Biggest Challenge for Each Top 2014 Heisman Candidate

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2014

Biggest Challenge for Each Top 2014 Heisman Candidate

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The past four winners of the Heisman Trophy—Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston—were not considered preseason favorites for the award. They won despite being thought of as dark horses (Newton, Griffin and Winston) or not being thought of at all (Manziel).

    Part of that was due to their own dominance, but part of it had to do with the performance of the players who were considered preseason front-runners. Many of those players played well, but none were able to perform like true Heisman candidates over an entire season.

    This year's Heisman front-runners face a similar threat. Their biggest challenge is the emergence of another Newton, Griffin, Manziel or Winston, but they also have intrinsic questions to answer. 

    Whether it be skills that they must improve, stigmas that they must shake or pitfalls that they must avoid, even the strongest candidates have something standing between them and posting Heisman-worthy numbers. There are obstacles they must overcome.

    On that note, let's look at the 10 betting favorites to win the 2014 Heisman, per Vegas Insider, and highlight their biggest challenge.

    Sound off below, and let me know where you disagree.

Sleeper Outside the Top 10: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska

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    Associated Press

    Biggest Challenge: Losing Fewer Than Four Games

    Since Tim Brown in 1987 (Note Dame), no Heisman winner has played for a team that lost four games. This could be a problem for Nebraksa running back Ameer Abdullah, whose head coach, Bo Pelini, has lost exactly four games in each of his six seasons with the team.

    For Abdullah, team success presents a much bigger challenge than individual success, the latter of which has never been a problem. His 4,914 career all-purpose yards are the most among active FBS players, as were his 1,690 rushing yards from 2013.

    But with tough road games at Fresno State, Northwestern, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa, along with a home game against Miami, Nebraska might be staring down the barrel of another 9-4 season.

    And in that case, Abdullah would have to break some records, a la Ricky Williams or Ron Dayne, to win the Heisman.

10. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Biggest Challenge: Auburn's Schedule

    Between his rushing and passing numbers—the latter of which should improve with a stacked group of wide receivers—Nick Marshall will put up good enough stats to win the Heisman.

    But only if Auburn contends for a national championship.

    Because unless he makes an even bigger leap than expected as a passer, Marshall's numbers will be solid but not the type that are impossible to ignore despite two or three losses—the type Griffin and Manziel rode to the Heisman in recent years.

    Instead, Marshall's numbers will have to be viewed in context. They will only be Heisman-worthy if the Tigers contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff; and the Tigers will only contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff if they overcome a brutal schedule.

    All five of Auburn's road games come against teams that ranked in the Top 30 of the Amway Preseason Coaches Poll (Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Kansas State, Mississippi State), and home games against LSU and South Carolina will be no walk in the park, either.

    Can Marshall guide his team through such a difficult slate and make it out with one or zero losses? He might have to.

9. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Challenge: Opponents Stacking the Box

    Melvin Gordon has posted huge per-attempt averages the past two seasons, but he has done so in a supporting role behind Montee Ball and/or James White in an offense with a decent passing game.

    This year, Gordon graduates to the leading role and still has (what should be) a great offensive line, but he no longer has a passing attack that opponents must respect. Seniors Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen were the only pass-catchers this team could count on last season, and its third-leading receiver was White.

    This and the uncertainty at quarterback, where incumbent Joel Stave is trying to hold off Tanner McEvoy, should allow defenses to stack the box against the run and dare Wisconsin to throw.

    Thus, Gordon's increased workload could turn into a deflated per-attempt average, reducing the stat that made him a Heisman contender in the first place and putting his candidacy in doubt.

8. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Biggest Challenge: Getting the Ball out of His Hands

    Brett Hundley is the quintessence of a modern quarterback prospect. He is 6'3" with plus athleticism and a strong, accurate arm...which makes it curious that he has never put up truly great statistics.

    Much of that can be attributed to the fact that Hundley, despite his physical gifts, has one inescapable flaw: He holds on to the football too long. The quick, efficient release is a mental part of the game he hasn't mastered.

    UCLA finished second to last in the country with 52 sacks allowed in 2012—Hundley's redshirt freshman season—and even though it improved to "just" 36 sacks allowed in 2013, it still ranked No. 109.

