by Lisa Horne
Sure it is way too early, but a sneak peek at which players could turn Heisman voters' heads may sate impatient college football fans counting the days until the first FBS football game kicks off on August 27. Barring significant injury or a surprise absence from their teams—remember, the offseason isn't for the faint of heart—here are my 2014 Heisman hopefuls.
Marcus Mariota (pictured) had a very good 2013 season but two high-profile losses against Arizona and Stanford dropped him from the Heisman race. He didn't perform poorly in those two losses. He didn't have Heisman-worthy performances either. Heisman voters east of the Mississippi River may not have watched those games. Mariota had a knee injury in Oregon's 26-20 loss to Stanford. First-year head coach head coach Mark Helfrich's play calling in the red zone also may have contributed to the two losses—Helfrich played it a little too conservatively against Stanford in that game's first three quarters.
With a healthy knee and a more imaginative red zone offense—let that sink in, folks—Mariota should get his Heisman campaign kicked off with a bang on September 5 when Oregon hosts Michigan State.
So why isn't 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston at the top of this list? He wowed us all last season, but only one player has ever won back-to-back Heismans: Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, in 1974-75. It is tough to have a target on your back before one game has been played but that is exactly what Winston is facing.
The Atlantic Coast Conference as a whole is playing more competitive football. Duke won the Coastal division. Clemson looks fierce and Syracuse and Miami are making noise. And then there is this: the Seminoles' 2014 schedule is much more difficult than last season's. Florida State opens against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas on August 30. It also hosts The Citadel, Notre Dame and Florida. Last year the Seminoles' non-conference slate included Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and Florida. The bar has been set higher for 2014.
Brett Hundley is smart, athletic and deceptively quick. The tools are there for him to have a Heisman season. But injuries have plagued the team. Last season Hundley's offensive line was solid, despite having three true freshmen starting in October. This year the Bruins lose Lott Trophy winner Anthony Barr and the Pac-12's Morris Trophy winner Xavier Su'a-Filo, among others.
If the Bruins can stay healthy, Hundley should have his best year yet. Last season he passed for 3,071 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Keeping his accuracy above 70 percent should get him an invite to New York City this December.
Braxton Miller has been in the Heisman conversation for two years. Playing in an Urban Meyer offense should give him an advantage, shouldn't it? Unfortunately, his team's erratic defense—the Buckeyes gave up 34 points to Cal— and the conference's general perception as one that is mediocre didn't help his Heisman campaign. Neither did his absence from two games due to injury.
The rebuilding of the Buckeyes' offensive line will be critical for Miller. He can run all over a defense but his passing still needs some polish. Meyer is now in his third year as the Buckeyes' head coach. His team went 12-0 in the regular season but the postseason was a different story. Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. It is redemption time for Meyer, and the Heisman is beckoning to Miller.
Keeton gives opposing teams' defensive coordinators nightmares. Blitz him and he will fire out of the pocket and sprint downfield weaving between helpless linebackers. Give him too much time in the pocket and he will play toss-and-catch with his receivers. Only one thing can stop Keeton—and it did against BYU last season: a significant knee injury. His 2013 stats encompass only five-and-a-half games, but they are impressive nonetheless: 1,388 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. In his first three games, Keeton rushed for 183 yards.
If he returns 100 percent, Keeton will be in the mix.
The rest of the best...
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
Abdullah is a very solid rusher who did not get enough respect last season despite leading the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,690). Keep an eye on him.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Gurley only had four games where he rushed for more than 100 yards due to a nagging ankle injury. SEC defenses aren't as stout as they used to be so if Gurley can stay healthy, the spotlight on him should grow considerably larger.
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall and his Tigers flew under the radar early in the season due to most eyes keying on Alabama. This season will be different. As long as he can keep the defenses honest with a balanced running and passing game, Marshall should be in the Heisman conversation.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Wisconsin seemingly always produces a pounding running back behind a massive offensive line and Gordon fits that bill. Last season he rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Don't count these guys out
Javorius "Buck" Allen, RB, USC
Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
*photo courtesy of Lisa Horne