AUBURN, Ala. – The Auburn Tigers believe their quarterback merits some Heisman Trophy consideration.
Nick Marshall has made clutch plays and maneuvered the third-ranked Tigers' offense with increasing proficiency in win after win, leading to a low-key Heisman push from his coaches.
Coach Gus Malzahn said Marshall "should be in the mix" for the award after leading Auburn into Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 5 Missouri. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is courting the undecided vote.
"Look, in a year when they seem to be having trouble deciding who they want to give it to, you look at all the teams that are winning and who is most valuable to their team," Lashlee said early this week. "I don't think you can say any more about Nick than what he's been able to do to get us to where we're at.
"He's no question our team leader, our guys believe in him and he just seems to make play after play after play."
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is the appears to be the leading candidate. A prosecutor announced Thursday that he won't be charged in sexual assault case.
Whether Marshall is a viable Heisman candidate or not, the junior college transfer has come a long way since fumbling his first snap against Washington State. He's forged a season of timely plays while directing one of the nation's top running attacks.
Now, Marshall must face a quarterback-harassing Missouri defense that may have just dealt a fatal blow to the hopes of a repeat Heisman for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. It's Marshall's turn.
"I don't get to watch other teams like all of you (reporters) do but he should be in the mix," Malzahn said. "He is one of the better players in college football. He is leading our team."
Marshall is returning to the Georgia Dome, where he led Wilcox County to a 30-21 victory over Savannah Christian in the Class A state championship game as a high school junior.
The onetime Georgia defensive back has defied the odds to make it back to the Dome on a much bigger stage. It wasn't Marshall's focus at the start of the season when he'd only had preseason camp to get the offense down.
"I really wasn't thinking about it," he said. "I was just focused on bonding with my team and just getting that playbook down. As I got used to it, and as we got on a roll, I figured it would be a good road to glory."
Marshall hasn't put up big stats in a run-oriented offense. He's 91st in passing yards per game and only North Carolina's Marquise Williams has played in at least 11 games and attempted fewer passes (201-184) among the top 100. He has passed for 1,627 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for 922 yards and 10 scores.
Marshall, though, has been clutch for the Tigers since following the SEC-to-JUCO-and-back route once traveled by Cam Newton, Auburn's 2010 Heisman winner.
He threw the game-winning Hail Mary to beat Georgia and made a 39-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left to tie Alabama after suggesting to coaches that the play would work. It was overshadowed by Chris Davis's return of a missed field goal on the final play.
Marshall, who also scored on a 45-yard run against Alabama, led the go-ahead touchdown drive late against Texas A&M and hit C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left in a 24-20 victory over Mississippi State early in the season.
Marshall said his philosophy late in games is simple.
"I just stay calm and just keep doing what coach tells me to do," he said. "Just don't get too rattled, just be cool, calm and collected, and everything else will fall into place."
Now, he faces SEC sack leader Michael Sam and a defense that held Manziel to 195 passing yards and 21 yards on 11 rushes.
"Marshall is obviously a great runner, probably the best runner other than Manziel that we faced this year," Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "So just focusing on knowing our assignment and being in our gap when we're supposed to be there.
"You have to trust your keys as a linebacker and also the safeties too. So if they scream downhill, and it's play action, that could be a pass also. So we're just going to focus on trusting our eyes."
And Auburn is going to keep trusting in Marshall.