Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota among way-too-early 2014 Heisman candidates
For the second season in a row, a redshirt freshman burst onto the national scene en route to capturing the Heisman Trophy. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston followed in the footsteps of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel to become the second first-year player to hoist college football's most prestigious individual award. Neither Winston nor Manziel had ever taken a college snap prior to his Heisman-winning campaign, but both outperformed a handful of more established players to ultimately carry the vote.
Perhaps the 2014 season will serve up another Heisman surprise. For that to happen, however, a challenger will have to sneak by the following list of more proven commodities, all of whom should be in position to accomplish big things next fall. As a disclaimer, many of the below players are eligible to leave school early and declare for this spring's NFL draft. The class affixed next each candidate's name reflects that player's would-be eligibility entering the '14 season.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, RS So.
Winston has proven what he can do on the field, setting national freshman records in passing yards (3,820) and passing touchdowns (38) while leading Seminoles to the BCS title game. Coach Jimbo Fisher didn't even name Winston as the team's starter until fall camp -- the same scenario that Manziel faced in 2012 at A&M. Much like Manziel, however, Winston will enter his sophomore season with a massive target on his back. Only Ohio State's Archie Griffin (1974 and '75) has ever claimed the trophy twice, but Winston could be fresh off a BCS title with an entire offseason to prepare.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, RS Jr.
Oregon's dual-threat passer was the Heisman frontrunner midway through the 2013 season. Yet Mariota was largely silenced in a 26-20 loss to Stanford on Nov. 7, and his Ducks were blown out at Arizona two weeks later. He threw four interceptions in his final two games after tossing none up to that point. Don't mistake Mariota's impact, though. He accounted for 39 total touchdowns (30 passing, nine rushing) and nearly 4,000 yards of total offense. Mariota has already announced his intention to return to campus in '14, where he'll retake the reins of an offense that averaged 7.6 yards per play this season.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor, RS Sr.
Petty was somewhat of a forgotten man during final weeks of this year's Heisman race. When Baylor bit the dust at Oklahoma State on Nov. 23, much of the college football world wrote the Bears quarterback off. However, Petty still finished the season ranked second nationally in passing efficiency (179.2) and yards per attempt (10.8), respectively. He threw 30 touchdowns passes against only two interceptions and rushed for 11 more scores in Baylor's high-octane attack. Senior receiver Tevin Reese will be gone next year, but junior wideout Antwan Goodley could decide to return.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA, RS Jr.
UCLA's quarterback helped the Bruins ascend to the top 10 of the polls before dropping games to Pac-12 foes Stanford (24-10 on Oct. 19) and Oregon (42-14 on Oct. 26). His Heisman chances never subsequently picked back up. Still, Hundley will enter the 2014 season as a third-year starter with a wealth of experience under his belt. He could attract a lot of buzz if he gets off to another hot start.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia, Jr.
Gurley looked the part of a Heisman finalist early in the year, but an ankle injury suffered against LSU on Sept. 28 quickly crushed those hopes. (Just as injury woes plagued the Bulldogs' entire 2013 season.) Voters already know what Gurley is capable of; he reeled off 1,385 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman in '12. Georgia will break in a new quarterback next season, so expect Gurley to be asked to do some heavy lifting.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin, RS Jr.
The Badgers back got off to a blistering start in 2013, averaging an FBS-best 11.8 yards per carry through four games. Gordon's production declined in the thick of a Big Ten schedule, but he still finished the regular season as the only back in the country to average more than eight yards per carry (8.1) as part of an 1,000-yard campaign (1,466). Keep in mind, Gordon managed those numbers while splitting carries with backfield mates James White and Corey Clement. White, a senior, will be gone next year, so Gordon could be poised to receive an even heavier workload.
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn, Sr.
Mason was one of the keys to Auburn's seemingly unstoppable rushing attack this year, but he didn't truly surface on the Heisman radar until his staggering 304-yard, four-touchdown performance against Missouri in the SEC title game. Now that the Tigers have secured a trip to the BCS championship on Jan. 6, that likely won't be a problem in 2014. Mason is in the perfect offense to build on his 1,621-yard campaign, in which he finished sixth in Heisman voting and earned a trip to New York.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama, Jr.
Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron, this season's Heisman runner-up, will depart for the NFL shortly after Alabama's matchup with Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. Perhaps that means the spotlight could shine a little more brightly on Yeldon, who is already a two-time 1,000-yard rusher for the Tide. It also bodes well for Yeldon that the last running back to claim the trophy -- and the only non-quarterback since 2000 -- was Alabama's Mark Ingram in '09.
Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona, Sr.
Arizona fans were probably upset that Carey didn't land an invite to New York this season, and they certainly have a case. Carey outgained Mason (1,716 rushing yards to 1,620) and scored the same number of rushing touchdowns (17) as Boston College's Andre Williams -- and he did it all despite missing the Wildcats' season opener against Northern Arizona on Aug. 30 after being suspended for a violation of team policy. With a full body of work in a deep Pac-12 next year, Carey could potentially buck the Heisman's recent quarterback trend.
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn, Sr.
Marshall attempted only 17.6 passes per game this fall, but he thrived in Malzahn's run-heavy attack. Marshall teamed with Mason to form the nation's top rushing offense (335.7 yards per game) and ran for at least 100 yards on four occasions, including a career-high 214 in 55-23 rout of Tennessee on Nov. 9. If he returns to school -- Marshall was a juco transfer this season -- he could be one of the most dynamic dual-threat players in the country. That's been favorable in the Heisman race: Running quarterbacks Manziel, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow all claimed the trophy in recent years.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, Sr.
Miller was one of the Heisman favorites before the start of the 2013 season, as Ohio State was coming off an undefeated campaign with its sights set on a BCS title. However, an early knee injury largely derailed Miller's candidacy, particularly after backup Kenny Guiton successfully led the Buckeyes' offense for almost three full games. Still, Miller finished with 1,860 passing yards, 1,033 rushing yards and 32 total touchdowns (22 passing, 10 rushing). After watching Michigan State squash his team's national title hopes in the Big Ten championship, Miller could opt to return to Columbus with a sense of unfinished business.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington, Sr.
The Huskies began the season 4-0 thanks largely to Sankey's production: He rushed for 607 yards and five touchdowns during Washington's unbeaten start. However, three straight losses in October -- including a 53-24 defeat at Arizona State on Oct. 19 in which he ran for just 22 yards -- effectively ended the tailback's Heisman chances. The Huskies head into 2014 under a new coach, Chris Petersen, who was known for his remarkable player development at Boise State. If Sankey elects to return to Seattle, he could be primed to make it three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State, Sr.
Cooks teamed with quarterback Sean Mannion to form one of the most explosive passing attacks in the country this year. The Stockton, Calif., native led the nation in receiving yards (1,670) and took home the Biletnikoff Award at season's end. Still, Cooks didn't get much Heisman love after Oregon State dropped its final five games. If both Mannion and Cooks return to Corvallis, the dynamic target could make a run at becoming just the third wide receiver to claim the Heisman.
Just missed the cut: UCLA LB/RB Myles Jack, UCF QB Blake Bortles, South Carolina RB Mike Davis, Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
*Note: If they return, Manziel and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would enter as two of the strongest candidates on this list. However, it seems increasingly likely they'll declare for the 2014 NFL draft.