SEC Football: 5 Best Candidates to Win 2014 Heisman Trophy

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2014

SEC Football: 5 Best Candidates to Win 2014 Heisman Trophy

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    The SEC lost so many stars, it's going to be difficult to replace them all—much less conjure up candidates for the Heisman Trophy.

    Johnny Manziel. Aaron Murray. Tre Mason. A.J. McCarron. Jadeveon Clowney. Mike Evans. Odell Beckham Jr. Michael Sam. Jordan Matthews. Connor Shaw. Jarvis Landry. Dorial Green-Beckham. Jeremy Hill. Donte Moncrief.

    All gone.

    Those guys aren't just one-year wonders, either. Many had record-setting careers that kept the spotlight on the conference as it churned out national champions.

    But this is the SEC, where teams reload with top talent. While there will be a youth movement in 2014, the league is still top-heavy with worthy candidates for college football's top honor.

    The award normally goes to a quarterback or running back, so this top five is heavy on those. But even beyond this list, the SEC has several prime possibilities with the talent to get to New York.

    Let's take a look at the five most likely candidates to ultimately hoist the hardware.

5. Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State

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    Mississippi State redshirt junior quarterback Dak Prescott is a sleeper pick, and it may surprise some that he could emerge as a Heisman candidate.

    But if he stays healthy, the 6'2", 235-pound dual-threat signal-caller could put up some hefty numbers with Tyler Russell out of the picture in Starkville.

    After all, Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen does have a history of success with run-pass quarterbacks. (See Tebow, Tim). Mullen even mentioned Tebow when discussing Prescott with B/R's Barrett Sallee.

    I had a guy who won the Heisman in his first year as a starter when Tim Tebow won it at Florida. … The biggest thing with [Prescott] is work ethic. He's always trying to get himself better, whether it be how fast he's making his reads and his decision-making when things break down. It's easy to make the right reads, but how good are you when things get a little funky? He's good at those things.

    Prescott accounted for five touchdowns in a 44-7 rout of Rice in last year's Liberty Bowl. While the Owls are far from SEC-caliber competition, the game proved what he can be at his best.

    The Haughton, Louisiana, product finished 10th in adjusted quarterback rating nationally, according to ESPN, among such stars as Johnny Football, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater.

    That phenomenal finish is earning Prescott some national notoriety.

    ESPN's Travis Haney (subscription required) had him at the top of his list of post-spring breakout players to watch.

    When you factor in a favorable schedule, Prescott should put up some big numbers. Can he pass well enough to emerge as a Heisman candidate? That's the biggest question mark.

4. Amari Cooper, WR Alabama

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    USA TODAY Sports

    While Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake take carries (and Heisman votes) away from one another in a crowded Alabama backfield, junior receiver Amari Cooper will be high-stepping to NYC.

    There's no denying the dynamic talent of the 6'1", 202-pound receiver from Miami. He burst onto the college football scene as a freshman for the national champions two years ago with 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.

    Even while he battled injuries as a sophomore, Cooper still finished 2013 with 736 yards on 45 catches. He reminded everybody what kind of dominant player he is when healthy during the final two games. After breaking out for 178 yards on six catches against Auburn, Cooper had 121 more yards on nine catches in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

    With Kevin Norwood gone, Cooper will lead a talented group of Bama receivers that should make it easier for transfer Jacob Coker to fill the shoes of A.J. McCarron.

    Coker's efficiency will determine just how far Cooper can go in his quest for a Heisman Trophy. Though the award rarely goes to wideouts, there is normally a token target on the list.

    Cooper is the SEC's best.

3. Mike Davis, RB South Carolina

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    In a league chock-full of elite running backs, South Carolina's Mike Davis doesn't get the publicity he deserves.

    He'll run his way into the limelight in 2014.

    With Connor Shaw gone and the Gamecocks needing a workhorse around which to build their offense, the 5'9", 216-pound wrecking ball from Atlanta will get the call.

    Davis has to prove he has the durability to excel through the entire season. A nagging ankle injury caused his numbers to drop off significantly the final three games of 2013 after he ran for more than 100 in seven of the team's first nine, according to ESPN.

    If there's one intangible Davis possesses over other backs, it's his elite field vision. While he isn't the fastest runner, Davis is a bruiser who carries defenders for extra yardage. He also shifts so well between the tackles that he always seems to select the best running lanes.

    Davis is a bigger Tre Mason, and Steve Spurrier should ride him the way Auburn did Mason last season. And where was Mason on Heisman presentation night?

    Another factor working in Davis' favor is Dylan Thompson is more of a downfield passer who can open up the running game the way Shaw sometimes couldn't.

    All signs point toward a huge season for Davis in a weak SEC East.

2. Nick Marshall, QB Auburn

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    If Nick Marshall really has polished his passing, it's difficult not to envision him being a Heisman favorite all the way to the end.

    There's no doubting Marshall's dual-threat ability as he led Auburn to the BCS title game with 1,976 passing yards, 1,068 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns (per ESPN) during a junior season a couple years removed from playing defensive back at Georgia.

    Gus Malzahn's offense thrives when it has an elite athlete under center, and Marshall fits the bill.

    Sammie Coates returns on the outside for the Tigers, who also brought in the 247Sports Composite's top-ranked junior-college wide receiver D'haquille Williams. So Marshall has an able stable of weapons around which to distribute the football.

    After throwing for 236 yards in a rousing spring game performance, Marshall confidently told Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com: "We're going to be a scary sight this year."

    Malzahn didn't mince words, either, when discussing Marshall's maturation as a quarterback with AL.com's Joel A. Erickson.

    "Nick feels a lot more comfortable," Malzahn said. "Even in the spring game, the casual eye could see, he's a lot more relaxed, he's throwing on the bounce, his eyes are in the right place with his progression."

    As Marshall goes, so will Auburn. There isn't a more dynamic athlete at the position in all of college football, and if his passing continues to improve, he'll be right in the mix to take home college football's second-biggest prize.

    His team could hoist the biggest.

1. Todd Gurley, RB Georgia

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    There is a certain level that most college football running backs reach when they're at their best.

    And then there's Gurley Gear.

    When Georgia star running back Todd Gurley is healthy, nobody hits the hole at the line of scrimmage, gets to the perimeter and turns it up another level in the open field like he does.

    It's that otherworldly gear that has the junior surging up awards lists everywhere. If he can avoid the injury bug that cost him basically the entire month of October in 2013, Gurley may not just be the league's best hope for the Heisman.

    He may be the national favorite.

    As a freshman two seasons ago, Gurley finished with 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Last season, despite the injury, he still managed 989 yards and 10 scores. His career yards-per-carry average is an eye-popping 6.1, according to Sports Reference.

    As ESPN's Alex Scarborough pointed out, Gurley's most impressive number last season may have been his touchdown-to-rush ration, which was at 6.1 percent.

    Sure, Gurley shares an impressive backfield with Keith Marshall, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel—all talented runners—much the same way Alabama's backs do.

    But Mark Richt has proven he will ride Gurley while Nick Saban more evenly distributes carries.

    Besides, Gurley is the most talented runner in all of college football. With Georgia wanting to take pressure off Hutson Mason's shoulders, Gurley will run roughshod over porous SEC East defenses all the way to New York.

    He may just run back to Athens with the hardware.

     

    Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: 

    @Brad_Shepard