Marcus Mariota was among the nation's most prolific quarterbacks each of the last two seasons, leading Oregon to a combined 23-3 record. Yet, consideration for the Heisman Trophy eluded the Ducks playmaker.
Mariota enters 2014 as a preseason favorite for college football's most prestigious individual honor, but the last two years have resoundingly proven that his performance must be sterling over the course of the entire season for him to contend for the Heisman.
His road to New York and the award's 2014 presentation faces a few noteworthy stops along the way that could turn into Heisman detours.
Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State
Mariota's Heisman road faces an early roadblock against one of college football's most elite defenses. Though the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion Spartans lose Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and Denicos Allen from last season's No. 3 scoring defense, they simply reload with notable returners Kurtis Drummond, Taiwan Jones and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Shilique Calhoun.
Michigan State's stout defense is reminiscent of the Stanford units that gave Oregon—and Mariota—headaches the last two seasons. Thus, the Spartans are an early, yet very real, test of the Ducks' championship chops.
Mariota could attack the Spartans on the ground as fellow 2014 Heisman hopeful and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller did in the Big Ten Championship Game. Miller gained 142 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns.
However, Mariota cannot be rendered one-dimensional. A combination of Michigan State's "No-Fly Zone" secondary and its tenacious pass rush held Miller to 8-of-21 passing for just 101 yards.
Both Oregon's College Football Playoff resume and Mariota's Heisman portfolio rely on the quarterback being at his dual-threat best in Week 2.
Oct. 2 vs. Arizona
Not that Oregon needs any reminder, but its bid for the Pac-12 championship was snuffed out on Nov. 23 when upstart Arizona ambushed the Ducks, 42-16. The shocking rout started with Mariota's first interception of the season on a tip by cornerback Shaquille Richardson that was as improbable as the Wildcats' victory.
Autzen Stadium has been a house of horrors for Arizona, which surrendered an average of 50.7 points in its previous three visits, including a 49-0 blowout in Mariota's freshman year.
Oct. 11 at UCLA
UCLA's defense caused the Ducks problems early in their meeting last October, forcing a turnover-on-downs inside the red zone and stripping Mariota for a fumble.
Oregon regrouped in the second half behind Mariota's leadership, as running back Byron Marshall explained to GoDucks.com after the 42-14 win:
He’s such a great guy. [He] didn’t let it bother him. He missed a couple times in the first half, but in the locker room after the first half, he talked to everybody. He said he was going to pick it up and we needed to pick it up as well. After halftime, his intensity really woke us up, so in the second half we played a lot better.
UCLA ended 2013 with positive momentum that has some in Westwood, Calif., thinking Pac-12 title. The Bruins also have their own Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley.
Though the two obviously will not square off head-to-head, the Heisman storyline will be prominently featured in the build-up, should both teams enter the Rose Bowl undefeated.
Nov. 1 vs. Stanford
Those looking to pin blame on Mariota's previous Heisman snubs somewhere can do so firmly on Stanford. The Cardinal limited a freshman Mariota down in 2012, then took advantage of his knee injury in last season's encounter to frustrate him in the game's early going.
Despite a raucous fourth-quarterback comeback effort, Mariota's Heisman resume took a seemingly irreversible hit in last season's 26-20 loss.
Late-season performance carries cachet: Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel catapulted to the podium with high-profile November efforts in 2011 and 2012. Conversely, Mariota was slighted for his November losses to the Cardinal.
Stanford faces considerable turnover this offseason, particularly on the defensive end. But head coach David Shaw and his staff should have the Cardinal playing like title contenders by this point in the season, making this year's installment of an increasingly heated rivalry one worthy of national attention, including Heisman voters.
Nov. 29 at Oregon State
The strong finish necessary to a successful Heisman run culminates for Mariota at rival Oregon State. The Beavers nearly plucked the Ducks in last November's meeting at Autzen Stadium, but Mariota led a 83-yard, 1:09 drive in the fourth quarter to preserve Oregon's sixth straight win in the Civil War.
A seventh straight victory over the Beavers and a solid individual performance from Mariota should be enough to finally put him ahead in the Heisman Trophy race—so long as he avoids the other potential potholes along the road to New York.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
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