He entered the 2014 college football season as one of the top candidates to win the Heisman Trophy. Through two games, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has done nothing to suggest he should not be heading to New York at the end of the season for the presentation of the Heisman Trophy, especially after last weekend’s performance against defensive power Michigan State. Still early in the year, Mariota is the odds-on favorite to be named this year’s best player in college football.
Despite the recent successful era for college football at Oregon, the program is still searching for the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history. There have been some worthy candidates since the Ducks became recognized as a national power in the sport, but Mariota may have the best chance to finally end that drought in Eugene. Mariota tops the odds compiled and released by Bovada, topping Georgia running back Todd Gurley and last year’s Heisman winner from Florida State, quarterback Jameis Winston. Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill surged into the conversation and another Pac-12 quarterback, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, remains in the mix as well early in the year. None of these players has notched a quality win that matches what Mariota has on his resume now.
At home against a top-ten Michigan State program, Mariota led Oregon to 28 straight points to come from behind and close out a big win that could very well have College Football Playoff implications riding on it. Mariota completed 17 of 28 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns and he avoided tossing an interception to a defense that made a living off interceptions a season ago. It was exactly the kind of performance Mariota needed to prove worthy of being considered the top player in college football now and later on, and it is the kind of performance he has struggled to put together in his recent attempts under similar circumstances.
Some might look at Mariota as a player who had a down season in 2013, leaving him something to prove in 2014. It is true that Mariota and Oregon came up on the wrong end of the scoreboard a couple of times last year to knock Oregon out of the Pac-12 and national championship picture. But if Mariota’s down year includes 3,665 passing yards and 31 touchdowns to four interceptions and 715 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns, then there are a stable full of quarterbacks around the country that would sign up in an instant for that kind of disappointing season. The stats were easily good enough to have Mariota sent to New York, but he lacked a signature win, and thus a Heisman moment, to really push him over the edge. Both of his interceptions came in the final two games of the regular season, with one game against Arizona perhaps doing him in just weeks after Oregon lost to Stanford.
Mariota provided some early potential Heisman moments against Michigan State, but games down the line against Stanford, Arizona and UCLA and a potential match-up with USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game will have to result in wins and more big plays to keep the momentum going through November.
Weekly Heisman Trophy Spotlight Game: South Carolina vs. Georgia
No running back in the country seems to have as highly regarded a Heisman profile as Georgia running back Todd Gurley. Gurley rushed for 198 yards and three touchdowns and added a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the season opener against Clemson. This week, Gurley leads Georgia on the road against division rival South Carolina. Last season against the Gamecocks, Gurley ripped off 132 yards and a touchdown and added a receiving touchdown in a 41-30 win. For Gurley to remain the top non-quarterback candidate, he may need to have the same kind of performance against a South Carolina defense that has shown cracks in the early part of the season.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.