Big Ten Football's Best Candidates to Win 2014 Heisman Trophy

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

Big Ten Football's Best Candidates to Win 2014 Heisman Trophy

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Big Ten hasn't had a Heisman Trophy winner since Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith in 2006. Before that, you would have to stretch back to the end of the last millennium to find another player from the conference—Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne—who claimed the award.

    No other "power" conference has had less than two Heisman winners since 2000, but being an underdog is part of the Big Ten's newfound charm. No longer a powerhouse, the conference has taken on the role of the plucky underdog and, in certain spots, played it quite well. 

    But even if the league, as a whole, is considered a bit of an underdog, that doesn't mean the players and teams at the top are incapable of national recognition. Ohio State and Michigan State are expected to be Top 10 teams at the start of next season, and even beyond those two stalwarts, there are glimmers of hope throughout the Midwest.

    Based on the body of work they have already put forth and the situations they find themselves in next season, at least four Big Ten players stand a realistic shot of contending for the Heisman Trophy.

    Behind them, a deep class of dark horses could emerge. Johnny Manziel, after all, was not considered a "realistic" Heisman candidate when he took the reigns at Texas A&M two seasons ago.

    Who says the next Johnny Football can't play in the B1G?

Honorable Mentions

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    10. RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana

    Tevin Coleman was one of the best running backs in the country for three-fourths of last season but missed the final three games with an ankle injury. Even without Seth Littrell around to run the offense, he is a unique blend of power and big-play ability. The Hoosiers should once again be one of the best (and most overlooked) offenses in America, and Coleman will be leading the charge.

    9. WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland

    A leg injury derailed what was shaping up to be an All-ACC season for Stefon Diggs, who did not play after the Wake Forest game in October. A former top-10 overall recruit on the 247Sports Composite, he can truly score from any spot on the field. Maryland is sure to have to throw a lot this season, and Diggs has a good quarterback in senior C.J. Brown who could help him post huge numbers.

    8. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

    Venric Mark was one of the best running backs in the country in 2012 but missed almost all of last season with injuries. The result was the granting of a medical redshirt and a sixth year of eligibility in 2014. With nothing to lose and Kain Colter not around to vulture carries, Northwestern will get Mark the ball as often as possible next season.

    7. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State

    A 5-star recruit and the No. 2 quarterback on the 247Sports Composite, Christian Hackenberg did not disappoint in his true freshman season at Penn State. Especially in the season-ending upset win at Wisconsin, he looked like a future Heisman contender and first-round NFL draft pick. He has a huge arm and can make all the throws, but with some uncertainty along the offensive line and at wide receiver, it feels like 2015 might be the year he makes his run.

    6. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State

    Jeremy Langford put up eye-popping stats in the mid- to late part of last season. He made a habit of icing games with late first downs and touchdowns, finishing ninth in the country and third among returning players with 384 fourth-quarter rushing yards. Michigan State's offensive line has some question marks in 2014, and the combination of an improved passing game and a deteriorated defense might lead to less statistical production. But Langford should still be just fine.

5. QB Devin Gardner, Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    For everything he did wrong in 2013, Devin Gardner reminded us with his sublime performance in the near-upset of Ohio State that he has all the tools one could ask for to succeed at the quarterback position.

    Last year's problem, one could argue, was not as much Gardner himself as the offensive line he was playing behind. Even though that line remains a (giant) question heading into 2014, the addition of former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should help plug some of those holes. He knows what he is doing at that spot.

    Nussmeier also knows a thing or two about getting the most from his quarterback. AJ McCarron finished second in the Heisman voting last season, and at the risk of devaluing McCarron's own considerable talent, Gardner is no doubt the superior physical specimen of the two.

    If Gardner can get over last year's "yips" and play more like the guy we saw at the end of 2012, he (and Michigan) could surprise in 2014.

    This one is all about the upside.

4. RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    Ameer Abdullah is the leading returning rusher in college football, which should automatically put him on the Heisman radar.

    But Abdullah would have been on that radar regardless. He has been that good for that long. And in 2014, even though Tommy Armstrong and Kenny Bell are capable of leading a good-to-very-good passing attack, he will be the undisputed focal point of the offense.

