Last year, at this time, Alabama was coming off a frightening BCS Championship victory over Notre Dame.
Now, the Crimson Tide are on a two-game losing streak, and the quarterback that led Notre Dame to that game hasn't played another game since.
Top 100 Games
Top 100 Games
2013 was no less surprising. Jameis Winston came out of relative nowhere to win the Heisman and lead FSU to its first national title in 14 years. Johnny Manziel put up even better stats than he did in his magical 2012 Heisman run, but failed to win as often on the field. UCF and Baylor didn't just make BCS bowls — they met in one. And Ohio State had a 24-game win streak end without a conference championship, bowl victory, or Heisman finalist. It was a weird year.
But they are all weird years, and guessing the Heisman winner in January of any given one is tremendously difficult because of it. But I'm confident the next Heisman winner is somewhere in this list.
QB Jameis Winston, Florida State Seminoles
2013 Season: 257-for-384, 4,057 passing yards, 40 TDs, 10 INTs; 219 rushing yards, four rushing TDs
Winston won going away in 2013, as a big-numbers quarterback of an undefeated team playing for a national title often does. He will enter 2014 in the role occupied by Manziel and Tim Tebow before him: a too-young-to-drink favorite whose strengths will be backgrounded as his flaws get magnified.
The slate won't be quite as laughable as the one FSU streaked through in 2013. Clemson and Florida play the Seminoles in Tallahassee, and while Clemson loses Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, Florida shouldn't be the shell of itself that hosted FSU this past November. Oklahoma State awaits the 'Noles in Dallas, and Notre Dame comes to Tallahassee to renew a series that provided many highlights in the 1990s. Miami's still improving and gets the 'Noles in South Florida, and the ACC might have one or two other decent teams.
But that might end up helping Winston. He's been at his best in big games. More opportunities to impress is usually a good thing for Heisman contenders. And even though he's losing Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman, Kenny Shaw, and James Wilder, Jr., there's more than enough skill-position talent in Tallahassee to sustain a great offense.
QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon Ducks
2013 Season: 245-for-386, 3,665 passing yards, 31 TDs, four INTs; 715 rushing yards, nine rushing TDs
Mariota was on track to win the Heisman if Oregon went undefeated. His numbers were comparable to Winston's, he had the front-runner's edges of name recognition and comfort, and he would have been every bit as fresh a winner as Winston was. But Oregon lost to Stanford, somehow deleting Mariota's name from the list.
Now Mariota's got an even better kick-start to his 2014 Heisman campaign than Winston does: a September date against Michigan State and its ballyhooed defense in Eugene. If Mariota leads the Ducks past the rugged Spartans, expect media declarations that this is Oregon's year, with laurels aplenty for Mariota.
The schedule sets up nicely for the Ducks in general in 2014, with Washington, Stanford, and Arizona all coming to Autzen Stadium and Arizona State not on the docket for the regular season. Mariota should be the sole Heisman candidate on the roster, with speed merchant De'Anthony Thomas in the NFL.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State Buckeyes
2013 Season: 162-for-255, 2,094 passing yards, 24 TDs, seven INTs; 1,068 rushing yards, 12 TDs
QB Bryce Petty, Baylor Bears
2013 Season: 250-for-403, 4,200 passing yards, 32 TDs, three INTs; 209 rushing yards, 14 TDs
RB Todd Gurley, Georgia Bulldogs
2013 Season: 154 carries, 989 rushing yards, 10 TDs; 31 catches, 441 yards, six TDs
QB Brett Hundley, UCLA Bruins
2013 Season: 248-for-371, 3,071 passing yards, 24 TDs, nine INTs; 748 rushing yards, 11 TDs
Miller's sort of the older, less-polished version of Winston and Mariota, both of whom bested Miller's junior year as a passer in their first full seasons as collegiate signal-callers. But he's poised to have an enormous statistical year, especially with Kenny Guiton and Carlos Hyde headed to the pros. If Miller can stay healthy, he'll probably be in New York in December.
Petty had his chance to be there in 2013, but it evaporated with Baylor's late-season swoon. Baylor will not have Lache Seastrunk in 2014, but Art Briles has been fine without stars on offense for a while now, and Petty could have a phenomenal year throwing the ball without a go-to running back.
Gurley's been the best running back in the SEC for two years running, with apologies to the dozen or so SEC running backs who will eventually play on Sundays, especially Tre Mason. His 989 yards in 10 games looks even better when you remember that Georgia's schedule was actually really challenging in 2013. Gurley will have an even bigger role in 2014, with the departure of Aaron Murray. (Gurley's stats are also likely to be cannibalized a bit by the return of Keith Marshall and the arrival of five-star freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.)
Permit me to share in the skepticism on Hundley as a complete player as of now, but he'll put up numbers in Noel Mazzone's offense at UCLA. The Bruins are only getting better, and UCLA returns five of his six favorite targets. Also, the one really tough road game on Oregon's 2014 schedule will be played in Pasadena; Hundley could steal Mariota's momentum if the Bruins, who played Oregon tough in a deceptive 42-14 loss in 2013, can knock off the Ducks.
