Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Analyzing Heisman Trophy candidates in August is a crap shoot.
There are a number of variables that could unfold over the next few months, which several of last season's early favorites -- Teddy Bridgewater, Aaron Murray, Tajh Boyd, Jadeveon Clowney and De'Anthony Thomas -- learned when their preseason hype did not translate into an invite to New York City in mid-December.
Still, we've got to start somewhere, and with the 2014 campaign just around the corner, here's a look at the guys most likely to be hoisting the Heisman over his head when the regular season comes to an end.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State -- Where better to start this list than with last year's winner? Winston followed Johnny Manziel in 2013 to become the second straight freshman to take home the award after a sensational campaign in which he completed just shy of 67 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdown and only 10 interceptions, and he capped off his stellar season with a last-minute, go-ahead touchdown toss in the BCS National Championship Game. While there's few doubting Winston's abilities, there are some red flags after he spent the offseason in the headlines for off-the-field issues. He also lost his two top offensive weapons (Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman), and despite being the overwhelming favorite early on, there hasn't been a back-to- back Heisman winner since Archie Griffin (1974-75).
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon -- After establishing himself as one of the nation's premiere signal callers the past two seasons, Mariota could have cashed in this offseason by entering the NFL Draft, where he certainly would have been a first round pick. Instead, the junior is back as he tries once again to lead the Ducks, who are ranked No. 4 in the Preseason Coaches Poll behind Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma, to that elusive national championship. Mariota's talent is clear -- last season he completed 68.5 percent of his passes with 32 touchdowns and only six picks, while adding 752 yards and five scores on the ground -- but he'll need to step up his game in crunch time to take home the award, as he's just 3-3 in his last six games played in the month of November.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State -- Another dual-threat quarterback who opted to return in 2014, Miller is also out for revenge this time around after his Buckeyes spoiled a perfect campaign in 2013 by dropping their last two bouts to Michigan State (34-24) and Clemson (40-35). Miller came up small when his team needed him the most, completing just 8-of-21 passes in the Big Ten title tilt, but he still showed marked improvement last season. Despite missing two games (and most of a third), he still set career highs in passing yards (2,094) and passing touchdowns (24), while adding 1,068 rushing yards and 12 additional scores. If he can stay healthy and lead Ohio State to the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff, an invite to New York City seems likely.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor -- No quarterback in the nation is sitting in a more ideal situation. Under offensive guru Art Briles, Baylor was the nation's most prolific offense in 2013, putting up 52.4 ppg and 618.8 ypg, both school records, and Petty's play was a big reason why. After attempting only 14 passes in his first two seasons combined, Petty earned the starting gig last year and responded by throwing for 4,200 yards, 32 touchdowns and a mere three interceptions, while also playing a major role at the goal line with 14 rushing scores. No matter how well he played in 2013, it's clear he'll need to perform even better this time around. Because of Baylor's disappointing finish, and maybe voters giving more credit to Briles' system than Petty's performance, he finished a distant seventh in last year's voting.
ON THE CUSP:
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA -- The Bruins finished last season an impressive 10-3, and if their No. 7 preseason ranking is any indication, they appear to be closing the gap on Oregon in the Pac-12. If they want to take that next step toward competing for one of the coveted four spots in the College Football Playoff, Hundley will need to further establish himself as an elite quarterback. Although he saw his passing yards and touchdowns decrease from his freshman to sophomore seasons, he was still outstanding in completing 67.2 percent of his throws with a strong touchdown-to-interception ratio (24-to-9), and he became an even bigger factor in the run game (748 yards, 11 TDs).
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia -- The Bulldogs fell short of lofty expectations in 2013 due to a number of injuries on the offensive side of the ball, including to Gurley, who missed three games in October with an ankle sprain. Because of that inaction, the talented tailback was unable to top an outstanding freshman season (1,385 yards, 17 TDs), but he was still dynamic when on the field with 989 yards and 10 TDs, and he also emerged as a solid receiver out of the backfield late in the year (26 receptions, 300 yards, four TDs over the final four games). With Aaron Murray gone, Georgia is sure to make Gurley the offensive centerpiece, and a monster campaign is likely to follow.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin -- It can be argued that no running back was more explosive during the 2013 season than Gordon. He managed to maintain an incredible yards per carry average (7.8) over the course of 206 totes, which added up to 1,609 yards. After serving as part of a backfield committee with James White (1,444 yards), the junior appears to be in line for a lot more work and the possibility of a 2,000-yard season, although he won't be able to see full-time action until he shows improvement on third down (only three career receptions).
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn -- This signal caller's stock is down after he was cited in July for marijuana possession, which has led to head coach Gus Malzahn benching Marshall for at least the start of the team's opener against Arkansas on Aug. 30. If he can overcome that adversity, however, Marshall is in line for a big year. He accounted for over 3,000 total yards and 26 touchdowns in 2013 in leading Auburn to an improbable SEC championship, although it remains to be seen how effective his option attack with be in the absence of standout running back Tre Mason (1,816 yards, 23 TDs).
THE DARK HORSES:
Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA -- Jack was a rare breed as a freshman in 2013, turning heads as a two-way player who was as productive on offense (38 carries, 267 yards (7.0 ypc), 7 touchdowns) as he was on defense (75 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 2 interceptions). A further evolution of his unique skill set could go a long way in sneaking him into the Heisman conversation, but reports out of Los Angeles state that head coach Jim Mora will be working Jack exclusively at linebacker for the time being.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State -- The Bulldogs have hopes of shocking their competition in the SEC West in 2014, and if they can take that next step it'll surely mean a huge season from Prescott. A dual-threat quarterback who spent most of last season splitting time with Tyler Russell, Prescott still found time to generate 1,940 passing yards, 829 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, and with the full-time job all his, a 35-TD campaign is not out of the question.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State -- As only a sophomore, Hackenberg is likely another year away from being seriously mentioned among the Heisman hopefuls, but after closing out his freshman campaign with a 339-yard, four-TD performance in a win over Wisconsin, the future looks bright for he and the Nittany Lions as the James Franklin era in Happy Valley is set to get underway.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU -- As the top offensive recruit by both Rivals.com and ESPN, Fournette landed in a prime spot at LSU and is in line for significant work from the very start. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound physical specimen, who rushed for 7,619 yards and 88 touchdowns in his high school career, is widely regarded as the top running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. Don't expect Fournette to duplicate Peterson's freshman numbers however (1,925 yards, 15 TDs), if for no other reason than it appears the volume won't quite be there with Terrence Magee (626 yards, eight TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven TDs) still in line for plenty of work.
Honorable mention: Trevor Knight (QB, Oklahoma), Everett Golson (QB, Notre Dame), Ameer Abdullah (RB, Nebraska), Sean Mannion (QB, Oregon State), T.J. Yeldon (RB, Alabama), Derrick Henry (RB, Alabama), Thomas Tyner (RB, Oregon), Karlos Williams (RB, Florida State).