QB Jameis Winston, Florida State Seminoles
Last Week: 16-for-26, 292 passing yards, three TDs, one INT; defeated N.C. State, 49-17
2013 Season: 128-for-183, 2,177 passing yards, 23 TDs, four INTs; 126 rushing yards, three TDs
I think Winston's going to win the Heisman Trophy, and I think he's been the best player in college football in 2013 — at least, he's the first name I'd throw out when starting the discussion.
He was uncharacteristically inaccurate (though drops helped) against N.C. State last weekend in another Florida State immolation of an overwhelmed ACC foe (FSU has steamrolled its five ACC opponents by a 142-34 score in the first half), but that's the only criticism there is to level. Winston's still the trigger man for an insanely efficient offense that gives him many opportunities to throw down the field, which he does exceedingly well.
Winston's got his share of Heisman-caliber throws, and has had a handful of Heisman-worthy games (Pitt, Boston College, Maryland, Clemson) so far, but he's going to suffer for the same perceptions about strength of competition that may prevent Florida State from playing for a national title. He can make up for that by making his candidacy irresistible. If he can destroy Miami (very, very likely) in primetime on Saturday night, and aerate Florida (somewhat less likely) in November, he's probably going to become the second consecutive redshirt freshman to win the Heisman.
Last Week: 21-for-28, 230 passing yards, one TD; 18 rushing yards, two fumbles (one lost); defeated UCLA, 42-14
2013 Season: 144-for-255, 2,281 passing yards, 20 TDs, zero INTs; 511 rushing yards, nine TDs
I watched almost every snap of Oregon's win over UCLA this weekend, and came away as impressed with Oregon as I've ever been. The Ducks are unstoppable on offense, treating an excellent UCLA defense to death by a thousand handoffs from the zone read, and are far better on defense than most think. But it was fairly easy to overlook what Mariota was doing in that game, because his performance was quietly efficient, not showy.
Mariota and Oregon were content to dink-and-dunk the Bruins, a fine strategy in what offensive coordinator Scott Frost called "the toughest easy win we've had," but not a strategy that generates the gaudy stats and splash plays that win trophies. Mariota's longest completion went for 31 yards; his longest rush went for 17. He threw for just one touchdown after beginning the season with seven straight games of accounting for at least three TDs and throwing and rushing for a touchdown in every game. And he was responsible for two fumbles, even if one of those fumbles was charged to the team. That's not fatal for Mariota's Heisman campaign by any means, especially given the quality of opponent, but it's a missed opportunity for the only quarterbacks whose play has been closer to flawless than Winston's this year.
Two other things helping Mariota: This wasn't his worst game of the year — he was pretty lackluster in the rain against Cal, completing just 11 of 25 passes for 114 yards and running for just 33 more — and his stats are so impressive and his team so good that he can absorb a couple off nights. And he'll have at least two more great shots at dazzling the public and Heisman voters in showcase games against Stanford and Oregon State.
(Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who ranks highly in the Vegas odds, isn't going to win the Heisman. He doesn't have the highlights, numbers, or flash. Tide fans will have to settle for another national title run.)
QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M Aggies
Last Week: 25-for-35, 305 passing yards, four TDs, one INT; defeated Vanderbilt, 56-24
2013 Season: 184-for-252, 2,594 passing yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs; 497 rushing yards, six TDs
Manziel's hopes of winning a second Heisman Trophy probably died with his ill-fated final drive against Auburn, because he's going to need to blow both Winston and Mariota out of the water statistically to make up for the deficit in team greatness he's facing. Fortunately, Texas A&M's defense is going to give him many, many chances to do that. And giving Manziel chances is a dangerous thing.
Manziel is third in total offense per game in FBS right now (386.4 yards per contest) despite missing the first half of A&M's opener, and he has the most memorable performance of the year, his fantastic day against an Alabama defense that has since improved dramatically. But those two losses on the Aggies' record hurt Manziel a lot more than they did last year, when he was the new hotness and had fewer plausible rivals, and it would take an unreal close (raising his average beyond 400 yards of total offense? accounting for 50 touchdowns?) for Manziel to win without substantial dips in performance from both of the front-runners.
QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville Cardinals
Last Week: 25-for-29, 344 passing yards, three TDs, one INT; defeated USF, 34-3
2013 Season: 179-for-243, 2,557 passing yards, 23 TDs, two INTs
Bridgewater's even more hampered by Louisville's one loss than Manziel is by A&M's two. That loss was to a very good team, and on the road, but Bridgewater was always going to be fighting the perception of Louisville as a paper tiger in the American, and his inability to make magic happen in the final moments against UCF, after gutting the Knights all night, all but engraved "Pretender to the throne" on Louisville's headstone for 2013.
Fairly or not, that means Bridgewater's likely to suffer the fate Andrew Luck did: Two straight seasons of phenomenal quarterback play for teams that couldn't quite contend for the national title play, and two failures to make successful runs at the Heisman despite their quality of play. In fact, Bridgewater's probably less likely to be a Heisman finalist than even some of the players in the next category down. His solace will come in the NFL.
Fun fact, though: Bridgewater has four incompletions against USF; no USF quarterback had more than four completions.