The running pack
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin Badgers
2013 Season: 206 carries, 1,609 rushing yards, 12 TDs
Gordon ran for 7.81 yards per carry in 2013 — down from his 10.02 yards per carry in 2012 — and put up 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also got practically no hype because of Wisconsin's season, which got practically no hype after that bizarre loss to Arizona State. Also, he was the second banana to James White, who got 53 more touches.
That will change in 2014. White moves on. Gordon sees LSU in Wisky's season opener, a game sure to ballast his Heisman stock if he runs amok. From there he'll have every opportunity to roll up a gargantuan season stat line in Big Ten play, as the Badgers duck Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State. Gordon also had just 206 carries in 2013; if he gets 250 to 275 carries and manages seven yards a pop in 2014, he'll be threatening 2,000 rushing yards as the centerpiece of a potentially Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin team, and that same formula got Wisconsin's Ron Dayne the Heisman 15 years ago.
RB Karlos Williams, Florida State Seminoles
2013 Season: 91 carries, 730 rushing yards, 11 TDs
You thought the praise for Jimbo Fisher was lavish this year? Wait until Florida State's leading rusher is Williams, who had 730 yards in mostly mop-up duty in 2013. He was moved from safety, where he struggled to play consistently, to running back midway through the season.
Williams — Los, if you're on #FSUTwitter and/or nasty — never got more than 13 carries in a game in 2013, but still topped 100 yards twice, and should be the workhorse for FSU's running game in 2014, with Freeman and Wilder out of the picture. FSU went 15 years between 1,000-yard rushers, with Freeman becoming the first 'Nole to make it to the plateau since Warrick Dunn. It seems likely that Williams will allow FSU to go back-to-back. And if Williams is more impressive or spectacular than Winston, somehow, there's a chance that he could sop up some of his support, like Reggie Bush did to Matt Leinart in 2005.
RB Derrick Henry, Alabama Crimson Tide
2013 Season: 35 carries, 389 rushing yards, three TDs
That stat line seems like nothing, except when you consider that he never got more than the eight carries he got against Oklahoma in a game in 2013, and that he also had a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown against the Sooners.
Henry's still probably no better than second on Alabama's depth chart behind T.J. Yeldon (a Heisman candidate in his own right, but also one who could lose a lot of carries if his fumbling issues continue), but his 10.91 yards per carry is beyond ridiculous. And it would be more ridiculous if Henry hadn't been struggling behind a line that was porous by Alabama standards early on, managing just 19 yards over his four carries in September.
I doubt we see an Alabama running back even make it to New York now that the depth at the position is the most daunting in college sports (also including former blue-chips Altee Tenpenny and Kenyan Drake) but if one goes, I would bet it would be Henry, who has the most breakout potential.
Whoever ends up being Auburn's lead running back
Auburn's top three running backs, 2013 season: 474 carries, 3,073 rushing yards, 35 TDs
We don't know who Auburn's No. 1 running back is going to be, just that it won't be the NFL-bound Mason.
Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne return, and each had more than 600 yards this year. Grant averaged 9.80 yards per carry, but never got double-digit carries on the season, so he would be my best bet, though incoming freshman Racean "Roc" Thomas would be arguably the most talented player on the roster.
But if Auburn stays as run-heavy as it was in 2013 (somewhat unlikely, since Gus Malzahn changes things -- Auburn's rushes decreased in 2011 during his first stint) and one guy gets a greater share of the carries than Mason did (even more unlikely), that player could be in line for 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Quarterback Nick Marshall's name could come up, but quarterbacks need to be especially prolific passers to be Heisman finalists these days.
RB Mike Davis, South Carolina Gamecocks
2013 Season: 203 carries, 1,183 yards, 11 rushing TDs; 34 catches, 352 yards
Davis is the forgotten man in the SEC's loaded running back group, but he'll be a bigger part of South Carolina's offense than he was in 2013, due to the departure of Connor Shaw. And South Carolina has ridden its horse at running back under Spurrier: Marcus Lattimore had 249 carries as a freshman, and was on pace for more than 300 as a sophomore before suffering his first season-ending injury. Davis has no such injury concerns and a stout line in front of him.
The darkhorse Knight
2013 Season: 79-for-134, 819 yards, nine TDs, five INTs; 445 rushing yards, two rushing TDs
In the Sugar Bowl, Knight bedeviled Alabama like no quarterback of recent vintage save Johnny Manziel has. That alone makes him the honorary recipient of the Teddy Bridgewater Bowl Bump.
But Oklahoma was also a team in need of an offensive identity all year, and finally found one with Knight as the guy in New Orleans. If Knight can keep up that level of play — which would be surprising, though the kid did absolutely torch Alabama — there's enough talent around him at OU to do very interesting things in 2014.
QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall Thundering Herd
2013 Season: 298-for-499, 3,916 passing yards, 39 TDs, nine INTs; 294 rushing yards, six rushing TDs
QB Matt Johnson, Bowling Green Falcons
2013 Season: 237-for-369, 3,467 passing yards, 25 TDs, seven INTs; 238 rushing yards, five rushing TDs
QB Shane Carden, East Carolina Pirates
2013 Season: 387-for-549 carries, 4,139 passing yards, 33 TDs, 10 INTs; 10 rushing TDs
QB Keenan Reynolds, Navy Midshipmen
2013 Season: 300 carries, 1,346 rushing yards yards, 31 rushing TDs; 1,057 passing yards, eight TDs, two INTs
It's going to be a fallow year for those hoping for Heisman candidates to emerge from New Year's non-automatic-qualifier teams. With Jordan Lynch and Derek Carr graduating, Kapri Bibbs of Colorado State would probably have been the best bet. He was in former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain's offense with the Rams, and he was that offense down the stretch in 2013, rushing for 905 yards in his final five games despite twice being held under 80 yards. Instead, he's turning pro, leaving the mid-major field lacking.
Cato's got a lot of narrative similarity to Teddy Bridgewater. Both players were somewhat undersized stud prep quarterbacks in South Florida who got tabbed as athletes instead of quarterbacks, ended up quite a ways from Miami for their college careers, and have played wonderfully as pocket passers. But he has even less chance of being a Heisman finalist. Bridgewater needed a flawless season just to have a chance, and didn't get it; Cato would need an undefeated season and a stat line that trumps his last two years (in which he's thrown for 8,117 yards and 76 touchdowns!) to make it.
Johnson would need a big, big statistical leap to make it to New York, but the MAC did produce two straight years of Lynch doing stupid things to its defenses. And Bowling Green's new coach, Dino Babers, runs Briles' offense, so Johnson should still be fun to watch.
Carden's an interesting prospect because he combines air raid numbers with uncanny accuracy — only Bridgewater topped him in completion percentage in 2013. But I still have to look up which conference ECU plays in to be sure, and I've liked ECU for many years.
Reynolds tied Bibbs' 31-touchdown mark in 2013, and is probably the best talent Navy has had at QB under Ken Niumatololo, but this isn't 1963. Service academy players are not legitimate Heisman candidates.
The (potential) transfer
QB Jacob Coker, Alabama Crimson Tide?
2013 Season (at Florida State): 18-for-36, 250 yards, one INT
Laugh all you want
Laugh all you want
Coker lost Florida State's quarterback competition to Jameis Winston. But that doesn't mean he's a bad quarterback by any means. Check out the fawning done in Bruce Feldman's recent piece on Coker, who will graduate in the spring and could be immediately eligible at Alabama, a logical destination for a guy who grew up a Tide fan in Mobile.
And, well, AJ McCarron made it to New York on the strength of being a winning winner who won. If Coker transfers to 'Bama, you can add top-level quarterback play to a Tide offense that might be a little more pass-happy under Lane Kiffin. Kiffin, you may recall, was USC's co-offensive coordinator when both Bush and Leinart were Heisman finalists.
But as of right now, Coker is Winston's backup at Florida State.
RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State Seminoles
For all of the many things Florida State's record-setting offense had in 2013, it did not have a backfield touchdown threat as good as Cook, a consensus five-star recruit who flipped from Florida to FSU on New Year's Eve. Just watch Cook's highlights (maybe on mute, just as a warning):
Cook is an early enrollee, so he's already on campus in Tallahassee, and he could well be FSU's change-of-pace back early on. True Heisman contention for him is likely to be a ways down the line, but Cook's speed and agility are special, and if any team could actually have three legitimate Heisman candidates in 2014, it's the loaded 'Noles.
RB Leonard Fournette, LSU Tigers
The consensus on Fournette is that he's the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. And Peterson was a Heisman finalist as a freshman, so it's only (completely un)fair to expect the same thing out of Fournette.
In seriousness, though, LSU is losing workhorse Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue to the NFL Draft, and new Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings — who could be a Heisman candidate in his own right with an LSU resurgence — could use a heavy dose of a bruising LSU running game early on. Fournette will have to beat out Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, no slouches, for the lion's share of LSU's carries, but if he's as good as advertised, who knows?
QB Kyle Allen, Texas A&M Aggies
Manziel's departure leaves a gaping hole at quarterback for A&M. But having one of the nation's top-rated quarterbacks on the way could solve that problem. Allen's more of a pocket passer than Manziel — Randall Cunningham might have been more of a pocket passer than 2012's Manziel, to be fair — but he's got an excellent arm. And he is already enrolled at A&M, which will allow him to compete with Kenny Hill for the starting job this spring. If Allen can win it, A&M still has an embarrassment of riches at skill positions to help him out.
Photos: Ezra Shaw,Getty; Sam Greenwood, Getty; Rob Foldy, USA Today; Streeter Lecka, Getty; Matt Cashore, USA Today; Kim Klement, USA Today.