Every College Football Conference's Top Heisman Contender for 2014

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2014

Every College Football Conference's Top Heisman Contender for 2014

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    Did you know that the last seven Heisman winners came from just three conferences?  Two each hailed from the ACC and the Big 12 and three came from the SEC.

    As for the remaining big leagues, the Big Ten hasn’t won since Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006, and the Pac-12’s last official win came two years before that in 2004, when USC’s Matt Leinart won.

    The last winner from one of the five “other” conferences in the FBS was 24 years ago in 1990, when then-WAC team BYU sent Ty Detmer to the podium.

    So, while Heisman winners honor their schools, they also boost the image of their conferences.  And some leagues have a more realistic shot of being bronzed than do others.

American Athletic: Shane Carden, QB, East Carolina

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    As a junior in 2013, Shane Carden finished No. 2 in the FBS in completion percentage, second only to Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.

    Carden also finished No. 7 in passing yards and No. 9 in touchdowns, leading the Pirates to a No. 11 final ranking in passing offense and a No. 8 ranking in scoring.

    For his senior campaign, Carden will have the benefit of three returning starters to the offensive line as well as his top two receiving targets.  This includes wide receiver Justin Hardy, who racked up 1,284 yards in 2013.

    What will make things interesting for Carden, and ECU, is the move from Conference USA to the American Athletic (formerly the Big East).  League games with Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss and UAB will be replaced with the likes of Cincinnati, UCF and SMU.

ACC: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

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    Even though there is only one two-time Heisman winner in history—Archie Griffin from Ohio State won in 1974 and 1975—Jameis Winston is in perfect position to repeat.

    What bodes well for Winston is that his Seminoles will return seven starters to offense (including four from the offensive line) and six to the defense. Remember, these guys combined to go 14-0 last season.

    And while there will be holes to fill, they’ll be plugged with recruiting classes that have an average ranking of No. 5 over the last four years, according to Rivals.

    Individually speaking, Winston is no flash in the pan, no average front man for a stacked team. This is a kid who finished 2013 with a passer rating of 184.85, the best in the FBS.

    It’s the perfect Heisman combination: a yard-earner with plenty of talent and a team that could realistically win the big enchilada.

    The real caveat is Florida State’s 2014 schedule, which includes the opener versus Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas, and a home date with Notre Dame in mid-October.

Big 12: Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

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    Though Baylor’s Bryce Petty might be the best quarterback in the Big 12 in 2014, he won’t be playing for the best team.

    No, Oklahoma should be the elite squad in the Big 12, and if a Sooner is going to win the Heisman, it’s going to be the starting quarterback.

    Oklahoma returns 14 starters this season, including three to the offensive line and nine to the defense, which will be the key to returning to double-digit wins.

    Though Trevor Knight’s numbers as a freshman in the 2013 regular season didn’t wow anybody, he did strut his stuff against the No. 4 scoring defense in the FBS in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

    Knight went 32-of-44 against the Tide, racking up 348 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-31 win.

    Remember, two of the last 10 Heisman winners were quarterbacks from Oklahoma.

Big Ten: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    If Ohio State can punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff and Braxton Miller can stay healthy, the Buckeyes will celebrate their eighth Heisman.

    Despite missing two games to injury last season, Miller passed for 2,094 yards and ran for 1,068 more, guiding the Ohio State offense to a No. 3 finish in scoring.

    The Buckeyes are 24-2 in the Urban Meyer era, and with three consecutive top-five recruiting classes (according to Rivals), they should start morphing into a new version—complete with SEC influences—of Big Ten football.

    The other element that will help propel Miller to the podium is Ohio State’s schedule.  The Buckeyes face Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in non-conference play, and Big Ten heavyweights Wisconsin and Nebraska aren’t even on the table.

Conference USA: Rakeem Cato, Marshall

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    The last Conference USA player to receive mention in the Heisman voting was Houston quarterback Case Keenum, who earned 123 points to finish No. 7 in 2011.

    In 2014, C-USA will look to Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato to do the impossible.  As a junior last season, Cato finished ranked No. 3 in the FBS in touchdowns with 39 and No. 11 in passing yards with 3,916.

    This was the driving force behind the No. 7-ranked scoring offense in the land and a 10-3 finish, the best for Marshall since 2002.

    In 2014, Cato will have the assistance of three starting offensive linemen and top receiver Tommy Shuler, who caught 106 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 scores a year ago.

    Last season, the Thundering Herd fell to Rice in the C-USA title game. This year, look for them to be back in the hunt for both their first conference crown since 2002 and a little bit of Heisman love.

Independents: Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame

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    If Notre Dame were to make it to the first-ever College Football Playoff, Everett Golson would only need decent numbers to be a Heisman finalist.

