Running & gunning for the Heisman

The Heisman Memorial trophy is the single- most celebrated and sought-after award in American collegiate athletics. Its mission states: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity”. Awarded each year since 1935, it is one of the most prestigious awards for any sport at any level.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, the Heisman Trust will announce the 79th winner to be invited to the historic fraternity. A number of candidates have emerged as Heisman hopefuls thus far. Here is a breakdown of the top five candidates mid-way through the college football season.

1) Jameis Winston – Quarterback – Florida State

After the first week of the college football season Jameis Winston dominated sports headlines and twitter feeds. Many people (myself included) doubted that the true-freshman quarterback would be able to live up to all the hype. Seven weeks later, Famous Jameis is sitting pretty at the top of my mid-season Heisman power rankings.

Why he belongs: Winston is fresh off the biggest win of his young career. He led the Florida State Seminoles into Death Valley to take on the No. 3 Clemson Tigers, who many considered to be favorites. Winston did not just play a competitive game; he and the Seminoles pummeled the Tigers on their field by a score of 51-14. Earlier this month, the Seminoles destroyed No. 25 Maryland 63-0, which was one of the biggest blowouts of a ranked opponent in NCAA history. This week, the Seminoles find themselves at No. 3 in the Associated Press rankings. On the season, Winston has thrown for 1885 yards, 20 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. He has completed 71.3 percent of his passes and posts a 210.4 passer rating.

The test: His challenge will take place in Tallahassee on Saturday, Nov. 7 against the No. 7 Miami Hurricanes. If Winston finds a way to beat the Canes and keep his team on track for the national title, his Heisman resume should be in great shape.

2) Marcus Mariota – Quarterback – Oregon

Considered the favorite by many experts, Marcus Mariota narrowly missed out on the top spot in my rankings. The sophomore quarterback has led Oregon to No. 2 in the AP rankings.

Why he belongs: The numbers tell the story for Mariota. He is the leader of the Ducks’ offense which is perhaps the most prolific in the nation. His toughest test came earlier this month on the road against the No. 16 Washington Huskies, a game that Oregon won by a comfortable three-touchdown margin. Mariota has posted a gaudy stat line. He has thrown for 2051 yards and 19 touchdowns, and he has added 493 yards and nine more touchdowns on the ground. He has not yet thrown an interception, and he is the only player in the country that averages more than 10 yards per carry and per pass attempt.

The test:  Oregon is yet to face the stiffest competition on their schedule. Three games stand out: versus No. 12 UCLA, Oregon State and at No. 8 Stanford. If Mariota can post strong performances and lead the Ducks to victories in these games, he has a solid chance to emerge as the Heisman favorite.

3) Melvin Gordon – Running back – Wisconsin

The average fan may not be familiar with his name, but that is sure to change. Melvin Gordon is the sophomore running back that leads the No. 22 Wisconsin Badgers and their explosive running game.

Why he belongs: Gordon possesses the “wow” factor, a must for Heisman hopefuls. The lone running back on the list is one of the most dynamic players in the country. In seven games this season, the Badgers running back has lengthy touchdown runs of 70, 71 and 80 yards, and a 65-yard scamper that came up just short. So far he has totaled 1012 yards on just 107 carries, and has reached the end zone 11 times. His 9.5 yards-per-carry average leads all running backs and trails only Mariota for the national lead. Gordon is number two in the country in rushing yards, and trails the leader by just 24 yards despite 45 fewer carries. He has totaled more than 140 rushing yards in all but one contest despite splitting carries with senior James White in the Badgers backfield.

The test: Quarterbacks have owned the Heisman recently, winning 10 of 12 awards since 2000, so the odds do not favor Gordon. In order for him to move up in the Heisman ranks, Gordon will have to steal the spotlight with historic performances in the Badgers final five games, all against unranked opponents.

4) Johnny Manziel – Quarterback – Texas A&M

Coming into this season, many wondered if Manziel would be able to replicate his magical Heisman campaign. Johnny Football’s life was covered on a nearly daily basis over the summer and his off-field antics lead to a one-half suspension to begin the season.

Why he belongs: Despite the off-field concerns, Johnny Manziel remains one of the best players in college football. The Texas A&M quarterback became the first freshman to win the prized Heisman trophy, and his statistics may be better than a season ago. Manziel leads the No. 14 Aggies with 2289 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions and a 73.3 percent completion percentage. His quarterback rating stands at 182.8, which is nearly 30 points higher than a season ago.

The test: Home losses against No. 1 Alabama and No. 24 Auburn have damaged Manziel’s stock. Additionally, Manziel’s questionable integrity will cost him crucial votes. The 5-2 Aggies will face two must-win road games to conclude their season against No. 13 LSU and No. 5 Missouri. If Manziel can lead his team to consecutive victories, he will carry a lot of momentum into the awards ceremony.

5) Sean Mannion – Quarterback – Oregon State

One of the more unheralded names on the list is Sean Mannion, the quarterback for Oregon State. He is the key piece of the Beavers’ aerial attack.

Why he belongs: Mannion is the reason why Oregon State possesses the most dynamic passing offense in the nation. He has already thrown for an astounding 2992 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with only three picks.  The junior quarterback averages 442 passing yards per game, and has posted a 68.6 percent completion percentage and quarterback rating of 170.7.

The test:  A stunning loss to Eastern Washington may prove costly for Mannion. The Beavers cupcake schedule will intensify.Their brutal remaining schedule includes No. 8 Stanford, No. 3 Oregon, USC, ASU and Washington. Mannion must continue his stellar play against top competition and make a statement win against Stanford or Oregon. The Beavers cannot lose more than one game if Mannion hopes to stay in the hunt.

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