Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon broke the FBS record for rushing yards in a game, but can he win the Heisman Trophy? Zac Ellis breaks down his chances of catching Marcus Mariota in this week's Heisman Watch.

By Zac Ellis
November 16, 2014

The Heisman race has been very quarterback-heavy in recent years, especially at the top. Twelve of the last 13 winners have been quarterbacks, even though running backs are historically the more prolific Heisman candidates. Backs have claimed 41 total trophies, more than any other position. From 1972 to 1983, 12 straight running backs won the Heisman, a run that included Herschel Walker, Tony Dorsett and Archie Griffin (twice).

We saw Saturday why Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon might be the best Heisman threat at running back since Alabama’s Mark Ingram took home the trophy in 2009. But Gordon will still have to fight off the leader in our latest Heisman Watch.

• STAPLES: Wisconsin offensive line should take a bow; Punt, Pass & Pork

Heisman Watch Week 12

1. Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
2. Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
3. Amari Cooper, WR Alabama
4. Trevone Boykin, QB TCU
5. J.T. Barrett, QB Ohio State

Rising contenders

Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
J.T. Barrett, QB Ohio State

Those who hadn’t been paying attention to Melvin Gordon prior to Saturday got a full dose of the Wisconsin star’s Heisman potential. His team’s meeting with Nebraska was billed as a toe-to-toe matchup between Gordon and banged-up running back Ameer Abdullah. Both looked like Heisman contenders earlier this season, but only one left Camp Randall Stadium still firmly in the running for New York.

Gordon blitzed the Cornhuskers for an FBS-record 408 rushing yards on 25 carries, and he did it all in just three quarters. The running back broke the record set by former TCU star LaDainian Tomlinson with a 26-yard touchdown run on the final play of the third quarter. Afterward Tomlinson offered a digital hat-tip to Gordon for his stellar performance.

After Nebraska took a 17-3 lead in the second quarter, Gordon helped Wisconsin reel off 49 straight points before sitting for the final 15 minutes. Gordon set a school record with 189 yards in the second quarter alone -- he then tied the old record of 170 yards in the third quarter -- and his performance marked his fourth game with at least 200 rushing yards this season. The only other Badgers player with four 200-yard games in a season is Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999.

Gordon now leads the country in rushing touchdowns (23) and rushing yards (1,909) and is fourth in yards per carry (8.6). Those numbers are pretty favorable when put in historical context with Dayne and Ingram, the last two running backs to win the Heisman.

player carries yards ypc TD
Ron Dayne (1999) 337 2,034 6.0 20
Mark Ingram (2009) 271 1,658 6.1 17
Melvin Gordon (2014) 223 1,909 8.6 23

Even with two games left in his regular-season schedule -- and perhaps a Big Ten title game -- Gordon has more touchdowns and a better yards-per-carry average than Dayne or Ingram during their entire Heisman seasons, including bowl games. Gordon needs only 125 more yards to surpass Dayne’s season mark from 1999. In a long line of Wisconsin running backs, Gordon is making a case as one of the best.

But Gordon also needs Wisconsin to remain a Big Ten contender for his Heisman campaign to truly take flight. Ingram helped his Alabama team win the BCS title after the 2009 season. Dayne’s Wisconsin squad went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Gordon’s stats are remarkable, but how will Heisman voters juxtapose that with Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule? For instance, the Badgers lost to Northwestern in October despite Gordon’s 259 rushing yards.

The Wisconsin star feels like a lock to reach New York at this point, but he didn’t win the Heisman this weekend. The Badgers need to stay in the Big Ten title race if Gordon's going to catch Marcus Mariota.

• ​RICKMAN: Wisconsin's Gordon rushes for FBS record vs. Nebraska

Falling contenders

Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
Trevone Boykin, QB TCU

It’s been said in this space many times, but it bears repeating: Heisman Trophy winners shine on the biggest stages. Johnny Manziel nabbed a signature win by leading his Texas A&M team to an upset at Alabama in 2012. Florida State’s Jameis Winston picked apart Clemson in a nationally televised ACC matchup en route to the trophy in 2013. Saturday was Dak Prescott’s chance at a Heisman moment against Alabama, and unfortunately for Mississippi State fans, he fell flat.

The Crimson Tide’s defense kept Prescott in check all afternoon in Tuscaloosa and handed Mississippi State a 25-20 win. The Bulldogs’ passer threw a season-high three interceptions in the loss, including a fourth-quarter pick in the red zone. Alabama’s Landon Collins intercepted Prescott with Mississippi State down 26-13 but threatening at the Tide’s 20-yard line. Prescott found Jameon Lewis for a touchdown on his team’s next series, but it was too little, too late for the Bulldogs.

After the game, Prescott said the matchup felt like one that got away.

"Yeah, we had them,” Prescott told reporters. “We turned over the ball. It was just stupid turnovers.”

At this point Prescott isn’t likely to win the Heisman, but he could still reach New York as a finalist. Mississippi State travels to Oxford to face Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29, which could be a nice opportunity for Prescott to bounce back. Plus, the Bulldogs aren’t out of the SEC title picture yet. But Prescott needs some help from other contenders if he’s going to hoist any hardware in December.

• THAMEL: Mississippi State's playoff hopes aren't over yet

Outside looking in

Jameis Winston, QB Florida State

How many more times can Winston show off his heroics for Florida State? Last year’s Heisman winner completed 63.6 percent of his passes in the second half as the Seminoles rallied from 16 points down for a 30-26 win over Miami.  Winston could finish the year strong and snag a spot as a Heisman finalist, but his suspension for the Clemson game remains an obstacle he simply cannot overcome to win.

• RICKMAN: Florida State finds a new way to win against Miami

Heisman video of the week

Heisman lookahead

Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
No. 20 Wisconsin at Iowa

What will be Gordon’s encore after the best rushing performance in FBS history? Iowa allows 147.8 rushing yards per game, sixth in the Big Ten, so it’s unlikely Gordon will have much trouble with the Hawkeyes.

Dak Prescott, QB Mississippi State
Vanderbilt at No. 1 Mississippi State

This won’t be anything but a warmup for Prescott before his Bulldogs take on Ole Miss in two weeks. If Prescott hopes to convince voters of his Heisman worth, he needs to light up the Commodores.

J.T. Barrett, QB Ohio State
Indiana at No. 8 Ohio State

Barrett’s Big Ten schedule isn’t doing him any favors on a national scale. His win over Michigan State is easily his signature moment, but after that, there isn’t a clear spotlight. Barrett’s best bet is to keep putting up big numbers against squads like Indiana.

• RICKMAN: Barrett leads Ohio State to critical win over Minnesota

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