Just as the case was at this time last year, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the front-runner for the award. And like Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston likely won’t be the player crossing the stage in Times Square come December. Only Archie Griffin has won the award twice and there may never be another two-time recipient. Seventy-eight players have won the Heisman; 15 went undrafted in the NFL.
On a team accustomed to watching explosive talent and predictably unpredictable plays on Fall Saturdays, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has managed to surprise Duck fans. A season ago he set a school record with 4,380 yards of total offense, accounted for 40 touchdowns, posted a Total QBR of 88 (second only to Jameis Winston’s 89.4, coincidentally the second consecutive year he ranked second in Total QBR to the eventual Heisman winner) and led Oregon to a trouncing of the Texas Longhorns in the Alamo Bowl — also known as the worst going away party for a coach (Mack Brown) in history — hobbling from an MCL sprain in his left knee. Had he not played and lost to Stanford on the injured leg—a loss that dropped Mark Helfrich’s squad from national title contention — another argument can be made that he could’ve won it last year or at least been a finalist. As ESPN.com reported, prior to the Stanford loss, Mariota’s 92.9 QBR was on pace to be the third-highest season Total QBR in the last 10 seasons. All four of his interceptions came in the last four games.
Rather than jump at the opportunity of guaranteed millions, a shoe (cleat?) deal and a chance to play in the NFL — Mariota is returning for his junior season.
There aren’t any explicit parameters for winning the Heisman Trophy other than doling out quantifiably impressive data and playing a position that the voters consider having merit (QB, RB, CB, WR). Since 2000, Heisman winners’ teams have been elite — averaging 11.86 wins (only Tim Tebow’s 2007 Florida team had less than 10 wins) and play in the NCAA’s biggest conferences. Oregon, who plays in the hottest conference in college football with six teams ranked in the preseason top 25, would fit the bill. Moreover, the Ducks haven’t won less than 10 games since 2007 (for context, Florida State has had four seasons of less than 10 wins in that same frame). Mariota’s record is 23-3 as a starter, so the chances of this team collapsing are virtually nonexistent.
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota has an army protecting his image. Won’t need it b/c he doesn’t have to fake being good guy. http://t.co/RpD1hdtDT2
— Ted Miller (@TedMillerRK) August 12, 2014
Mariota has a reputable career completion percentage (65.8), astronomically low interception totals (2012: 6, 2013: 4), and hasn’t thrown for fewer than 31 touchdowns in either of his two seasons. There’s a running component to his game, too, which elevates his numbers (nine rushing touchdowns, 7.3 rush yards per carry a season ago). Outside of Winston, who isn’t immobile by any stretch, dual-threat quarterbacks have won the last three Heisman Trophies.
In Troy Smith’s 2006 campaign, the Buckeye threw for 30 touchdowns, 2,542 yards and ran for a lone touchdown; Mariota has posted better numbers in both seasons at Oregon. Mariota was just two touchdowns short a year ago of Tim Tebow’s total (42) when he won it in 2007. When Southern California’s Matt Leinert won the award in 2004, he threw two more touchdowns, two more interceptions, 343 less yards and ran for 759 less yards than Mariota did a season ago.
Part of it also has to do with the improbability of a player winning the award twice, not that there aren’t other candidates outside Winston, but he’s definitively the favorite as of now. Take for instance Johnny Manziel: Despite posting a higher completion percentage (69.9 compared with 68 percent), passing efficiency rating (172.9 compared with 155.3), average passing yards per attempt (9.6 compared with 8.5), more throwing yards (4114 compared with 3706) and touchdowns (13 compared with nine), Manziel didn’t win a second consecutive Heisman — he didn’t even crack the top four in voting. Winston’s Florida State Seminoles clearly had a vastly superior season than the Aggies, but Winston also threw for fewer yards, a lower completion percentage and scored fewer touchdowns than Manziel. The point being that winning the award puts a candidate at a disadvantage of it occurring again.
Mariota will certainly have the national stage to make his claim. Oregon welcomes No. 8 Michigan State to Eugene in the second week of the season (the obvious front-runner for primetime game of the week) and essentially plays all of their challenging opponents (Stanford, Washington, Arizona) at home—the lone exception being their trip to No. 7 UCLA on Oct. 11. If the Ducks run the table or even have a single blemish on their résumé at season’s end, given that Mariota can stay healthy, he’ll likely be the Heisman favorite.
When Mariota and shutdown corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu were shut out as finalists for college football’s awards, it marked the first time since 2009 that a Duck failed to make the final group.
Lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune’s RedEye Chicago, Rivals, Denver Post, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, and ESPN Radio, and is currently a columnist for the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).