Heisman Trophy trends finally appear to be changing. Defensive players are getting invited to New York City with increased regularity as one player from that side of the ball has been a finalist in three of the last four seasons. The age stigma has fallen by the wayside as well with Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel each winning the award in just their second seasons on campus.
Johnny Heisman confirmed his amazing season by putting on a record-setting show in the Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma. But is the redshirt sophomore-to-be the frontrunner to win the Heisman again in 2013? Considering only once in 77 years has someone won the stiff-armed trophy a second time, and that was back in 1975 (Archie Griffin), the odds are distinctly against the Aggies' signal caller.
So with the NFL Draft deadline well in the rear-view mirror and spring practice in full swing across the nation, Athlon delivers its Top 25 Heisman Trophy candidates for 2013 — complete with Vegas odds. Keep in mind, Manziel wasn't one of the top 50 most likely players to win the award a year ago heading into the fall.
The Heisman Finalists:
1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (7/1)
The Buckeyes' quarterback was easily the biggest finalist snub this past season, as he ended up finishing fifth in the voting. As the unquestioned leader of an unbeaten Ohio State squad, Miller single-handedly carried the Bucknuts to victory week after week. He was fourth in the Big Ten in rushing (105.9 ypg), second in passing efficiency and second in total offense. Few players on this list can improve their numbers like Miller will in his second year in Urban Meyer's unstoppable spread scheme. His electric play-making ability, raw toughness and perfect fit in the system make him a virtual lock as a Heisman contender next season — as well as potential top overall NFL Draft pick.
2. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (15/1)
Few players posted numbers comparable to Johnny Heisman, but Boyd was one of them. He led the ACC in passing efficiency (165.59) and total offense (339.2 ypg) and was fifth and seventh in each category nationally. He scored 46 total touchdowns (36 pass, 10 rush) and has a host of elite weapons returning. More importantly, this team should be the preseason favorite in the ACC with Boyd under center and Chad Morris calling the plays. He is one of few players who will have the numbers, the marquee showdowns (vs. Georgia, at South Carolina), the potential championship and the offensive support to win the Heisman.
3. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (12/1)
There is little doubt that Clowney is the most physically gifted player in the nation. He is a near lock as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. And because he set the table as a sophomore with a monster hit against Michigan and huge numbers statistically, he has a great chance at landing in New York. The monster defensive end finished third in the nation in sacks (1.08 pg) and second nationally in tackles for loss (1.96 pg). He enters his third year with 21.0 sacks, eight forced fumbles and 35.5 tackles for loss and because he plays a stat-heavy defensive position, his boxscore will speak for itself. However, winning the SEC East might be a must if Clowney wants to become just the second true defensive player to ever win the award.
4. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (4/1)
What else is there to say about Manziel? His numbers speak for themselves and his Cotton Bowl performance will go down in Aggie lore as one of the greatest postseason performances by a Heisman winner of all time. But Tim Tebow couldn’t repeat. Neither could Mark Ingram, Matt Leinart or Sam Bradford. All were elite talents like Manziel, but the odds of repeating are 1-in-77. And now that SEC defensive coordinators will be spending the next five months figuring out ways to stop him, a repeat of his production seems highly unlikely mostly because he set the bar so high for himself in 2012.
5. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (18/1)
Manziel gets most of the love as a redshirt freshman, but Mariota wasn’t far behind. He rarely played in any second halves and led the nation in road passing efficiency. Overall, he led the Pac-12 in passer rating and scored 37 total touchdowns. He plays with poise and confidence well beyond his years. The big question mark will be the loss of head coach Chip Kelly. The last time Oregon switched head coaches internally, there was little drop off, but one has to think this offense will take a small step back. Yet, as the leader of Oregon's offense, the supremely gifted 6-foot-4, 200-pound second-year starter should be destined for at least one trip to NYC in his career.
6. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (33/1)
Carey was the most underrated player in the nation last fall. He led the nation in rushing (148.4 ypg, 1,929 yards), set the Arizona single-season rushing record and the Pac-12 single-game rushing record (366 yards). He scored 24 times and helped turn the Wildcats from a four-win team in 2011 to an eight-win, zone-read monster. And he did all of this as a sophomore. With spread guru Rich Rodriguez calling the shots, the tough-nosed workhorse has a chance to post huge numbers once again in 2013. Although Carey's on-field performance merits inclusion, there is one glaring issue with Carey. Should his off-the-field behavior — a domestic abuse issue and basketball game incident — become an issue, he drops out of the Heisman race. Currently, he is being disciplined internally and is practicing, so he makes the list.
The Top Challengers:
7. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (10/1)
The Dawgs' signal caller will make a push to rewrite the Georgia and SEC record books with another big year in Athens. He led the nation in passing efficiency and has 77 total touchdowns in the last two seasons. With a loaded offense returning around him, Murray just needs to eliminate the bizarro game from his resume — e.g., Florida and South Carolina in 2012, Mississippi State in 2011 — to be an NYC finalist. He might also need to finish a season in Atlanta with a win instead of a loss.
8. De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon (10/1)
An elite big-play machine, Thomas’ biggest weakness is actually one of his biggest strengths. The Oregon scheme lends itself to huge numbers but it also distributes the football. Simply put, he needs more than 137 touches on offense to get to New York. The change in head coach will also play a role with Thomas' campaign like it will Mariota's.
9. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia (--)
It will be tough for Gurley to top his freshman numbers in the brutal SEC, but his quarterback and offensive line return intact. He led the league in rushing by a running back and scored 17 times. Only Trent Richardson has ever scored 20 rushing TDs in SEC history as a running back. With Murray and Gurley in the same backfield, one has to wonder if the UGA vote will be split between two elite players.
10. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama (18/1)
Looking for another true sophomore to win the award? Look no further than the extremely gifted Yeldon. As just a freshman, he rushed for 1,000 yards and 10 scores as a backup last season en route to a national championship. Nick Saban’s offense is a proven Heisman commodity for running backs and Eddie Lacy has moved on to the NFL. If Yeldon gets 200+ touches, he easily has the skill to make it to New York.
11. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami (12/1)
The De’Anthony Thomas of the East Coast, Johnson led the ACC in kickoff returns and was third in all-purpose running as just a freshman. As the season went on, Al Golden trusted Johnson more on offense and he topped 100 yards three times in his last four games. The key will be his role in 2013 as Golden looks to get him more involved in the traditional offense. He could see a big jump from 139 carries a year ago, and should that happen, fans can bet the sophomore speedster's numbers will be eye-popping.
12. Marqise Lee, WR, USC (9/1)
With a proven commodity at quarterback coming back, Lee would be in the “Finalists” category. But with Matt Barkley — and counterpart Robert Woods who drew plenty of defensive attention — leaving for the NFL, Lee’s numbers will almost assuredly go down. He is an elite player who may not have the supporting cast to get to Radio City Music Hall.
13. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville (--)
The hot name du jour is the Cards' signal caller after his electric performance against Florida’s nasty defense in the Sugar Bowl. The numbers have to get bigger and better for him to be a finalist, however, as Louisville's system is the most bland of any of the other contenders. Charlie Strong isn't going to throw the ball 50 times a game. Also, The Ville likely needs to run the table for the junior-to-be to get an invite to the Big Apple.
14. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska (15/1)
Few players make the eye-popping plays in the backfield like Martinez. He showed marked improvement in efficiency and decision making this fall, leading the Big Ten in total offense and passer rating. A pair of potential showdowns with Braxton Miller will likely determine T-Magic’s Heisman fate. Four more losses for the Big Red and Martinez will find it hard to get to New York without elite statistics.
15. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (20/1)
The Bruins finally found a quarterback. The redshirt sophomore-to-be threw for three 300-yard efforts in his first four career games. He then led his team to the Pac-12 title game, scored 38 total touchdowns and produced nearly 4,100 yards of total offense in just his first year under center. The show will be all his in Westwood now that Johnathan Franklin is gone.
16. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama (12/1)
A big part of why Yeldon will be successful will be the return of McCarron. The O-line will have to be rebuilt (to some extent), but the talent at the skill positions could be better than Saban has ever had at the Capstone. If McCarron goes for 30 TDs and just three interceptions again, he will most definitely be in the Heisman race. The biggest issue is his offensive system may never allow for big numbers from the quarterback as names like Ingram, Richardson, Lacy and Yeldon get most of the attention.
17. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan (40/1)
Fans in Ann Arbor have been waiting for Gardner for years and 2013 will be his chance to shine. In just five starts last year, the former elite recruit accounted for 18 touchdowns, just five interceptions and 264 yards of offense per game. He fits Brady Hoke's scheme better than Denard Robinson but has similar athletic ability. His ability to pass the football could set him apart from his former teammate.
18. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (--)
When it comes to raw upside and physical talent, Watkins is second to none nationally. But staying healthy and focused has been an issue for the electric play-maker, causing him to miss four games in his first two years. With DeAndre Hopkins off to the NFL and his quarterback Boyd returning, the sky could be the limit for the star wideout. Consistency will be the name of the game for the junior-to-be.
19. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor (20/1)
Seastrunk's journey to Heisman contender has been long and winding, but he is finally here. He left Oregon before ever playing a down and finally set Waco afire in the second half of 2012. The former five-star recruit rushed for 831 yards, including five 100-yard games, and six of his seven touchdowns in the season's final six games. Art Briles system is set up for big numbers but he needs solid play from a new quarterback to get to NYC.
20. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State (--)
The Fresno State offensive system will allow Carr to air it out all season long. He has 7,648 yards passing and 63 touchdowns against only 16 interceptions over his last two seasons. An unbeaten record and BCS bowl bid would go a long way in elevating the Heisman profile for the Bulldogs' starter.
21. Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (18/1)
Nebraska has always loved to run the football and the explosive back will finally be the full-time starter in Lincoln. After starter Rex Burkhead went down with an injury, the sophomore stepped in and provided big support in the running game. He posted six 100-yard efforts over a nine week span in place of Burkhead and should get the lion's share of carries this fall.
22. Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois (--)
For Lynch to get to Manhattan next December, he would have to improve on what could be considered the best single-season in MAC history. A BCS bowl bid, nearly 2,000 yards rushing, over 3,000 yards passing, 44 total touchdowns and just six interceptions will be tough to reproduce.
23. Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern (--)
The Northwestern offense is as dynamic as any in the nation and Mark will be the centerpiece. He rushed for 1,366 yards, caught 20 passes and scored on two punt returns. He can do everything for a team looking to win its first Big Ten title since 1995. With exciting players returning around him, Mark's only negative heading into the season will be the losses along the offensive line. That said, the Wildcats normally plug in the next guy on a roster that isn't ever overloaded with talent.
24. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (--)
Many people, myself included, were massively disappointed by the 260-pound quarterback in 2012. He rallied the Hokies late and the offense should be improved in 2013 under new coordinator Scott Loeffler, but Thomas needs to show quite a bit more growth as a passer (18 TD, 16 INT) to get to New York. The good news is he did run the ball more effectively and threw it with more accuracy as a sophomore than he did as a junior. A return to 2011 will get Thomas back in the mix.
25. Blake Bell, QB, Oklahoma (30/1)
Bell has one of the most bizarre stat lines in college football. As a backup quarterback entering his first season under center, the massive 6-6, 260-pound passer has had more rushing touchdowns (24) than passing attempts (20). He has rushed 104 times and has scored on nearly a quarter of his attempts. On a team poised to make yet another run at a conference crown, passing the football effectively is still the overwhelming concern for Bell's Heisman candidacy.
Some Defensive Long Shots to Consider:
Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Is a terror off of the edge and will push for nation's lead in sacks.
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
Elite recruit produced All-Big 12 season as just a freshman. The sky is the limit.
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
Legacy talent needs to stay healthy all year to prove how dominant he can be.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Elite leader is one of few major defensive stars who elected to return to college.
Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Lost a lot of talent around him, but no one hits harder and bigger than Shazier.
Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State
Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year back on a team that could push for a division title.
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Elite playmaker who should blossom into an All-American as just a sophomore.
Stephon Tuitt, DL, Notre Dame
Supremely gifted athlete could pass Louis Nix as top Irish defender this fall.
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