    If Hundley wants to win this award, UCLA must earn or compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and teams that incur so many negative plays are not often national title contenders. Beyond that, the more sacks Hundley takes, the more likely he is to get banged up or seriously injured—especially since he is a running QB to begin with.

    A healthier (and ostensibly better) offensive line should help, but only part of the blame here can be heaped on Hundley's blockers. At some point, the quarterback needs to know when the play is over, rocket it into the stands and get ready for the next down.

7. Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Biggest Challenge: Playing Each Game Like the Sugar Bowl

    At his best, Trevor Knight is more than just a Heisman contender; he's a bona fide Heisman favorite. 

    Not just anyone can shred the Alabama defense, and Bob Stoops has coached Jason White and Sam Bradford to this award in the past. Knight is also a dual-threat option who excels with his legs, which can be said of all four of the previous Heisman winners.

    The problem is that Knight isn't always "at his best." In fact, he very rarely is. The Sugar Bowl triumph over Alabama was just the second good game of Knight's career, and early-season debacles against UL-Monroe and West Virginia have not been forgotten.

    Despite this, Knight still has the coaching staff behind him. Former quarterback Blake Bell, who registered 107 more offensive plays than Knight did last season, has been moved to tight end to get Knight on the field more often. This offense is officially his.

    "He can be the Sugar Bowl guy," offensive coordinator Josh Heupel told George Schroeder of USA Today. "Everybody in our program is really confident he's gonna be that. He's got a really high ceiling."

    But how much stock can we put into those comments?

    Every program is "confident" in its quarterback during August, and high ceilings don't mean anything until they are realized (see: Logan Thomas). Knight has all the skills to be a Heisman contender, and his team is well-positioned to make a run at the CFP; more so than some of the other quarterbacks on this list, the factors he can't control work in his favor. But what about the factors that he can control?

    On that front, Knight still has some proving to do.

6. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Challenge: The Other Heisman Candidate in the Backfield

    T.J. Yeldon has the talent to win this award. He has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and he was named MVP of the A-Day game for the third consecutive season this spring.

    Yeldon also has the precedent to win this award. Former Alabama running back Mark Ingram is the only non-quarterback to win the Heisman since 2005 (and the only one to keep it since 1999).

    And for the most part, Yeldon has the supporting cast to win this award. The offensive line is not as experienced as in years past, but it's still an Alabama offensive line consisting of only blue-chip recruits. And with questions at QB, this team will run the ball a lot.

    Unfortunately, there is one member of the supporting cast who stands in opposition to Yeldon's Heisman chances. That would be sophomore Derrick Henry, the leading rusher in high school football history who sat on the bench for most of last season but broke out with two long touchdowns/statement runs in the Sugar Bowl.

    How will those two share the ball in 2014? It's one of the many questions Alabama is lucky to have to answer. But no matter who emerges as the lead dog this season, Henry will take at least a sizable bite out of Yeldon's production. He is too talented not to.

    That talent led Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report to project Henry as the Tide's No. 1 running back in April. It led me to make a similar prediction one month earlier. In fact, the odds used to come up with these 10 favorites had Henry listed only a few spots behind Yeldon as a Heisman candidate...despite only 37 career touches.

    These two hurt each other's chances more than they help them.

5. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Biggest Challenge: The "Product of the System" Argument

    Fair or not (it's not), voters will not want to award the Heisman to a Baylor quarterback for the second time in four seasons.

    Bryce Petty must make it impossible for them to say no.

    Unless he does, his candidacy might be doomed by the "product of the system" argument, which will broadly state that head coach Art Briles and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery are the ones who make Baylor's offense go, not the players.

    As evidence to support their claim, people will point to Robert Griffin III, who won the award under Briles and Montgomery three seasons ago, and also to Nick Florence, who retired from football after throwing for 4,309 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2012. It's not just future NFL Rookies of the Year but also future MBA candidates who have posted huge numbers in this offense.

    Of course, Florence retired of his own volition, and there's no telling how he would have fared in the NFL. And none of that actually matters regardless. Petty is a great player in his own right, which is why he has been mentioned as a potential top-10 NFL draft pick and was No. 6 on Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks List" at

    Still, the stigma around Baylor quarterbacks exists, and it's something Petty will have to contend with all season. Other than that, though, he appears to be in perfect position for a Heisman run.

4. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Biggest Challenge: Staying Healthy

    Like another player on this list, but perhaps to a lesser degree, Todd Gurley's biggest challenge this season will be health.

