Marcus Mariota Can Extend Lead in Heisman Race with Statement Win over Stanford

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVNovember 7, 2013

EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 19: Quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks wears a pink helmet as he warms up before the game against the Washington State Cougars at Autzen Stadium on October 19, 2013 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It's hard to argue against the notion that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota currently sits atop the Heisman Trophy rankings thus far in the season.

That will become an understood fact if his third-ranked Ducks orchestrate a statement victory over No. 5 Stanford on the road in a thrilling Thursday night showdown. 

Mariota has led Oregon to yet another incredible season, sitting at 8-0 and sporting two wins over Top 25 opponents—then-No. 16 Washington and then-No. 12 UCLA. But his biggest challenge still lies ahead.

Entering the season, national college football talking heads circled the Stanford game as the tell-all indication of Mariota's Heisman chances, and that's still the case on the day of the showdown. 

Mariota has played well against Oregon's best opponents this season. But there's a striking difference between toppling a pesky Washington team on the road, and beating Stanford on the road.

EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 26:  Quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks runs against the UCLA Bruins  on October 26, 2013 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Despite those two wins over ranked opponents, Mariota has yet to notch that "signature win" that nearly every Heisman voter searches for.

TALLAHASSEE, FL - NOVEMBER 02:  Jameis Winston #5 of the Florida State Seminoles looks on during a game against the Miami Hurricanes at Doak Campbell Stadium on November 2, 2013 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Florida State redshirt freshman Jameis Winston—undoubtedly the Oregon star's biggest nemesis in the Heisman race—has secured two of those signature performances. 

Winston beat the odds and went into Clemson—a third-ranked foe at the time—in one of college football's biggest games of the season. He didn't just win—he throttled the Tigers in a 51-14 drubbing, throwing for 444 yards and three scores. 

Every contender with a real chance of winning the Heisman possesses those one or two performances that you look to.

While the overall body of work is undoubtedly more important than a few streaky games—Mariota's zero interceptions to Winston's six stand out—players often need those signature wins in order to put enough stock behind their names.

EUGENE, OR. - SEPTEMBER 28: Quarterback Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks passes the ball during the second quarter of the game against the California Golden Bears at Autzen Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Just as well, surging Heisman hopefuls Bryce Petty and Lache Seastrunk enjoy their own chances at notching a statement win in a showdown against No. 10 Oklahoma on Thursday night. If Mariota isn't careful, a night that is destined to be his could be overshadowed. 

As if all of his competition in the Heisman race isn't enough, Mariota should be motivated by the prospect of making up for last year. Of course, in 2012 his Ducks saw their national title hopes vanish late in the season when Stanford upset them in Oregon. 

Should Oregon beat Stanford, Mariota likely won't get another chance to beat a Top 10 team like Winston did. Thursday is his only chance to stake his claim by beating an obviously elite football team.

If he does his usual damage against the likes of Stanford, it's safe to say that Mariota will stay atop the Heisman rankings.