Winston is making a push to become the second straight freshman to win the award. He has been nothing short of spectacular in his first season as a starter. A great performance that leads to a Florida State road win over Boyd and the Tigers could instantly vault Winston to the head of the pack. 

Boyd has been good, but he'll need to be great down the stretch, beginning with the Florida State game and ending with a big win over South Carolina to end the regular season.

What Mariota has going for him is that he leads the No. 2 team in the nation to record-breaking numbers in limited playing time. The Ducks have clobbered their first five opponents by an average score of 59-11, leaving little chance outside of statistics for Mariota to stand out in important situations.

Games against 16th-ranked Washington, fifth-ranked Stanford and 11th-ranked UCLA remain. The Stanford game will be nationally televised on a Thursday night in early November, giving Mariota a stage all his own to give the Ducks the season's most impressive win. 

If he performs well at Washington and outduels UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley at Autzen Stadium, Mariota will be tough to beat come December. If he takes it one step further and shines in front of a national audience against Stanford, he will be likely be the odds-on favorite to take home the hardware.

UCLA's Brett Hundley is the other top Heisman candidate at quarterback in the West.
UCLA's Brett Hundley is the other top Heisman candidate at quarterback in the West.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

With seven games remaining on the schedule, Mariota has the opportunity to put a unique stamp on the Oregon football program.

Ducks Joey Harrington, Dennis Dixon and LaMichael James were all legitimate Heisman candidates, but none of them won the trophy. If Mariota continues to impress every week against the heart of the Pac-12 schedule, the Heisman Trophy might be headed to Eugene for the first time in history.