Heading into the NCAA preseason, and with media days behind us, there are a few players who stand out as compelling prospects to watch for the 2014 Heisman Trophy award.
To make matters more interesting, the two previous winners have been redshirt freshmen, and the trophy has been awarded to underclassmen more frequently since the early 2000s. That means the field of inclusion for the award is wider than ever—as long as you're a quarterback or running back.
The following players' seasons will play an important role in the competition as they attempt to win their first—or perhaps second—Heisman.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
When head coach Chip Kelly departed Oregon prior to the 2013 season to coach the Philadelphia Eagles, many thought it would result in a hit to Mariota's stats and a less productive offense across the board for the Ducks. But new coach Mark Helfrich led the team to an 11-2 finish and emphasized the passing game. Mariota had 3,665 passing yards compared to 2,677 in 2012 under Kelly.
Mariota's accuracy decreased in 2013 from a 68.5 completion percentage in 2012 to 63.5 percent, but that's not unusual with 50 more attempts (h/t Sports-Reference.com). In 2014 he'll continue to benefit from the Ducks' high-octane spread offense, which should allow him plenty of opportunities to pad his stat sheet.
In 2013, Mariota demonstrated a keen ability to progress quickly through his reads. He lost two top targets from last season (Josh Huff to the NFL and Bralon Addison to a torn ACL in spring practice), but he has a corps of young talent in Chance Allen, B.J. Kelley and Dwayne Stanford.
The stats also suggest that Mariota's knee injury in Stanford game affected the rest of his season considerably. Though he hadn't thrown an interception to that point, he threw four over a two-game stretch against Arizona State and Oregon State, and he didn't rush for a single touchdown post-injury after scoring nine prior. Better health in 2014 should translate to better production from Mariota.
If Mariota falls out of Heisman discussions, it'll likely be because the Ducks don't have the weapons he needs. But if he can match or exceed his production last season, and if the young receivers step up, he'll be at the front of the pack.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Despite only playing in 10 games last season, Todd Gurley racked up 989 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Bulldogs in 2013. He also dramatically increased his role in the passing game, notching 37 receptions for 441 yards compared to 16 for 117 in 2012.
That increased production as a pass-catcher gave Gurley the opportunity for six additional scores, bringing his total to 16 over 10 games.
What's really impressive about Gurley's 2013 campaign is that, as Tony Barnhart of the SEC Network pointed out, he only had four games last season with 20-plus touches.
With Aaron Murray's departure, the Bulldogs will feature the ground game more prominently in 2014, and provided he can stay healthy, Gurley should have his best season yet. Being a high-profile player in a high-profile conference certainly won't hurt him either as Heisman discussions begin to gather steam.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
In 2014, Winston could make a legitimate push to be just the second player in college football history to win consecutive Heisman awards—a feat accomplished first by Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975.
If Winston can even come close to replicating his production in 2013, it's hard to imagine he won't be a frontrunner for the award. The Seminoles face a tough season opener against Oklahoma State, along with Notre Dame further down the stretch, but their conference schedule is winnable.
Last year, in the best freshman season by a college quarterback on the books, Winston set single-season NCAA freshman records for passing yards (4,057) and touchdowns (40). Though he lost receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, the Seminoles return top target Rashad Greene, while Isaiah Jones and Kermit Whitfield could fill holes on the outside and in the slot, respectively.
It will be hard for anyone to touch Winston in the Heisman race if he repeats his performance from 2013.