The Heisman Trophy race is down to three contenders: Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Alabama's Amari Cooper. This week's Heisman Watch breaks down the case for all three and how each of them could win.

By Zac Ellis
December 01, 2014

One weekend of games and three viable contenders: That’s all that’s left in the race for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.

It’s hard to imagine anyone catching Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper in time for the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 13. Those three players have separated themselves through 14 weeks of football, and all three will have one final chance to add to their Heisman credentials in conference title games.

With Championship Saturday looming, let’s break down what each player must do to take home the trophy in two weeks.

Heisman Watch Week 14

1. Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
2. Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
3. Amari Cooper, WR Alabama

Marcus Mariota

Last week: Mariota accounted for six touchdowns (four passing and two rushing) in Oregon’s 47-19 victory over rival Oregon State in Corvallis. He notched four of his touchdowns in the first half as the Ducks built a 30-3 lead. It was Mariota’s ninth game with four or more touchdowns this season, the most of any FBS player.

The case for: Mariota is the nation’s leader in passing efficiency (190.2 rating) and yards per attempt (10.4), and he has only two interceptions. He extended his own Pac-12 single-season record for total touchdowns with his 48th Saturday. Mariota also surpassed 4,000 yards of total offense on the season against the Beavers, only the second time an Oregon player has accomplished that feat. He also had the first.

Mariota is the headliner for a Ducks program that’ll punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff if it wins this weekend. Moreover, Oregon’s quarterback has kept himself out of trouble off the field, unlike past Heisman winners Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston. That matters to some voters, as the Heisman mission statement includes the word “integrity” in its first line.

How he wins: Put simply, keep doing what he’s doing. The Heisman is Mariota’s to lose at this point.

The Pac-12 title game poses an intriguing narrative for Mariota’s finale: Arizona handed Oregon its only loss of the season earlier this year in a 31-24 loss on Oct. 2. Mariota was sacked three times in that game thanks, in part, to a banged-up Ducks’ offensive line, and his fourth-quarter fumble sealed the Wildcats’ win. Mariota could cap his season with a bit of redemption against Arizona to clinch the Pac-12 title. As long as he doesn’t lay an egg against the Wildcats, he’ll be this year’s Heisman winner.

Melvin Gordon

Last week: Wisconsin’s running back rushed for 151 yards and had two total touchdowns in the Badgers’ 34-24 win over Minnesota. Gordon’s 10th straight game with at least 100 rushing yards helped Wisconsin clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game.

The case for: Gordon broke the Wisconsin and Big Ten rushing record (2,109 yards) against the Golden Gophers. His 2,260 rushing yards this season bested the record set by former Badgers back Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman in 1999 (Dayne's then-record 2,109 yards came in 1996). Gordon, who leads the country in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns (26), currently has the fourth-best rushing total in FBS history.

The Badgers’ star isn’t just productive; he’s also efficient. Gordon set the FBS single-game rushing record (408 yards) vs. Nebraska on Nov. 15, and it only took him 25 carries to set the new mark, which was broken a week later by Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. Among players with at least 200 carries on the year, Gordon leads the nation with 8.0 yards per carry. The Badgers’ star now has more rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and a better yards-per-carry average than Dayne and Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009) during their Heisman-winning seasons.

Player (YEar) Rushing Yards Rushing touchdowns yards per Rush
Melvin Gordon (2014) 2,260 26 8.0
Mark Ingram (2009) 1,658 17 6.1
Ron Dayne (1999) 2,034 20 6.0

How he wins: Run all over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and help engineer the upset. Before Saturday, few viewed Wisconsin as a legitimate threat to the Buckeyes for the conference crown, but the matchup looks more intriguing after Ohio State lost starting quarterback J.T. Barrett to a fractured ankle last weekend. With the Buckeyes relying on backup passer Cardale Jones, the Badgers could pull the upset.

Saturday’s conference title game is critical for Gordon, who hasn’t faced as much stiff competition this season as Mariota or Cooper. If Gordon dominates against Ohio State, that’s his Heisman moment for the season. But Wisconsin’s star probably doesn’t control his own destiny. He’d still need Mariota to stumble in the Pac-12 championship game to emerge as the leader.

Amari Cooper

Last week: Cooper caught 13 balls for 224 yards and three touchdowns as Alabama survived Auburn, 55-44, in the Iron Bowl. Cooper hauled in more than 70 percent of the Crimson Tide’s 312 receiving yards; Christion Jones finished second on the team with a mere 21 yards. The performance clinched a national-best fourth game with at least 180 receiving yards for Cooper, and his 224 yards were the most by a receiver in the history of the Iron Bowl.

The case for: Cooper is almost certainly the best wide receiver in the nation. He’s already set an Alabama record for receiving touchdowns in a season (14) and has produced two of the program’s four 200-yard receiving performances in history -- both this season. Only six times has a Crimson Tide receiver ever caught three touchdowns in a game; Cooper has two of those six performances in 2014.

His receiving numbers already stack up favorably against the only two wideouts to win the Heisman, Notre Dame’s Tim Brown (1987) and Michigan’s Desmond Howard (1991) -- though Brown's and Howard's Heisman campaigns were aided by strong return stats. Thanks in part to the modern era of up-tempo offense, Cooper has many more receiving yards (1,573) and receptions (103) than either Brown or Howard. His penchant for acrobatic catches and hauling in long balls keeps him on the highlight reel.

Player (YEar) receptions Receiving yards REceiving touchdowns
Amari Cooper (2014) 103 1,573 14
Desmond Howard (1991) 62 985 19
Tim Brown (1987) 39 846 3

How he wins: Follow the Iron Bowl with a monster performance against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game. Cooper finished the regular season strong against Auburn, but Heisman contenders step up in the biggest moments. Alabama’s biggest moment will take place Saturday in the Georgia Dome, where the Tide could lock up a spot in the playoff.

However, like Gordon, Cooper will need help from Mariota to stand a chance at winning the Heisman. Twelve of the last 13 winners have been quarterbacks, and whether it’s fair or not, dual-threat passers have captivated Heisman voters during that span. Cooper might have a better shot at overtaking Gordon for the runner-up spot than reaching Mariota, especially as the SEC title game is likely to draw more eyes than the Big Ten’s matchup.

Finalist contenders

Tevin Coleman, RB Indiana
The Hoosiers’ tailback finished second in the country in rushing yards with 2,036 in 2014. He has four games with at least 200 rushing yards this year, including a 307-yard outing against Rutgers on Nov. 15. Against Purdue last week Coleman became the 18th player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, but Gordon is also one of those 18 players. That’s Coleman’s biggest problem: He might not be the best player in his own conference, which will hurt the Indiana star’s voting in the Mid West Region.

Trevone Boykin, QB TCU
Boykin put up 283 yards of offense and three total touchdowns in the Horned Frogs’ 48-10 rout of Texas on Thanksgiving. The quarterback is the primary reason TCU’s offense ranks third in scoring (46.1 points per game), and that unit’s turnaround is a nice narrative for Boykin’s Heisman campaign. The fifth-ranked Horned Frogs face Iowa State in their regular-season finale Saturday as they eye a playoff spot. Boykin could turn some heads with a big night and big statline against the Cyclones.

Scooby Wright III, LB Arizona
The top defensive candidate for the Heisman, Wright tallied 13 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks in Saturday’s 42-35 win against Arizona State. On the year Wright has 139 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and a program-record six forced fumbles. If he plays a big role in pressuring Marcus Mariota in the Pac-12 title game, Wright could reach New York.

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