9 Juniors with the Best Shot at the Heisman Trophy in 2014

Andrew Coppens@@andycoppensContributor IMarch 18, 2014

9 Juniors with the Best Shot at the Heisman Trophy in 2014

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Over the last two years, the Heisman Trophy has become a young man's trophy, with back-to-back redshirt freshmen winning the award. However, in 2014 the pendulum could swing the other way with a crop of very talented juniors ready to take over college football. 

    We also know that this award has become a best quarterback in the country award as of late, with just one running back winning the award since 2000. This coming season, that could change as the junior running back crop happens to be one of the deepest and best known groups in the country. 

    Add in big time names at quarterback, and there is a good chance a junior could be hoisting the stiff-armed trophy come December. 

    In no particular order, let's see which juniors have the best shot at the award.

    *All stats courtesy CFBstats.com.

Duke Johnson (Miami (FL))

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    J Pat Carter/Associated Press

    Of all the players on this list, Duke Johnson has the most to prove from the start of the season. His sophomore campaign came to a dramatic and abrupt end, as Johnson fractured his ankle against rival Florida State in game number eight. 

    It remains to be seen how Johnson will look after having surgery and going through the recovery process. However, based on the eight games he played in 2013, Johnson deserves to be on this list. Not only is he a dangerous running back, but he has also been a big weapon in other facets of the game.

    Johnson rushed for 920 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns rushing. He added 14 kick returns for 396 yards and an average of 28.3 yards, which would've put him in the top 10 of the country in kick returns had he qualified. 

    His speed and vision are unique amongst running backs in college football, and as long as he's 100 percent back, Johnson could be one of the names people talk about throughout the 2014 season. 

T.J. Yeldon (Alabama)

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    Rogelio Solis/Associated Press

    T.J. Yeldon burst onto the scene as a freshman and continued his rise last year as a sophomore. Could a Heisman Trophy campaign be in his future? 

    After rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, Yeldon comes in to the 2014 season as one of the top 10 rushers to return in the country. Playing at a power like Alabama doesn't hurt, and neither does the fact that the last running back to win the Heisman also happens to be from the Crimson Tide (Mark Ingram). 

    What makes Yeldon different than most running backs is his deceptive speed for his size. At 6'2" and 218 pounds, Yeldon is a taller and leaner back than most, yet he isn't afraid of contact and is equally capable of breaking ankles at the same time. 

    Perhaps the only thing that could keep him from the Heisman is the fact that the Alabama backfield is pretty loaded and he doesn't get enough attempts. Last season, Yeldon averaged just 17.3 carries per game, and if that doesn't increase much this season, he'll need to be more of a home run hitter once again.

Connor Cook (Michigan State)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    You may have to look towards the middle of the pack to find Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook's numbers in 2013, but that would be deceiving at best. Cook's numbers were skewed downwards, thanks to musical chairs at quarterback to start the season. 

    Once he took over as the full-time starter, Michigan State's offense was transformed and it was the reason this team went from 6-6 to Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions in just one year. Cook finished last season with 2,755 yards passing, completed 58.7 percent of his passes and had 22 touchdowns to six interceptions. 

    What vaults him in to the Heisman conversation this year aren't those numbers, though. It is what Cook did to get his team two championship trophies that is most impressive.

    Against No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, Cook racked up 304 yards with three touchdowns and one pick. He followed that up with a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl win over Stanford. 

    That's a good way to leave a mark on the minds of college football writers, and if the Spartans contend again in 2014, Cook's name will be one to watch in the Heisman race. 

Byron Marshall (Oregon)

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    Oregon keeps turning out ridiculous stat producers at running back, yet none of them have sniffed the Heisman Trophy since LaMichael James finished a distant third in the voting for the 2010 Heisman. Could that change in 2014 with Byron Marshall, a relative newcomer on the national scene? 

    Despite averaging just a shade over 14 carries a game, Marshall racked up 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He also averaged 6.1 yards per carry in his first season as the Ducks' featured back. 

    He's got the potential to do a lot of damage, and if he can increase his presence in the passing game (just 13 catches in 2013) Marshall could be a sleeper name to watch out for. 

