The conference now known as the Pac-12 became a regular home for the Heisman Trophy in the 1960s. In that decade, USC's Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson, UCLA's Gary Beban and Oregon State's Terry Baker all brought the most celebrated individual award in the sport out West.
In the years since, the Heisman has made just a few return trips. In fact, barring USC recipients, John Heisman's bronze likeness was persona non grata in the Pac-12 after Jim Plunkett's 1971 win.
That changed last year with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota receiving the award. Mariota's victory symbolized a change evident throughout the conference, as collective improvements throughout virtually the whole league have brought newfound national recognition.
With the Pac-12 playing it's best collective football in 50 years — if not ever — the conference has a strong case to bring a second straight Heisman into its trophy case. The following are the Pac-12's 10 most likely Heisman Trophy candidates heading into 2015.
1. Cody Kessler, QB, USC
Kessler put up Heisman-caliber numbers in 2014, tying the USC single-season record with 39 touchdown passes against just five interceptions. He was far from a dual-threat quarterback, but he also demonstrated just enough mobility to add a new dimension to the Trojans’ offense when necessary.
What Kessler lacked in a season punctuated by Heisman-like statistics were the so-called Heisman moments. He’ll get his chances to make big-time plays in high-profile games this season. USC is a contender for the Pac-12 championship, and its schedule is loaded with several marquee matchups.
Given the spotlight the Trojans will command against opponents like Stanford, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA, Kessler has the most logical path to New York City.
2. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Keeping the Heisman in the Pacific Northwest could be as easy as feeding Freeman the ball and letting the powerful running back build on his impressive freshman season.
Freeman, a highly touted prospect from Imperial, Calif., is a back one might expect to see in the traditional crimson-and-white of Alabama, rather than the flashy and ever-changing duds sported at Oregon. And indeed, Nick Saban tried to recruit Freeman away from the West Coast.
Instead, Mark Helfrich landed the bulldozer back, and it's a good thing for the Ducks he did. Freeman gives Oregon a cornerstone around whom to build its Mariota-less offense, in much the same fashion the offense was centered around 2010 Heisman finalist LaMichael James previously.
3. Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
History proves that playing defense exclusively is a good way to guarantee a player doesn’t win the Heisman, but Wright has unique buzz heading into the 2015 season. The Wildcats’ star junior linebacker broke into the Heisman conversation last fall with his nation-leading output for tackles, tackles for a loss and forced fumbles.
With national attention already on him, Wright is ahead of the game. The hard part now is replicating his otherworldly play of a season ago, which might be asking more than even expecting Heisman voters to cast ballots for a defensive player.
Still, in terms of past production and sheer name recognition, Wright may be the conference's most recognized player heading into 2015. That goes a long way in pursuit of the coveted award.
4. Jared Goff, QB, Cal
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes opted to turn over his pass-happy “Bear Raid” offense to a true freshman in 2013. That freshman took his lumps early, but Goff flourished as a result in his sophomore campaign. Goff has quickly matured into a favorite quarterback of NFL draftniks. His size and pocket presence make him the quintessential pro prospect.
But more importantly for the Golden Bears’ chances in the Pac-12 North — and Goff’s own pursuit of the Heisman — his ability to spread the ball around the field effectively fills the stat sheet. Goff could produce some eye-popping numbers in 2015. He’ll get the chance to break the 40-touchdown barrier.
5. Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA
Perkins went from second on UCLA’s depth chart at running back, to first in the Pac-12 in rushing yards over the course of the 2014 season. The next surprise this dynamic, junior playmaker might have in store is representing the Bruins in New York City.
Perkins is an elusive ball carrier, but he can be equally effective catching passes on the periphery. UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone used him primarily in that pass-catching role in 2013, but continued to showcase Perkins’ receiving abilities last season. Contributing to the Bruins’ offense in two ways gives Perkins even more opportunities to touch the ball and impress Heisman voters in the process.
With UCLA starting a new quarterback this season — more on that in a moment — the Bruins could lean on Perkins’ production early. He’ll get the opportunity to pile up numbers in both facets. Should UCLA contend for the Pac-12 championship, Perkins will also be front and center in the Heisman race.
6. Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
Booker's Heisman campaign started in earnest in the spring when Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said the running back is capable of putting up numbers worthy of the award. Not bad for a player who wasn't even the projected No. 1 a year ago at this time. Now, Booker fuels the entire Ute offense.
Because of Utah's sometimes shaky passing game, Booker will get plenty of carries and thus, chances to rack up impressive stats. The bad news is he'll need the Utes to improve through the air to keep defenses honest.
7. Adoree’ Jackson, CB/WR, USC
The Heisman campaign for Jackson started in USC’s last game of 2014. His two-touchdown performance in the Trojans’ 45-42, Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska invoked memories of Charles Woodson, the do-everything Michigan cornerback/wide receiver/punt returner who claimed the 1997 award.
Jackson's versatility allows him to play in all three phases without a decline in production in any.
8. Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
Before the start of the 2014 season, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said just one back replacing Ka’Deem Carey was unlikely. Whether Rodriguez was playing his hand close to the vest, or if he didn’t know just what he had in Wilson, but the Wildcats barely missed a beat without the record-setting Carey.
Now after a spectacular freshman debut, Wilson can one-up his predecessor, who was never a Heisman finalist despite two monsters seasons in 2012 and ‘13. He'll be given more opportunities to run in his sophomore campaign.
9. Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State
Richard has two-way playmaking ability out of the backfield in much the same vein as former Sun Devil running back Marion Grice. Before a leg injury ended his 2013 season early, Grice was making a case for the stiff-armed trophy when he tied legendary Whizzer White as Arizona State’s single-season touchdown leader with 22.
Arizona State will rely less on designed quarterback runs with Mike Bercovici taking over for Taylor Kelly, but the Sun Devils are unlikely to run less. That means Richard should see a steady diet of carries in coordinator Mike Norvell's high-octane offense, while also serving as an invaluable safety-valve option in the passing game on swing routes.
10. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Rosen is the wildest of Heisman wild cards. He’s yet to take a snap at the college level, unless you count his appearance in the Bruins’ spring game in April. He’s not even UCLA’s official starting quarterback yet, if at all, but buzz about the 5-star prospect is palpable. He’s drawn comparisons to two-time Heisman finalist Andrew Luck of Stanford.
Before Luck became one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, however, he spent a season learning the ropes as a redshirt and another deferring to fellow Heisman contender, running back Toby Gerhart. Rosen would be jumping straight into the fray if he’s named the Bruins’ starter, and entering the Heisman mix just one year removed from high school would be unprecedented.
Of course, a true freshman contending for the award is the next, natural progression. Just eight years ago, before Tim Tebow won it, no sophomore had claimed the Heisman. Johnny Manziel became the first redshirt freshman to do so in 2012, only to be immediately followed by Jameis Winston.
If a true freshman wins the award, he’ll need a lot of veteran experience around him to ease his transition. Rosen has just that at UCLA, which returns the most veteran roster in the Pac-12.
Others to consider: Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona; D.J. Foster, WR, Arizona State; Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State; Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon; Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford; Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford; Myles Jack, LB, UCLA; JuJu Smith, WR, USC