Uncertainty in the Heisman Trophy Race Is Making Room for Unlikely Candidates

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Uncertainty in the Heisman Trophy Race Is Making Room for Unlikely Candidates
USA Today

This year’s Heisman Trophy race is complicated. That’s about the only thing we know at the moment.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston's legal situation has created a temporary opening for the award, while losses from quarterbacks Johnny Manziel and Bryce Petty this past Saturday have paved the way for further ambiguity.

Winston, of course, could still win in a runaway. As the possibility of charges stemming from sexual assault allegations still loom, however, his candidacy is at a standstill. The bronze statue is far down the list of concerns when it comes to this situation—something that can’t be stressed enough—but voting for the award is now open. The football impact, while secondary, is real.

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron—fresh off his Sports Illustrated cover appearance—could make a case for the award with a solid performance (and win) against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

A sprinkle of lifetime achievement, a dash of “oh, that guy plays quarterback for the No. 1 team in the nation,” and a solid serving of late, spotlight-consuming games could propel him to victory. The numbers (190-of-277, 2,399 YDS, 23 TD, 5 INT) aren’t jaw-dropping, but they are good enough to steal votes given the uncertainty.

For a moment, however, let’s look beyond the typical Heisman walls. Let’s break away from the now regular requirements that the winner must A) play quarterback, B) play quarterback for a powerful football brand, and C) play quarterback for a powerful football brand and win almost every game.

If the Heisman is going to get weird this season—and it certainly could—there are plenty of names and seasons that warrant consideration.

 

The Freak Stat Machine: Andre Williams (RB, Boston College)

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Playing in an offense that struggles to move the ball through the air—and against defenses that know he’s getting the ball as much as possible—Andre Williams has rushed for 2,073 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

He is just the 16th player to ever eclipse the 2,000-yard mark, and Syracuse is on deck. This is unfortunate news for Syracuse.

The last three games for Williams look like a science experiment of sorts. He has totaled—and this is not a typo—897 yards and six touchdowns. He also gave us this earlier in the year, which could serve as a “Heisman moment” if you’re into that sort of thing.

This is what happens when 230 pounds gets moving:

The problem for Williams—beyond playing on a four-loss team—is that his two games against USC and Clemson could hurt him. He ran for a combined 108 yards in those games, which will serve as a roadblock for some voters.

Still, there's history at work here, and we're witnessing one of the best seasons a running back has had in some time. It's hard to deny this sort of dominance, regardless of the team record.

 

The MVP: Jordan Lynch (QB, Northern Illinois)

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

The numbers for the Huskies bulldozer who can also throw—something he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for—are dazzling: 2,418 passing yards, 1434 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns.

Yes, he even has a receiving touchdown, so feel free to update your Heisman bingo card accordingly.

En route to an undefeated season and a potential BCS bowl bid for No. 14 NIU, Lynch has excelled in his team’s biggest games. Against Iowa, Ball State and Toledo, Lynch totaled 10 touchdowns and zero turnovers. Against Toledo, he was able to produce (and win) without his top two wide receivers.

His numbers will likely fall short of his production of a season ago, although his influence on the team is perhaps greater than any other individual player in the country.

It’s easy to knock the lack of quality opponents on the schedule—and it’s impossible to ignore—but watching Lynch gives a much better idea of how special he is. He will likely garner serious consideration from some voters, and I can't blame them one bit for it.

 

The Quiet Killer: Derek Carr (QB, Fresno State)

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With two more games on the docket and a potential BCS bowl in No. 16 Fresno State's sights, Derek Carr is lining up for an enormous finish. Like Lynch, Carr has yet to lose a game. And although their styles are vastly different, the numbers are equally gaudy.

Carr has accounted for 41 touchdowns this season (39 passing, two rushing) and has thrown only four interceptions. His latest performance against New Mexico was video game-esque, accounting for 527 passing yards and a school-best seven touchdowns.

The highlights from this game include one of the prettiest deep balls you will see all year, which likely opened the eyes of many NFL scouts.

If Carr is to win out—beating San Jose State on the road and winning the Mountain West Conference championship—he will likely finish the season with better passing numbers than any quarterback in the country.

Like Lynch, however, the knock on Carr will be competition. The quarterback to bust the BCS will likely have the slight Heisman edge, and there is still ample time to make a statement.

 

The Defender: C.J. Mosley (LB, Alabama)

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Let’s break away from offense altogether and throw a defensive player into the mix. While many will argue that AJ McCarron is Alabama’s most important player, there’s a case to be made for linebacker C.J. Mosley. A very good case, at that.

He’s what makes one of the nation’s most dominant defenses function. He has also has received the utmost praise from head coach Nick Saban, a man who doesn’t toss around this kind of sound bite often: 

Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples made the case for Mosley following the team’s win over LSU, and his influence on the nation's No. 1 team is undeniable. The numbers aren’t jaw-dropping (88 tackles, nine tackles for loss, five pass breakups and a forced fumble), but his influence goes well beyond the stat sheet.

For those who are curious, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o posted only 5.5 tackles for loss—and likely similar tackle figures, when it’s all said and done—in his Heisman runner-up season a year ago.

The appreciation for Mosley, however, comes watching games. He provides a combination of grace, speed and brute force that is not seen often. A key play in the Iron Bowl or SEC Championship could put Mosley in the discussion he already warrants a place in.

 

The "Suh" Factor: Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh)

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How many Pittsburgh games have you watched this season? Be honest.

That is what’s standing between defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the giant hunk of bronze that would look small in the enormous paws he calls hands. The 6-5 record certainly doesn’t help matters either, but Donald is putting together one of the best seasons for a defensive lineman in quite a while.

For the year, Donald has racked up 51 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, four forced fumbles and 16 quarterback hurries. The production is so great, the numbers so staggering, that his 2013 campaign compares favorably to Ndamukong Suh’s 2009 season:

The Nebraska defensive tackle took fourth in the Heisman voting that year following his incredible performance against Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game. The problem for Donald—even with the Suh-like production—is that he really doesn’t have a “Heisman moment” to speak of.

Just consistent dominance, which has to be worth something.

His campaign is much different than that of Mosley’s—one that is built on quantifiable production—but that doesn’t make either any less deserving.

 

Appreciate the Seasons…and Wait

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

How likely is it that the 2013 Heisman winner is highlighted above? Not likely, but none should be considered an impossibility with so much uncertainty looming.

Each player’s tremendous season has holes by the current Heisman evaluation checklist. This checklist certainly varies by interpreter, although it’s quite clear what many voters value most. Again, if you’re not a quarterback at a power program, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage.

With that being said, it’s rare that so many intriguing names are still up for consideration this late in the process. There is still plenty of football to be played, of course, and Jameis Winston’s situation will shape the way the award is evaluated in the coming weeks.

Take note of what AJ McCarron does against Auburn, focus on how Bryce Petty bounces back after his first loss, and keep an eye on Johnny Manziel in what will likely be his final regular-season game. But don’t lose sight of the other players who have played their way into the conversation.

At the very least, perhaps they’ll finally get the attention they deserve.

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