    Of course, he'll also have to battle quarterback Marcus Mariota for attention. That means it will take something special from Marshall to outdo his QB, but stranger things have happened in the Heisman Trophy race over the last three years. 

Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin)

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Are you seeing a theme emerge in the junior crop of potential Heisman winners? Yes, this group is deep at running back and one of the biggest names to watch for is Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. 

    He had a chance to leave for the NFL, but announced his intention to stay in Madison this past December. One of his main reasons was to make a run at the Heisman Trophy, and if 2013 was any indication, Gordon could see that goal become a reality. 

    Gordon finished last season with 1,609 yards, averaged 7.8 yards per carry and had 12 touchdowns. All of that while splitting carries with senior James White, who had 1,400-plus yards of his own in 2013. 

    This season, Gordon will be the Badgers' featured back and that could mean even greater numbers ahead for him. It may be hard to top leading the nation in rushes of over 50, 60 and 70 yards, but Gordon has proven the doubters wrong over the last two years. 

Marcus Mariota (Oregon)

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    If there is a favorite amongst the juniors for the Heisman Trophy, look no further than Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. One could make a case that had it not been for injury and a few losses by the Ducks, Mariota would've been a front-runner for the award last year. 

    After all, he did throw for 3,655 yards and 31 touchdowns (which was good enough for a tie for 12th nationally), while also only throwing four interceptions all season. He was also seventh nationally in passer efficiency rating and threw for over 300 yards in five games. 

    Then you add in the 715 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and there may not be a more dangerous combination at quarterback in the country. 

    Oregon and Mariota will have a huge opportunity in Week 2 of this season against Michigan State and their Heisman hopeful quarterback Connor Cook. 

    Win that game, take down Stanford for the first time in three years and stay healthy—that's the recipe that makes Mariota a contender for the Heisman Trophy all season long. 

Mike Davis (South Carolina)

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    RAINIER EHRHARDT/Associated Press

    A lot of attention was given to running backs in the SEC last season, but somehow Gamecocks sophomore Mike Davis managed to fly under the radar for most of the season. Despite rushing for 1,189 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns, Davis was often the name left out of the discussion of best running backs in the SEC. 

    While Davis finished fifth in the conference in rushing and was the fourth sophomore on the rushing list, he also showed the most improvement and potential as the season went on. 

    Davis had seven games over 100 yards and had a career-high 167 yards in a trip to UCF, where his team needed every yard he could muster. 

    More of those performances against what should be better SEC defenses in 2014 and Davis could turn some heads his way on the Heisman Trophy front. 

Brett Hundley (UCLA)

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    Victor Calzada/Associated Press

    Passing for over 3,000 yards and returning to college will get you the attention of those who decide the Heisman Trophy race, and that's exactly what UCLA's Brett Hundley did. 

    Hundley completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 3,071 yards and had 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He added 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground as well. 

    The race between Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota could be one of the most interesting individual battles in college football in 2014. It also happens to be the exact hype both need to stay in the spotlight all season long.

    Hundley also sees team success ahead in choosing to return to school over the NFL, and that's the other part of the Heisman equation. 

    “We’re not in prominent spotlight yet, but with what have coming we have already, with everybody pretty much coming back, everything starts to align,” Hundley said, via Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times. “We’re putting together something special.”

Todd Gurley (Georgia)

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    If there is a theme emerging, it's that this group of juniors were snake bitten by injuries in 2013, and Gurley may have been in the conversation for the 2013 Heisman Trophy had he not gotten injured himself for part of last season. 

    Gurley missed three games due to injury and still managed to nearly top the 1,000-yard mark. As it was, he finished 2013 with 989 yards, 10 touchdowns and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. 

    His average per game of 98.9 put him fourth in the SEC last season as well. Gurley was also a major pass-catching threat out of the backfield, collecting 37 receptions for 441 yards and six touchdowns.

    Add it all up, and as long as Gurley remains healthy, he could be the SEC's biggest favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. 

    *Andy Coppens is a college football featured columnist. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens.