The Big Ten is stacked with elite national talent at most positions.
Using the past to project the future has major flaws but in the case of the Heisman Trophy, the past can be extremely useful.
There are a few numbers college football fans need to know when it comes to the Heisman Trophy and how to handicap the race for the 2014 stiff-armed trophy.
First, quarterbacks have won the award four straight years and 12 of the last 14. Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005) are the only running backs since the turn of the century to win the Heisman Trophy.
Second, only once in the nine-decade history of the award has anyone ever repeated. Ohio State’s Archie Griffin won in 1974 and was successful in defending his award the following year. Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel all failed to repeat in the last decade.
Third, only twice since Griffin has a conference won two consecutive Heisman Trophies. USC repeated with Leinart and Bush (2004-05) and the SEC did the same with Ingram and Cam Newton (2009-10). In fact, only twice since 1955 has a conference won consecutive Heismans with two different teams. UCLA’s Gary Beban and USC’s O.J. Simpson went back-to-back in 1967-68.
Finally, only one true defensive player (Charles Woodson) and only two wide receivers (Tim Brown, Desmond Howard) have ever won the award.
With this in mind, here are the Big Ten’s front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014 (with current Bovada odds):
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (7/1)
For a league many are down on currently, the Big Ten boasts some serious star power at both quarterback and running back. And Miller is the brightest star of the bunch. The dual-threat is a perfect fit for his offensive system and he is leading a team picked by many to win the league and land in the College Football Playoff. Add to it dynamic, highlight-reel plays and huge numbers, and fans in Columbus have themselves a Heisman Trophy candidate under center. Staying healthy and winning the Big Ten are key for Miller this fall if he wants to get to New York (which he should).
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (20/1)
From a talent standpoint, few in the nation can match Gordon’s speed, power and explosiveness. And few players are in a better situation to make a run at the Heisman than the Wisconsin tailback. James White is gone, the offensive line is stacked and he plays in a system predicated on handing the ball off. Look for Gordon to build on his 1,600-yard, 12-TD season from last fall.
3. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (33/1)
Gordon got all of the headlines and Jeremy Langford got a lot of press down the stretch last year but it was Abdullah who actually led the Big Ten in rushing (1,690). The Nebraska ball-carrier is a special talent who can catch passes, constantly gets critical yards and has proven capable of a heavy workload. The key for Abdullah is team success as the Huskers need to make a run at the Big Ten title for the Big Red runner to get into the Heisman mix.
4. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
There aren’t too many players with as many physical skills as Hackenberg. He is a sure-fire, first-round pick in two springs as he set 11 school records as a true freshman last year. The offensive line and overall depth is a major concern and keeps him from being mentioned alongside Miller, but Hackenberg is just as talented. Look for the PSU QB to continue to grow with no limits on his upside.
5. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State (33/1)
Michigan State entered last fall with questions under center. By the time the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl were over, they had a star at quarterback. Cook posted back-to-back 300-yard games (setting career highs) in wins over Ohio State and Stanford. Look for more development from the underrated athlete in his second season as the starter.
6. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
Abdullah led the league in rushing and Gordon get most of the accolades, but Langford was arguably the most important tailback in the Big Ten last year. He rushed for 1,422 yards and 18 scores on the year but 1,070 yards, 13 touchdowns and all eight of his 100-yard games came in conference play. Langford belongs being mentioned alongside the star runners of the B1G.
7. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
If he could just stay healthy, Diggs could make a run at the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver. He does special things with the ball in his hands but has missed seven games in his first two seasons. With a talented quarterback returning, Diggs has a chance to post a breakout season in College Park. The Big Ten will find out quickly how dangerous Diggs can be.
8. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
The talented and versatile Wildcats tailback played just three games last fall but fans in the Big Ten better not forget about him. He can make big plays as a receiver and return man as well as a runner. He posted 2,166 all-purpose yards two seasons ago and anything approaching that mark (no pun intended) again this fall likely puts him into the national conversation.
9. Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana
The junior quarterback is the leader of the best passing offense in the Big Ten and now the keys to the unit are his alone. With Tre Roberson leaving campus, Sudfeld is poised for a huge season in Bloomington. Look for him to build on his 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns from a year ago.
10. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan
He was wildly inconsistent and turned the ball over entirely too much but Gardner still was No. 2 in the Big Ten in total offense (3,443 yards) and No. 2 in passing yards (2,960) in 2013. This is his final season and if there is going to be a redemption story in the Big Ten, the Michigan quarterback is the best bet. This team still has talent but running the ball better would go a long way to making Gardner’s job easier.
Others to consider: C.J. Brown, QB, Maryland; Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana; David Cobb, RB, Minnesota; Trevor Siemian, QB, Northwestern; Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan; Kenny Bell, WR, Nebraska
Five defensive players who should but won’t be in the mix:
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
The massive (6-5, 260) defensive end was a star last year as just a sophomore (37 tackles, 14.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 3 defensive touchdowns). With much less help at linebacker, the Spartans' defensive line now takes center stage. Calhoun is the star of that bunch due to elite NFL upside.
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
The Big Ten’s top returning sack master (9.5), Gregory is hoping to restore the Nebraska defense to Blackshirt status. He should be able to build on his monster 2013 campaign that featured 65 tackles, 16 for a loss and 15 quarterback hurries. Like Calhoun, Gregory should perform like the projected first-round NFL draft pick that he is.
Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
The senior Wildcat tackler is the top returning tackler in the Big Ten and a preseason first-team All-Big Ten pick. He posted 106 tackles, six for a loss, four interceptions and two sacks. With Northwestern projected to bounce back in a big way, Ariguzo should find himself on national award lists.
Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
One of the top defensive backs in the nation, Drummond returns as a team leader to a defense that is rebuilding to some degree. He registered 91 tackles and four interceptions for the nation’s best defense a year ago. Look for more from Drummond and Sparty in 2014.
Mike Hull, LB, Penn State
There is a long and distinguished list of Penn State linebackers. Dan Connor, Sean Lee, NaVorro Bowman, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Glenn Carson and now Hull. Hull posted 78 tackles last season and steps into a more prominent role with Carson moving on. Look for yet another elite season from a PSU tackler.