All Jameis Winston did in 2013 was set national freshman records with 4,057 passing yards and 40 passing touchdowns, win the Heisman Trophy by the fifth-largest percentage points margin ever (32) and lead Florida State to a national title.
It’s not supposed to be that easy for anyone, let alone a mere freshman.
For as impressive as Winston was last year, his journey to a potential 2014 Heisman Trophy will be much more complicated. That’s not an indictment of Winston, who could be even better as an individual with a year of experience under his belt, but a comment on the difficulty of repeating as college football’s top player.
Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats & Info broke down the historical precedent in place for defending Heisman winners:
There have been 13 players who returned to college football the year after winning the Heisman Trophy, and only one -- Archie Griffin in 1975 -- was able to repeat.
Of those 13 Heisman winners who came back to school, two (Leinart and Walker) accounted for more yards of total offense in the season after winning the award. On average, these players accounted for almost 650 fewer yards of total offense the next year.
Similarly, only Tebow in 2008 and Griffin in 1975 played on teams that increased their win total the season after the player won the Heisman (three others matched their win total). On average, repeat Heisman winners lost 1½ more games the year after winning the award.
So often, Heisman winners set such a high bar that anything short of drastic improvement is seen as a failure in the eyes of voters. Fair or not, if the Seminoles do anything short of finish undefeated and enter the College Football Playoff as the favorites, it will be a disappointment when compared to last year.
That potential disappointment could be reflected in the Heisman vote.
The historical element isn’t the only reason Archie Griffin’s spot in the most exclusive club in college football is set. Florida State lost deep threats Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw to the NFL, which means Winston will be reliant on unproven talent in the wide receiver department.
Winston's numbers could take a small dip simply because he doesn't have those playmakers around anymore.
If the Seminoles don’t run the table with their new-look receiving corps, even their schedule could be held against Winston’s Heisman chances. Zero of Florida State’s opponents are in the Top 15 of the initial Amway Coaches Poll, and only Clemson (No. 16) and Notre Dame (No. 17) are ranked at all.
A number of the other Heisman candidates will play much stiffer competition throughout the year, which could lend more merit to their statistical production.
Speaking of the Heisman field, it is absolutely loaded with challengers. Winston could put up incredible numbers and still fall short of some of the other superstars across the college football landscape.
Marcus Mariota has Oregon primed to compete for a title after throwing for 3,665 yards, running for 715 yards and tallying 40 total touchdowns in 2013. The Ducks’ high-octane offense lends itself to video game-like numbers every year, and Mariota is the one working the controller this time around.
Mariota put up those numbers last year while dealing with a knee injury down the stretch. If he can stay healthy and lead the Ducks to the College Football Playoff, he will garner plenty of Heisman love.
Elsewhere, Braxton Miller will get another go-around in Urban Meyer’s spread offense and look to improve on his more than 3,000 total yards and 36 touchdowns. Much like Mariota, Miller needs to stay healthy and lead Ohio State to the postseason if he wants to win the Heisman, and both of those things are well within the realm of possibilities.
Throw in Bryce Petty, who threw for an astounding 4,200 yards at Baylor last year, and Brett Hundley at UCLA, and it is clear that Winston is far from the only signal-caller who can make Heisman waves in 2014.
Don’t overlook running backs Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin or Todd Gurley from Georgia, either.
Gordon ran for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last year and will be the focal point of a run-heavy Badgers attack. Gurley tallied more than 1,400 total yards a season ago but missed three games with injuries. With no more Aaron Murray, a healthy Gurley will be asked to carry the load for the Bulldogs in the mighty SEC.
All of these players are Heisman threats, but it’s important to remember that the award winner could very well be a sleeper. Recent winners like Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and even Winston himself snuck up on the college football world to take home the famous trophy.
To make matters even more difficult for Winston, he will play with a giant bullseye on his back all season. After all, he’s the defending Heisman winner and a national champion, so he will get his opponent’s A-game every single time out.
Kyle Fredrickson of The Oklahoman passed along an interesting quote from Oklahoma State’s James Castleman that fits that narrative perfectly:
Winston is going up against historical precedent, the insanely high bar he set a year ago, a loaded Heisman field and motivated opponents. He may very well win the trophy for the second straight year, but it’s not going to be another runaway victory.
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