College Football Predictions 2014: Dark-Horse Heisman Contenders Worth Watching

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College Football Predictions 2014: Dark-Horse Heisman Contenders Worth Watching
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The last two Heisman Trophy winners were mentioned by zero people in their respective preseasons. At this time in 2012, Johnny Manziel was battling for his starting job. At this time in 2013, Jameis Winston was doing the same.

All that Manziel and Winston managed to do is become the first freshmen to win college football's most prestigious award in its 78-year history. Manziel created an entire cottage industry out of his likeness. Winston became a Heisman winner, conference champion and national champion by his 20th birthday.

So as we near the two-week mark before the 2014 college football season kicks off, it's only right we take a look at some guys who could muck up this year's Heisman race. Winston enters as a considerable favorite and is followed down the line by the likes of Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Baylor's Bryce Petty, among others.

But, and I'm just throwing this out there, you probably have a good idea who those folks are. Let's instead focus on the others. We'll probably fail in our goal to uncover the next Manziel or Winston, but I wanted to highlight a few players on the purview who might force their way into the conversation.

With that in mind, here's a quick look at some Heisman dark horses.

 

Rakeem Cato (QB, Marshall)

Christopher Jackson/Associated Press

First thing: Marshall has to go undefeated for Cato to have a legitimate chance. And I'm talking undefeated with a bang. The last Heisman winner from a non-power conference was BYU's Ty Detmer in 1990. A year before, Houston's Andre Ware took home the bronze statue.

Before that (excluding Notre Dame?) Navy's Roger Staubach won it in 1963. And that was a time period in which Navy had a football team that wasn't playing for hair tousles and attaboys. Colt Brennan of Hawaii (2007) and Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois (2013) are the only players from non-power conferences to even get the invite to New York City since the turn of the century. 

The point being, history is not on Cato's side. The numbers, though? They just might be. Over the last two seasons, Cato has thrown for 8,117 yards and 76 touchdowns against 20 interceptions. Add in an increased emphasis on utilizing his feet—Cato rushed for more than seven times his 2012 total last season—and the 6'1" senior seems to be putting it together at the right time.

Gail Burton/Associated Press

Marshall finished eighth last season in total yards and scoring offense. Football Outsiders' metrics, which tend to penalize small-conference schools due to lack of schedule strength, had the Thundering Herd near the top of their brethren.

Even the Vegas oddsmakers are taking notice. Odds Shark has Cato at 75-1 odds to take home the Heisman, putting him right in the same general strata as LSU's Leonard Fournette and USC's Javorious Allen. 

“What Rakeem has accomplished in his three seasons at Marshall speaks for itself,” Herd coach Doc Holliday told the HerdZone last month when Marshall launched its Heisman campaign for Cato. “His maturing as a person and as a player is obvious to all of those in our program and those who follow the Herd closely."

Beyond conference bias, Cato has to rely on surrounding talent that has been middling during his ascent. The Herd are 15-11 over the last two seasons. While they are bringing eight starters back on defense and Cato will have leading receiver Tommy Shuler back in the fold, Marshall is walking a tenuous tightrope.

They are undoubtedly the favorite in Conference USA and don't have much in the way of difficult nonconference opponents. A road trip to Southern Miss might be the only thing stopping Marshall from going into the Conference USA title game undefeated. If that's the case, then Cato will have played his way into the conversation.

One loss and we can pretty much write him off.

 

Christian Hackenberg (QB, Penn State)

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Odds are, we're at least one more year away from Hackenberg being a true contender. Penn State remains outside the larger national purview as it continues serving its NCAA sanctions, and giving college football's highest award to a Nittany Lion may turn some voters off. The possibility that college sports' governing body expresses leniency for next season makes Hackenberg's candidacy much more palatable.

As it stands, the sophomore signal-caller should be able to lay some major groundwork in 2014.

Hackenberg threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last season, propping up a depleted supporting cast in Bill O'Brien's second season. The Virginia native set 11 school records en route to winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Award. On Wednesday, he was named Penn State's first sophomore captain in its 128-year history.

“Christian’s got a lot of tools, there’s no doubt about it,” head coach James Franklin, who took over for O'Brien this offseason, recently told reporters during Big Ten media days (h/t ESPN.com's Josh Moyer). “The thing that I’m most impressed with is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching.” 

How Hackenberg fits in Franklin's offense will likely determine his trajectory next season. O'Brien was regarded as one of the best quarterback gurus in college football, turning Matt McGloin from basket case to NFL quarterback his first year and mentoring Hackenberg his second. Franklin does not have quite the same reputation. His offenses at Vanderbilt were largely built around an attacking running game, though he opened up quite a bit last season.

Of course, Franklin did not have anyone the caliber of Hackenberg during his SEC turn. A 6'4", 235-pound behemoth, Hackenberg looks like he was built out of a quarterback lab. He is not as mobile as you would like in today's college atmosphere, but he can make every throw with ease. Improving his pocket presence under pressure and making quicker reads will be the key to him taking the next step.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The Heisman will be a difficult trek. Looking at the schedule, Penn State could easily start the season 5-0. UCF is not nearly as intimidating without Blake Bortles, Rutgers is in the midst of a transition and Northwestern graduated a ton of players. Back-to-back contests against Michigan and Ohio State follow the breezy start, and the Lions might as well chalk a loss to Michigan State at the end of their season.

Is 9-3 enough to win the Heisman? Certainly. Is 9-3 enough to win the Heisman without a Robert Griffin III-esque single-season domination? Probably not.

 

Leonard Fournette (RB, LSU)

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Because the law of three dictates we have a freshman. Fournette's hype is unlike that of any player I can remember in recent memory. Comparisons to Adrian Peterson, one of the best college football running backs and the best NFL running back of his generation, are not thrown around lightly. And the crazy thing is that all accounts have Fournette backing it up in camp.

"I'd probably say it took about seven seconds [to realize] when I saw him run the ball, the power and the speed and the vision that he runs with," running back Terrence Magee said during SEC media days, per CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd. "I feel like I'm getting my opportunity to play with a guy they're comparing to AP."

Now please keep in mind that Magee is heading into his senior season. Also keep in mind that Magee is ostensibly competing with Fournette every day in camp for carries. And that Magee himself might be drafted next April.

When someone of Magee's caliber, who stands to benefit from downplaying Fournette's effect, says what he did, well, game over folks. Like Winston did a year ago, Fournette heads into his freshman season with a world of talent and everyone eager to see how he'll pan out. We don't have to look too hard to find surefire superstars who have flamed out early.

With Magee and fellow senior Kenny Hilliard on the roster, one might think Fournette might be the one with modest expectations.

Nope.

"For my freshman year—1,000 yard rusher, All-American, All-SEC and hopefully Heisman candidate," Fournette recently told reporters at LSU media day of his expectations.

Carries might be the only thing that hold Fournette back from ascending into the national conversation. Magee was sensational last season in a limited workload, rushing for 626 yards and eight touchdowns on only 86 carries. He's patiently waited for an opportunity to be a lead back, as has Hillard, who has received limited reps across three seasons.

LSU may have the most talented running back corps in the nation. We'll have to see if the player they're calling the most talented running back in the nation can ascend ahead of his teammates. If he does, look out.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

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