There is no substitute for a good first impression in the Heisman race. While it’s more important to deliver strong performances later in the year, a player can’t be hurt by propelling himself onto the radar early.
Last season Florida State’s Jameis Winston delivered on his preseason hype by picking apart Pittsburgh (25-of-27 passing, 356 yards, four touchdowns) in the Seminoles’ first game. That lifted Winston into near-immediate Heisman contention.
So who stole the majority of the early season headlines? Surprisingly, running backs.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon gashed LSU for 140 rushing yards, one touchdown and a beastly 8.8 yards-per-carry average. But coach Gary Andersen gave Gordon the ball only four times in the second half, which played a role in the Badgers’ eventual loss. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah steamrolled Florida Atlantic with a whopping 232 rushing yards (11.0 per carry), and Arizona State’s D.J. Foster tallied 147 yards and three touchdowns against Weber State.
But Georgia’s Todd Gurley authored the most dominant rushing performance of the weekend. Gurley compiled 293 all-purpose yards and four total touchdowns in a blowout of Clemson, including a score off a 100-yard kickoff return. Two of Gurley’s touchdowns and 109 of his rushing yards came in the final 12:56 of the game as he helped the Bulldogs pull away from the Tigers.
“I think he’s the best player in America, or at least one of them,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told reporters afterward.
Of all the aforementioned running backs, Gurley has the most viable shot at contending for a national title. That’s why the recent quarterback trend in the Heisman race might not matter to Gurley. The running back was poised to reach New York as a finalist in 2013 before an ankle injury disrupted his season. With more performances like Saturday’s, a Heisman is within the Georgia running back’s grasp.
Week 1 Heisman Watch
Hill’s performance in a 52-28 road victory over South Carolina might’ve been the surprise of the weekend. Everyone wondered what Texas A&M’s offense would look like without Johnny Manziel, and for one game at least, Hill gave us our answer. The Heisman winner’s replacement passed for 511 yards, which broke the program’s single-game record set by -- you guessed it -- Manziel. The Aggies looked like the real deal and proved coach Kevin Sumlin might know a thing or two about offense.
Hill’s successful outing was eerily reminiscent of Winston’s 2013 debut against Pittsburgh. We all know how that turned out. Of course, Winston’s Florida State team eventually won the national championship. During Manziel’s Heisman-winning season, Texas A&M contended for the title for much of the year and was 10-2 when Heisman ballots were due. The Aggies must still prove plenty of predictions wrong if Hill is to contend for the trophy.
But take a look at Texas A&M’s next four opponents: Lamar, Rice, SMU and Arkansas. The Aggies could easily be 5-0 before they kick off their SEC West slate at Mississippi State on Oct. 4. Moreover, those four games should allow for plenty of eye-popping stats from Hill and Sumlin’s offense. We’ll soon see if Hill is a one-hit wonder.
Jameis Winston, QB Florida State: 25-of-40 passing, 370 yards, 2 total TDs, 2 INTs vs. Oklahoma State
Somebody didn’t tell Florida State that it was supposed to crush Oklahoma State in its season-opener. The Cowboys flummoxed the Seminoles for a full 60 minutes Saturday, and that included a slow start from the reigning Heisman winner.
Winston tossed two interceptions in a first half against Oklahoma State that saw Florida State head into the locker room with an uncomfortable 17-10 lead. The ‘Noles would’ve been in more trouble if not for an early pick-six from Nate Andrews. Winston wasn’t used to facing a close game at the half, and at a neutral site, it appeared his mentality would be tested.
But as all true Heisman winners do, the quarterback came through in the second half. He tossed for a 50-yard touchdown to Rashad Greene and ran for another score. His 28-yard touchdown scamper was the highlight of the night as Florida State staved off an upset.
This time last season, Winston didn’t have to deal with a major spotlight. That changes a bit once you take home a Heisman. But anything short of dominance will a make a Heisman repeat difficult for Winston, especially with the hype surrounding Florida State and its supposedly clear path to the College Football Playoff. Winston simply doesn’t have the room for error that other contenders do. Still, if the ‘Noles do find themselves in trouble, Winston can add to his legacy by helping his team avoid letdowns. That’s what he did Saturday.
Of course, Winston wasn’t the only quarterback to suffer a slow start this weekend. UCLA passer Brett Hundley failed to find the end zone through the air against Virginia, who took the Bruins’ offensive line to task. That line could spell trouble as the season wears on.
Trouble might already be brewing for Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, who took a shot to the lower back in a rout of SMU. Petty still threw two touchdowns but was noticeably limited by his back after the hit and sat out the second half. If Petty misses any games, that’s a big shot to his Heisman hopes.
Amari Cooper, WR Alabama: 12 catches for 130 yards vs. West Virginia
Wide receivers aren’t the most successful Heisman candidates -- only two pass-catchers have ever won a trophy -- but we caught an early glimpse at a couple of possible contenders this weekend.
Cooper, who entered the year in the Heisman conversation, shined in Alabama’s tight game against West Virginia with 130 yards on 12 catches. Stanford’s Montgomery also made impact plays as the Cardinal ripped UC Davis. Montgomery grabbed five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown and also notched his first-career score off a punt return. Heisman history doesn’t bode well for receivers, but Cooper and Montgomery are two players to watch on the edge.