    Yes, this is true for every Heisman candidate, but it takes on a new meaning for someone who plays as physically as Gurley does. Injuries are about the only thing that hindered him 2013, when he still rushed for just under 1,000 yards despite playing with a badly impaired ankle.

    When healthy, Gurley has a rare blend of power and speed that college football hasn't seen since Adrian Peterson. Georgia's offensive line isn't the greatest in the conference, and Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb will fight him for carries, but Gurley brings a once-in-a-decade skill set to a team with national title aspirations.

    If he stays on the field, that is a scary combination to compete with. Even if he doesn't lead the nation in rushing or anything, people will know whom Georgia's best player was should it win the SEC title.

    And that might be enough to land him the trophy.

3. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

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    Associated Press

    Biggest Challenge: Staying Healthy

    Technically, this could be said about any Heisman contender—or any other college football player, for that matter. The success of one's season is largely dictated by staying on the field.

    Still, it feels especially important to say this about Braxton Miller, who probably would have attended the Heisman ceremony in New York if not for missing two games with a sprained knee last September. In his stead against California and Florida A&M, backup Kenny Guiton came in and posted the huge numbers that should have been Miller's.

    This year, Carlos Hyde is gone from the backfield, which could mean an increased running workload. Miller will be option No. 1 in short-yardage situations, not option No. 1a. He will be counted on to shoulder—unthinkably—an even bigger load than in 2012 and 2013.

    After undergoing minor surgery on his throwing shoulder this winter, Miller was held out of spring practice. There is no reason to expect that that injury will linger into 2014, but it is yet another strike against his health. The way he plays lends itself to a beating, and his body has not proved particularly adept at handling it.

    If he wants to win the Heisman, it must be.

2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Biggest Challenge: Finding New Pass-Catchers

    This is a relatively foreign threat to Oregon, which has successfully developed receivers since the start of the new millennium. 

    Younger players have had time to learn the scheme, playing a supporting role for a couple of years before being asked to come in and lead the unit. No underclassman has been the top wide receiver in Eugene since Samie Parker back in 2001.

    But that streak might come to an end in 2014, when Oregon loses two of last year's top three receivers (Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins) to graduation and another (Bralon Addison) to an ACL tear this spring. Senior Keanon Lowe returns but projects as a complementary piece in the slot instead of a go-to receiver on the outside.

    All of which puts an inordinate amount of pressure on Marcus Mariota, who might well be the most talented quarterback in the country but can't run this offense on his own. He'll be tasked with helping a deep group of youngsters—outlined more thoroughly here—learn on the fly and attempt to compete for a national title.

    Oregon won't get a chance to ease into the season, either. Not with Michigan State and its "No Fly Zone" secondary visiting Autzen Stadium in Week 2. The Spartans love to play press coverage on the outside, and even after losing all-world cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis, they still return a pair of All-Big Ten candidates in cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond.

    Will Mariota's Heisman chances take a big hit early? If he can't get his young receivers up to speed, there's a good chance they might.

1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Biggest Challenge: Voter Fatigue (and Disapproval)

    As was the case with Bryce Petty, there are not many on-field factors working against Jameis Winston this season.

    He has five seniors on the offensive line, including both starting tackles and guards from last year's dominant unit. He has Karlos Williams, Ryan Green, Mario Pender and Dalvin Cook in the backfield. He has Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and some talented young pieces—two of whom are top-45 incoming freshmen—to catch passes.

    He also has the fact that he's crazy talented.

    Despite this, however, Winston faces the same challenges that have plagued every potential repeat Heisman winner since Archie Griffin. Specifically, there's a chance he has gotten too much attention this offseason, which will surely lead to cases of voter fatigue. And because that attention has often been for the "wrong reasons," it will also lead to instances of downright voter disapproval.

    Winston was never charged in the sexual assault case he faced last season, and by the doctrine of "innocent until proven guilty," voters cannot justifiably hold that against him. But the saga is impossible to erase from the mind completely, especially in conjunction with his citation for shoplifting crab legs this spring.

    Fair or not, there will be voters out there looking for a reason to not give Winston another Heisman. Whether it be the emergence of another candidate or a teeny-tiny defect in his numbers, it will persuade them to go with an alternative choice.

    Like Petty, Winston must make it impossible for them to say no.

    Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports composite rankings

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