    If he posts great numbers, he’ll win it.

    The last Notre Dame player to take home the bronze prize was wide receiver Tim Brown, who won 27 years ago in 1987.

    The Irish drought is a good indicator of how difficult it is, even for a top school, to win the Heisman.

    In 2014, Notre Dame returns a paltry 11 starters from a year ago, but the class of 2013 (ranked No. 3 by Rivals) will be sophomores this season, providing a healthy influx of top talent.

    With games against Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC, any hardware won by Notre Dame or Golson this season will be well earned indeed.

MAC: Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green

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    Carlos Osorio

    Before pooh-poohing quarterback Matt Johnson’s long-shot Heisman campaign, remember that Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch finished No. 3 in last season’s voting, the best small-conference finish since Hawaii’s Colt Brennan was the No. 3 guy in 2007.

    As a sophomore last season, Johnson finished No. 11 in passer rating, above the likes of Georgia’s Aaron Murray (No. 12), Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (No. 13) and Fresno State’s Derek Carr (No. 15).

    Perhaps more impressive was his part in guiding Bowling Green to a 10-3 record, including its first MAC title in a decade.

    Seven starting members of the Falcons offense will be back in 2014, including three from the offensive line and two of the top four receivers.

Mountain West: Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

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    Otto Kitsinger

    Boise State’s 8-5 finish last season marked only the second time in 12 years that the Broncos dipped below double-digit wins.

    Despite the head coaching change, Boise State’s 14 returning starters and manageable schedule mean that once again it will be the team to beat in the Mountain West.

    And regardless of their final record, the Broncos will get more national media coverage than any team in their conference.

    This means if Boise State does return to the 10-plus-win ranks, its star offensive players will receive more love than, say, guys from Fresno State, San Diego State or Utah State.

    This bodes well for running back Jay Ajayi, a sophomore in 2013 who ran for 1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns on 249 carries.  His performance earned him the No. 8 spot in the FBS in rushing touchdowns and a No. 15 rank in yards.

Pac-12: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    Oregon returns a whopping nine starters to its No. 3 scoring offense from a year ago. Leading the way in 2014 will be junior dual-threat quarterback Marcus Mariota.

    Mariota passed for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns as a sophomore last season, making him No. 14 in the FBS in yards and No. 12 in touchdowns.  His passer rating of 167.66 ranked No. 7 overall.

    Mariota tacked on an additional 715 yards and nine touchdowns as a rusher, a sizable contribution to a unit that finished No. 9 in rushing yards and No. 21 in passing.

    The Ducks return their entire offensive line and top rusher Byron Marshall in 2014, meaning that Mariota could be the star of a formidable attack with a realistic shot at winning the Pac-12.  

SEC: T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

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    Though some folks have Georgia’s Todd Gurley as the SEC’s favorite to win the Heisman, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon has a better chance of being the conference’s top candidate.

    Yeldon rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013, making him the No. 3 guy in the SEC in yards.  

    What gives Yeldon the edge is twofold.  First, he’s playing for the team with a better shot at winning both the conference and the national championship.  Yes, Georgia could win it, but history and results say that no team in the SEC has a more legit shot than Alabama.

    Next, Yeldon is going to be the star running back for a team that will be breaking in a new quarterback, a situation that means he will get more carries, more yards, more scoring and more exposure.

    Think back to 2011, when AJ McCarron was a first-year starter.  That was the same year that Trent Richardson rushed for 1,679 yards, 21 touchdowns and finished third in the Heisman vote.

    Then go back to 2009, when Greg McElroy was a first-year starter and Mark Ingram was the featured back.  Ingram rushed for 1,658 yards, 17 touchdowns and won Alabama’s first-ever Heisman.

Sun Belt: Terrance Broadway, QB, ULL

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    Bill Haber

    Though it’s hard to imagine a Sun Belt player being a genuine Heisman candidate, it doesn’t mean that the conference doesn’t have its share of elite athletes.

    Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Terrance Broadway threw for 2,419 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior in 2013.  This netted him a quarterback rating of 153.35, the best in the conference and No. 17 in the FBS ranks.

    Broadway tacked on an additional 455 yards and eight scores on the ground, anchoring an offense that ranked No. 33 nationally in scoring last season.

    The performance was key to the Ragin’ Cajuns capturing their first conference title since 2005 and their third bowl win in program history.

    Louisiana-Lafayette returns a generous 17 starters in 2014, the most in the Sun Belt and the sixth most in the entire FBS.

    This sets the stage for Broadway to have an epic senior season.

    Statistics courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference/College Football.  Recruiting rankings courtesy of Rivals. Returning starter data courtesy of Phil Steele.