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Contenders to Keep the Heisman Trophy in the Pac-12


The Heisman Trophy came to Pac-12 Country in 2014, with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota holding off Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon to win the award.

Mariota may be gone, but the Pac-12 can keep the Heisman under its collective umbrella for the first time since 2004 and '05 — or, for the first time as actually recognized by the Heisman Trust since 1967 and '68.

Bovada released updated odds for the 2015 Heisman Tuesday, with Big 12 representative Trevone Boykin of TCU, the Big Ten’s Ezekiel Elliott and Braxton Miller of Ohio State and SEC players Jeremy Johnson (Auburn) and Nick Chubb (Georgia) comprising the top five.

Of course, preseason odds matter little as the fall unfolds, and the Pac-12 has plenty of worthy contenders who could become the new favorite as the season progresses.

A quarterback has won the Heisman every year since 2010, and all but two seasons since 2000. It stands to reason, then, that the Pac-12’s foremost front-runner to keep the bronze statue out West plays behind center.

The campaign for USC quarterback Cody Kessler began in the 2014 season, when Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian touted Kessler’s lofty numbers following a decimation of rival Notre Dame.

“At some point, people are going to recognize him…These are ridiculous numbers he’s putting up right now,” Sarkisian said. Kessler finished the season with 39 touchdown passes to tie the USC record Matt Barkley set in 2011. He was intercepted just four times.

“This year was not easy for him,” Sarkisian added.

Indeed, Kessler had his struggles that kept him out of the Heisman conversation. Most notably, he threw just four touchdown passes and was intercepted three times against the best of the Pac-12 South.

But those bumps are what Kessler sees helping him in his pursuit of bigger things in 2015.

 “I’ve seen everything from good games, to average games, to bad games,” Kessler said. “And I think that’s really helped me prepare for the future.”

Playing quarterback certainly helps a Heisman candidacy, and especially playing quarterback at USC. The Trojans have produced two Heisman-winning quarterbacks since 2002, and USC quarterbacks were finalists for the award four times since 1988.

From the best positioned role to winning the Heisman to one of the worst, another Pac-12 candidate who gained national attention at season’s end last fall is Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright.

Wright swept the national defensive awards: Nagurski, Bednarik, Butkus. He also was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and finished ninth in the Heisman voting.

No defense-exclusive player has ever won the Heisman. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was close, finishing second to Johnny Manziel in 2012. South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney had the buildup before the 2013 season, but failed to deliver.

Wright could well have hype approaching that which followed Clowney into the 2013 campaign. Should he live up to the billing, and Arizona again find itself in the hunt for the Pac-12 championship, Wright could be a history-maker.

He’s not the Pac-12’s sole defensive player with a shot at the Heisman, though. Michigan’s Charles Woodson is the only primarily defensive Heisman winner, and that’s exactly who Sarkisian compared three-way threat Adoree’ Jackson to following December’s Holiday Bowl.

Jackson’s versatility made him equally effective as a returner and receiver as he is at cornerback, and the only question mark he presents USC coaches is just how to use him.

Oregon had to wait decades to win its first Heisman with a few near-misses along the way. Quarterback Joey Harrington was a finalist in 2001 but finished fourth in the voting. Running back LaMichael James came in third in 2010.

But now that Heisman No. 1 is finally in Eugene, the wait for No. 2 could be as short as 12 months.

Running back Royce Freeman was dynamite in his freshman campaign, complementing Mariota on the quarterback’s way to the Heisman with 1,365 yards and 18 touchdowns on 252 carries.

Freeman is just one running back among the conference’s embarrassment of riches at the position. Fellow 2014 newcomer Nick Wilson has Heisman potential at Arizona, while new Arizona State feature back Demario Richard is a potential dark horse to watch.  

Last year’s leading Pac-12 rusher at 1,575 yards, UCLA junior Paul Perkins, is another name to follow in the impending Heisman race.

Perkins is a dual threat who has proven equally effective catching passes out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs.

Like Perkins, Utah’s Devontae Booker was not originally meant to be his team’s No. 1 back. But after breaking off some impressive carries early in the season, Booker took over and never looked back.

His 1,512 yards were second in the Pac-12, giving the Utes a pillar on which to lean while quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson dealt with injuries and inconsistencies.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham started beating the drum for Booker’s candidacy in the spring. Actually saying the H-word might be taboo for some; not Utah’s coach.  

“We expect him to have a big year. That’s something we’re counting on,” Whittingham said. “We think can have a better year than he had last year. He’s in the Heisman conversation if he does the things we hope he’s able to do.”

Ultimately, the success of the team plays a huge part in a player’s Heisman candidacy. As great as Mariota was throughout his Oregon career, it’s no coincidence his first invite to the Heisman ceremony came the same year the Ducks were national championship contenders.

Sarkisian said as much in his early campaigning for Kessler.

“That stuff [individual award recognition] comes with a team that performs consistently at a high level. And I know that’s what he wants,” he said. “But at some point, you can’t ignore [great individual play].”

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.