The dark horses
QB Bryce Petty, Baylor Bears
Last Week: 20-for-32, 430 passing yards, three TDs; 22 rushing yards, one TD; defeated Kansas, 59-14
2013 Season: 122-for-176, 2,453 passing yards, 18 TDs, one INT; six rushing TDs
Petty is the guy from Baylor's offense, with apologies to Antwan Goodley and Lache Seastrunk, who has a Heisman shot, but, in a bit of irony, he's going to have to make big wins happen to overcome some statistical deficits, despite leading Baylor's utterly ridiculous offense.
That's because Baylor is too good, often forcing Petty to the bench by no later than early in the second half, and sometimes as early as the second quarter. Baylor's thrown for 2,921 yards and 21 TDs on the year, but Petty's missing about 500 yards and three TDs of that, and if Art Briles kept throwing while up 40-plus, it would look like shameless stat-padding. Winston's been in similar situations with Florida State, but there are plausible excuses — he's a first-year starter; FSU was playing Clemson; it was still the first half — for letting him continue to throw. Petty, a junior, doesn't have those luxuries; Baylor has been so surpassingly dominant that leaving Petty in for the second half would be crushing dead ants.
Fortunately, Petty can still put on light shows against Oklahoma and Texas, and has passed for more than 300 yards in every start despite riding the pine fairly frequently — and, because he plays for Baylor, seen as an interloper and not a legit national championship contender, he gets evaluated on his stats more than his team's performance. (Robert Griffin III's Baylor team got blown out twice; he still won the Heisman pretty easily.) Petty just needs more of those stats.
QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois Huskies
Last Week: 16-for-20, 223 passing yards, four TDs; 18 carries, 99 rushing yards, one TD; defeated Eastern Michigan 49-20
2013 Season: 154-of-245, 1,711 passing yards, 18 TDs, five INTs; 1,041 rushing yards, eight TDs
You want a small school stat-stuffer? It's Lynch, who could well finish with 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards before the Heisman presentation, given that Northern Illinois is head-and-shoulders-and-most-of-the-torso better than the putrid MAC. And Northern Illinois still has two games against one-win teams (Massachusetts and Western Michigan) remaining, and a likely MAC Championship Game against some team from the pitiful MAC East, so there should be chances for Lynch to run up the numbers.
But the Huskies' slate also works against Lynch (the toughest game will be a Wednesday clash with Ball State), and though he may be the only Heisman candidate in history with seven road wins when all is said and done, it's hard to see him getting to New York, much less hoisting the Heisman, without some eye-popping statistical total.
After all, Lynch had 2,971 passing yards and 1,777 rushing yards at the time of the Heisman ceremony last year ... and finished behind a linebacker, two wide receivers, and a defensive lineman.
QB Sean Mannion, Oregon State Beavers
Last Week: 41-for-57, 271 passing yards, one TD; lost to Stanford, 20-12
2013 Season: 270-for-391, 3,263 passing yards, 30 TDs, one INT
This is the wrong week to take up for Mannion, whose Beavers were shut down by the very good Stanford defense, and whose mind-boggling streak of games with at least 367 passing yards and three passing touchdowns came to an end at seven in the loss. But Mannion's your pure passer dark horse, still on pace to threaten 5,000 yards and throw for more than 40 passing touchdowns, and if he can get those numbers against USC, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon, he'll probably deserve to go to New York.
I do not think he will get those numbers against USC, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon.
The Heisman of the Week
QB Garrett Gilbert, SMU Mustangs
The Line: 37-for-53, 538 passing yards, four TDs; eight carries, 97 rushing yards, two TDs; 635 yards of total offense
Gilbert leads all FBS players in total offense per game (408.3 yards per game), and finally had a massive game against Temple on Saturday thanks to a confluence of SMU's defense being horrible and Gilbert's receivers getting tons of yards after contact. But I can't diminish 635 yards of total offense — that's a titanic number, almost 60 yards better than Johnny Manziel's ever put up in a game.
Gilbert's had a very weird career, coming to Texas and becoming Colt McCoy's heir apparent, playing valiantly in the 2009 BCS title game after McCoy's injury, transferring to SMU, and only now, in 2013, coming into his own. But the thing that doesn't make sense about Gilbert this year is that he had a ho-hum day against Texas A&M's porous defense — 331 yards of total offense is unremarkable against the Aggies — in what could've been a classic shootout and the most painful game Texas fans have ever had to pretend they didn't watch enviously.
The FCS Heisman of the Week
QB Quinn Epperly, Princeton Tigers
The Line: 37-for-50, 321 passing yards, six TDs; 19 carries, 86 rushing yards
The best game you didn't see this week was Princeton's 51-48 triple overtime win over Harvard, and Epperly was the reason the Tigers won: He threw a touchdown pass in each quarter and overtime, ran for four first downs, and threw the game-winner in the third overtime.
And yet, the game probably wouldn't have even gotten to overtime if Epperley had been a little better. He was stopped on four consecutive carries on a goal-to-go series in the first half, fumbled in his own territory at the end of the third quarter, and led a three-and-out on Princeton's final drive in regulation, allowing Harvard to get the ball back and drive for a potential game-winning field goal.
But Andrew Flesher — I couldn't dream up a better name for Harvard's kicker — missed that kick, and so Epperly got second, third, and fourth chances to be a hero, helping the Tigers score touchdowns each time.