With six of the Pac-12’s teams appearing in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, it’s becoming apparent that the conference is on the rise and finally gaining national prominence.
Sitting near the top of the list at No. 4 are the Oregon Ducks, who return one key player that could put them in the conversation, not only for an appearance in the National Championship, but also for the team to have their first Heisman Trophy winner.
Marcus Mariota, the stud quarterback who has led the Ducks to a 23-3 record over the last two seasons in Eugene, deserves to not only get a candidacy nod for the prestigious trophy, but also to earn his place among the elite few who have actually won it.
Factors Against Mariota
It won’t be an easy road to the Heisman for Mariota.
The Pac-12 conference is as tough as ever, and the Ducks will face off against improving Washington and Washington State teams, as well as Stanford, which Mariota has yet to beat. Though their nonconference schedule features two likely wins against South Dakota and Wyoming, the Ducks also host Michigan State, a team that beat out Stanford last season in the 2014 Rose Bowl game.
Pulling off 11 wins is no easy feat for any team—and the Ducks were one of the few teams in the country to do so last season, but Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston ended up taking home the coveted Heisman trophy last year. His team had a perfect 13-0 record by the time the final six candidates were announced, and along with impressive stats, Winston was a shoo-in for the nomination.
At the same time last year, Oregon had dropped two games—one at Stanford, as well as a curious blowout loss at Arizona. Had Oregon won both of those games, the Ducks would not have only been in talks for an appearance in the National Championship, but Mariota likely would have been nominated as a Heisman finalist.
It may seem strange that losing only two games put Mariota out of the conversation, when former Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron was nominated as well. At the time, the Crimson Tide had only lost one game, but in some regards, McCarron’s stats weren't as impressive as Mariota’s.
In the chart below, compare McCarron’s and Mariota’s stats following the completion of the 2013 season, as both teams ended with an 11-2 record:
So why did Mariota get dismissed? Is there a bias against the Pac-12 when it comes to college football?
There were no players west of Texas nominated last year—another player who many thought deserved a nod and was snubbed was Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey.
Heisman voters, mostly members of the media, are asked to vote on who they believe has been the most outstanding player—because of the difference in the number of voters in various regions of the country and due to the fact that East Coast viewers may not watch Pac-12 games (they are aired later in the day), Pac-12 players are likely missing out on votes.
If Mariota wants to stay in the Heisman conversation come December, he needs to make sure his stats improve over last year and that they don’t drop any regular-season games. The Ducks’ biggest threat on their schedule is likely Stanford, which has cost them their championship hopes the last two years.
It’s unlikely they will lose again to the Wildcats, considering Carey has since moved on to the NFL, and this year’s game will take place at home in Eugene—and because they never should have lost to a much less talented Arizona team in the first place.
Though anything can happen in college football, Mariota’s Heisman hopes should remain high as long as both he and his offensive line stay healthy and Oregon football continues to dominate as they have been for the last several years.
Why Mariota Will Win the Heisman Anyway
Despite the challenges, Mariota is set up to win in 2014.
As long as he can navigate past Michigan State and Stanford with wins, the Ducks should be able to easily win the rest of their games, which means he will remain in voters' minds for the Heisman candidacy.
Luckily, the Ducks miss South Division contenders USC and Arizona State during the regular season, which will be to their benefit, as both teams are on the rise and would make the Ducks schedule much more difficult.
Maybe one of the biggest question marks is the annual Civil War—which takes place this year in Corvallis, against hated rival, the Oregon State Beavers. Though the Beavers haven’t won since 2007, they nearly knocked off Oregon last year with a score of 35-36.
Every college football fan knows that these games can be tricky to judge, because anything can happen in a rivalry game, but continuing the trend of the last six years, Oregon should come out of this game victorious as well.
Mariota’s struggles last year against Stanford and Arizona, can be attributed to his knee injury, which plagued him during the second half of the 2013 season. It looks to have healed well, per a report from USA Today's Gary Horowitz that says he was at 100 percent during winter workouts earlier this year.
With a healthy Mariota and a healthy offensive line, the Ducks will maintain their spot at the top of the rankings, and Mariota will finish what could be his final year in Eugene with a Heisman trophy in hand.
And if all else fails, Oregon will still have the most innovative season tickets in college football—because who doesn't want a ticket that smells like hamburgers?
Stats courtesy of sports-reference.com.
Mike Martinez is a contributor for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeMartinezBR