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An Early Look at the Top 25 Heisman Candidates for 2014

Marcus Mariota

Johnny Manziel couldn’t do it. Neither could Jason White, Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram or Sam Bradford.

So why is Jameis Winston any different?

The odds of Winston repeating as the Heisman Trophy winner are slim to none. It’s not an indictment of his talents or Florida State’s general trajectory — both of which are incredibly impressive. But the Heisman Trophy is a unique award that is given to a player who captivates the nation for a few months each fall. Generating that same type of buzz and riding that tidal wave a second time is pretty much impossible.

This is why Jameis Winston isn’t going to be the frontrunner to win the 2014 Heisman Trophy. Just like Manziel wasn’t last year. Funny thing about greatness… it’s hard to duplicate. And keep in mind that three of the last four Heisman winners didn't play football the year before — Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Winston.

So with 230-something days left until the kickoff of the new era of playoff college football, Athlon puts an early handicap on next year’s Heisman race.

Tune in to the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast as our staff talks college football every week leading up to the 2014 season.
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The Finalists:

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
A sprained knee kept Mariota from finishing what was turning into one of the great single seasons by a Pac-12 quarterback in history. Over the first eight games, Mariota posted 511 of his 715 yards rushing and all nine rushing touchdowns. Poor games against Stanford and Arizona cost Oregon the Pac-12 title and Mariota a trip to New York after his knee injury. When healthy, the Ducks' signal-caller is one of the most naturally gifted players in the nation and he orchestrates one of the most explosive offenses in the country. He is 23-3 overall in two seasons under center and set the conference record for consecutive passes without an interception (353 att.). In 2013, his total touchdowns (40), total yards (336.9) and passing efficiency (167.66) all went up from '12 and fans could expect yet another jump in '14. He is one of few players in the nation whose overall talent matches that of Jameis Winston.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
From an electricity standpoint, few players in the nation can match Miller’s dual-threat talents. His first step is explosive and his ability to pick up big chunks of yards on the ground is unprecedented in Columbus. He posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard season on the ground in 2013 while showing marked improvement as a passer. His 58.3 percent completion rate in 2012 became 63.5 percent this fall while his 15:6 TD:INT ratio improved to 24:7. More importantly, Miller is 24-0 in the last two regular seasons as a starter with his only two losses coming against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Should Ohio State make a run at one of the playoff spots, as expected, then Miller should find himself in New York at season’s end. That is, if he can stay healthy.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
The UCLA quarterback had more passing yards and touchdowns as a freshman two years ago but improved his efficiency and rushing production while decreasing his turnovers as a sophomore. With the Bruins the potential frontrunner in the Pac-12 South, Hundley now carries big expectations into his third year as the starter. The dual-threat signal-caller finished last year with 3,071 yards passing, 748 yards rushing and 35 total touchdowns for a team that won 10 games last year. The talent around him is still a bit of question mark, as he had a better supporting cast in 2012 than he did last fall, but his overall athletic ability is second to none in the nation.

Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
The level of efficiency Petty exhibited in Waco this season was astounding. He accounted for 46 total touchdowns (32 pass, 14 rush) while only throwing three interceptions and finishing second nationally to only Jameis Winston in passing efficiency (174.29). His 4,409 total yards (4,200 pass, 209 rush) were sixth nationally. Petty led his team to its first-ever Big 12 championship, BCS bowl and 11-win season in one fell swoop. With road trips to Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma on tap next fall, the Baylor signal-caller has numerous opportunities to prove himself on the national stage. Only a slip-up against Oklahoma State this season kept Petty from Heisman contention. And frankly, his omission from New York was laughable.

Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
The reigning Heisman winner gets the nod based solely on his accomplishments in 2013. He is one of just four Heisman winners to cap his stiff-armed season with a win in the BCS title game and is one of just six players in college football history to go unbeaten, win the Heisman and claim the national championship. He set an NCAA record for freshmen with 40 touchdown passes and was the nation’s No. 1-rated passer (184.85). The odds are stacked convincingly against him winning the award for a second straight season, however, Florida State will likely be the preseason No. 1 team and again faces a weak ACC schedule.

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
The most talented running back in the nation is back as the focal point of an offense known for churning out great ball carriers. The 230-pounder averaged 6.0 yards per carry on just 165 attempts this year, missing big chunks of time due to injury. When healthy, however, no one in the nation is more physically gifted than the Dawgs tailback. Despite missing three games and lots of snaps in a few others, he finished with 1,430 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns on 202 offensive touches. Imagine what he could do with, say, 375 touches — a number that led the nation this season (Ka’Deem Carey).

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Gordon combined with James White to form the most productive backfield in NCAA history in 2013. The duo rushed for 3,053 yards, setting a national record for most yards by two runners in the same backfield. Gordon averaged an absurd 7.8 yards per carry on 206 attempts and scored 12 times. With White now out of the picture and quarterback Joel Stave entering his third season as the starter, the explosive and powerful Gordon could be in for a monster season. At a school with names like Dayne, Bennett, Calhoun, Moss, Hill, Clay and Ball, it’s Gordon who might be the most physically gifted of the bunch. 

The Next Tier:

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
With AJ McCarron gone, Nick Saban will turn to Yeldon and Derrick Henry to carry the workload in Tuscalossa. The offensive line will be excellent and Yeldon enters his junior season after back-to-back seasons with at least 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns. With just 382 carries in his first two seasons, Yeldon still has plenty of tread left on the tires.

Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State
The Sun Devils' starter returns for his third full season under center having thrown 844 passes and carried 306 times on the ground over the last two seasons. Kelly accounted for 37 total touchdowns en route to a Pac-12 South championship in 2013. He is the perfect fit for Todd Graham’s offense and should ASU post the best record in the Pac-12 again, it will be largely because of Kelly’s play.

Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Auburn will need to find another workhorse to replace Tre Mason but Marshall should be the star of the Gus Malzahn zone-read show next fall. If Marshall can produce in the passing game just enough to balance out his big play ability on the ground, he has a chance to get to New York.

Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU
From a talent standpoint, few can match the power and speed of Jeremy Hill — just ask the Iowa defenders. The LSU ball carrier finished with 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns on a sterling 6.9 yards per carry clip. An increased workload should be expected as Les Miles and Cam Cameron break in a new quarterback.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
Quickly, name the Big Ten’s leading rusher? Abdullah led the league with 1,690 yards on 281 carries. He posted 11 100-yard efforts in 13 games while also playing a big role in the passing game (26 rec., 232 yards, 2 TDs). The explosive back will once again be the focal point of the Nebraska offense in 2014 and a few more touchdowns — he had nine last year — could get him into Heisman conversations fairly easily.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
It was a slow build for Langford but no running back was more important to their team in the Big Ten than this junior. He led the league in carries (292) and rushing touchdown (18) without starting for the first month of the season. Eventually tabbed the starter, he rattled off eight straight 100-yard games. A full workload could get Langford into Heisman talks earlier next fall.

Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
Another SEC super sophomore, Davis was the best back in the league over the first few months of the season. Injuries and scheduling eventually slowed Davis, but the Gamecocks' workhorse finished with an impressive 1,535 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns. With Connor Shaw gone, one has to think that a healthy Davis becomes the focal point of Steve Spurrier’s offense.

Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
Few players have the raw athletic ability of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound dual-threat from BYU. Hill has elite speed, size, power and a knack for making big plays. He carried 246 times for 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground while developing as a passer over the course of the season. He finished with 2,938 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air. With an easier schedule and increased passing efficiency, Hill could make some big noise in 2014.

Keenan Reynolds, QB, Navy
No NCAA quarterback has ever rushed for more touchdowns in a single season than Reynolds’ 31 in 2013. He was one of only seven players with at least 300 rushing attempts. His passing was efficient if nothing else (140.00, 8 TDs, 2 INTs) but the Midshipmen will likely have to throw it more to get Reynolds national acclaim — and that is highly unlikely.

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The Long Shots:

Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
True pocket passer showed why he was the No. 1 QB prospect in the nation as just a true freshman.

Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma
Will be a victim of expectations following his big-time Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama.

Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame
He will have to earn his starting spot back but his talent is undeniable.

Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri
He has moxie and confidence to go along with a month's worth of starting experience.

Desmond Roland, RB, Oklahoma State
Rushed for 664 of his 811 total yards and 11 of 13 touchdowns over final seven games.

Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
On a team devoid of playmakers, David Shaw will turn to Hogan to develop.

Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall
Posted 39 TD passes and could lead Herd to an unbeaten record next fall.

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State
195 att., 994 yards, 8 TDs rushing and 101 rec., 1,186 yards, 8 TDs receiving in two years. Now the starter.

Davis Webb, QB, Texas Tech
Flashed big-time ability in a pass-happy offense for Kliff Kingsbury in limited duty this year.

The Wide Receivers:

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
Elite talent should be Maty Mauk’s primary target in 2014.

Tyler Boyd, Pitt
Electric, big-play machine showed his ability as just a freshman in 2013.

Rashad Greene, Florida State
If Kelvin Benjamin goes to the NFL, Greene could be a Biletnikoff finalist.

Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Does a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder. Elite sprinter speed.

Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
Physical specimen with huge upside and obvious first-round ability.

Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Someone has to catch all of those Bryce Petty touchdowns, right?

Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M
Freakish ability will need to find a quarterback. But in that system, he could be unstoppable.

Jaelen Strong, Arizona State
Primary target for Taylor Kelly had a huge breakout 2013 season.

Nelson Agholor, USC
Dynamic return man showed he could be a No. 1 when Marqise Lee was slowed this year.

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Explosive playmaker will need to find a quarterback.

Back from injury:

Chuckie Keeton, QB, Utah State
Dynamic quarterback could be frontrunner in the Mountain West POY race.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
Explosive dynamo could easily find his way to New York with a big bounce-back season.

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
Do-everything athlete should return to form as one of the Big Ten's top playmakers.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Like Johnson and Diggs, Mark does everything for his team but played in only three games.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
His return should bolster Hutson Mason's ability to stretch the field.

Jordan James, RB, UCLA
Was effective when playing but missed six full games during '13.

Defensive Options:

Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Dante Fowler, DE, Florida
Shilque Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
Leonard Williams, DE, USC
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State
Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee
Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State