    So, what's keeping Abdullah from ranking even higher?

    Mostly a couple of precedents.

    Quarterbacks have won seven of the last nine Heisman trophies and 12 of the last 13 that haven't been vacated by the NCAA (thanks a lot, Reggie Bush!). Nebraska has also lost four games in each of Bo Pelini's six seasons, and, fair or not, players on four-loss teams do not get serious consideration for this award. How else can you explain AJ McCarron finishing ahead of Johnny Manziel in last year's voting?

    Abdullah feels more like a Heisman finalist than a Heisman winner. It's not his fault, of course, but that is the sobering reality.

3. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State

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    Al Goldis/Associated Press

    Connor Cook played his two best games of last season in Michigan State's two biggest games of last season, leading the Spartans to wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game—Urban Meyer's first loss in Columbus—and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

    But don't think he didn't stay hungry.

    Instead of resting on his laurels and enjoying the fruits of being a Rose Bowl-winning quarterback, Cook spent his spring break in San Diego working out with QB guru George Whitfield.

    "I wanted to go out there and brush up on some skills, fine-tune some things, so I could come into spring ball and pick up where we left off in Pasadena," Cook told Chris Solari of the Detroit Free-Press in March.

    If the spring game was any indication, it worked.

    Cook looked good working with tight end Josiah Price in the Green-White Game, and he also has a deep and experienced—albeit inconsistent—group of wide receivers in Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Keith Mumphrey, Aaron Burbridge and DeAnthony Arnett.

    Sparty's defense is expected to take a small step back from last year, which should make MSU good enough to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff but not so good that Cook doesn't get a chance to throw the ball and rack up Heisman-y numbers.

2. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Melvin Gordon doesn't have to be here right now.

    According to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-SentinelNFL scouts said he would have been the No. 1 running back drafted if he had made himself eligible after a remarkable junior season in 2013.

    But Gordon came back, ostensibly because he had some unfinished business at the collegiate level. He has never been the true lead back of an offense, splitting time (and ending up on the wrong end of the split) with Montee Ball and James White these past two seasons, even though he often looked like the best pure runner on the field.

    Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin called Gordon the most important player on the team for next season, writing the following:

    Gordon—a preseason first-team All-America pick—has a chance to be one of the best tailbacks to come through Wisconsin in the last two decades with a great year, and that's saying something considering all the talent to come through Madison. It's pretty astounding to consider that Gordon is averaging 8.1 yards per carry during his college career. The guy is as explosive as any tailback in years, and he showed he could handle a significant workload last season. In 2013, he carried 206 times for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns. Now that James White is with the New England Patriots, Gordon will be the No. 1 option, sharing carries with No. 2 tailback Corey Clement.

    Let's assume Gordon sees 250-275 carries next season—a heavy but not unreasonable workload for someone so talented.

    If he keeps up his pace from 2013, that would give Gordon something in the realm of 1,950-2,150 rushing yards and 14-16 touchdowns.

    Think that would be enough to win the Heisman?

1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Braxton Miller is the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, but he has curiously never been a Heisman finalist.

    Well, perhaps that isn't quite as curious as it sounds.

    In 2012, Miller led Ohio State to an undefeated regular season but put up semi-modest numbers for a team without bowl eligibility. In 2013, he missed a good portion of the nonconference schedule—better known as "stat-padding season"—and the success of Kenny Guiton made it look, to cynical minds, like he might have been a fungible cog in the offense instead of the engine that made it go.

    Of course, rational minds know better than to think that. Miller is a dynamic athlete who can beat you with his arm just as easily as his legs. And "beat you" he has the past couple of seasons: Miller led OSU to 24 consecutive victories before last year's loss to Michigan State.

    According to a recent survey of all FBS sports information directors, Miller's six game-winning scoring drives (three of which came last year) are the most by any active QB in college football.

    As a dual-threat quarterback who puts up big numbers, records highlight plays and knows how to win football games, he checks off seemingly every requisite of a Heisman winner over the past decade.

    Miller has as good a shot of winning this as anyone.