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By Matthew Postins/College Football America Editor-in-Chief
The Heisman Trophy race has, frankly, been quite unpredictable the past two years. In 2011 Robert Griffin III rose to the award, despite being on few radars and playing at Baylor. Last year it was redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M. His rise was meteoric and changed the paradigm of how those that follow the award must approach handicapping the race. It should be as unpredictable as it has ever been.
The Defending Champion
Manziel represents another trend in the Heisman Trophy — underclassmen winners that come back for at least one season after winning the trophy. Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Mark Ingram all came back for another year. Manziel returns, though NFL eligibility rules don’t allow him to go to the NFL until after this season anyway. He has a unique opportunity to become the second back-to-back winner after Archie Griffin. Working for Manziel is the offense he plays in, the fact that most of his vital weapons return and a schedule that, despite its difficulty, means he’ll be on TV practically every week. Working against Manziel is the departure of offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and the loss of his key backside protector, Luke Joeckel.
The Defensive Game-Changer
A defensive player has not won the Heisman Trophy since Charles Woodson did it in 1997. Just about everyone agrees that South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney has an opportunity to be the second. He was sixth in Heisman voting last year, was on just about every All-America team and had the highlight of the season — his bone-rattling hit against Michigan in the Outback Bowl that ran on an endless loop on ESPN for months. All of that has kept Clowney front and center. In two seasons he has 21 sacks, 35.5 tackles for loss, and eight forced fumbles. Technically he’s only started 13 career games. Woodson had the advantage of being a return specialist. Clowney is the rare defensive Heisman candidate who doesn’t need that value-added of being anything more than what he is.
The SEC QBs
There will be plenty of focus on Manziel, but there are a couple of other SEC quarterbacks that can contend for the Heisman. Alabama’s AJ McCarron has two national championship rings as a starter, a good-looking girlfriend and an Alabama team that should be a consensus No. 1 to start the season. McCarron doesn’t put up silly numbers, but sometimes being the quarterback on the best team in the land is enough. Georgia’s Aaron Murray wants to get where McCarron is now and he should be a first-round NFL pick. But he needs the Bulldogs to win the SEC to have a real shot at this award.
Out West, the Skill Guys
The Pac-12 loves offense and there are two guys that could put up dizzying numbers in 2013. Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey was on eight All-America teams, broke Arizona’s single-season rushing record with 1,919 yards and pitched in 23 touchdowns. Every NFL scout will have its eyes on Carey this season. Same goes for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who took over as a redshirt freshman and put up great numbers (2,677 yards passing, 752 yards rushing). And don’t forget USC WR Marqise Lee, who could put up huge numbers for the Trojans as long as they can get him the ball.
Three More QB’s with a Chance
This is a quarterback-heavy Heisman class and three others deserve mention. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller will benefit from being in the same system that produced Tim Tebow’s Heisman-winning campaign and the fact that the Buckeyes will be off probation. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is one of the nation’s most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks. He’s put up sensational numbers, but he’s a candidate that really needs his team to go undefeated or lose just one game. Same goes for Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, who put himself on the map with Louisville’s Sugar Bowl win over Florida.
Under the Radar
Would any of these guys have a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman in 2013? Right now they don’t. But as Griffin and Manziel proved, it’s a long way to December.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State: He’s already being called the next Johnny Manziel. He’s a similar dual-threat quarterback in that he has a great arm and great quickness. Just like Manziel, last year, he hasn’t played in a game and he’s a redshirt freshman. Everyone that knows college football knows Winston is talented and could have a significant impact on the ACC race in 2013.
Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois: Yes, his rep took a big hit in the Orange Bowl loss to Florida State. Yes, he plays in the MAC. But Lynch is a dynamic talent who plays in an offense perfectly suited for his abilities. Every single thing has to break right for Lynch to even be a finalist. But he’ll have the numbers at the end of the season, I assure you.
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington: This guy blew up in Seattle last year and I’m not sure it registered with anyone. He rushed for 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns. But he was overshadowed by his own quarterback, Keith Price, and Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey. We all know defense isn’t exactly a high priority in the Pac-12, so he could have another big year.
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor:
Seastrunk told the media this spring his goal is to win a Heisman. You have to love the confidence. Seastrunk plays in an offense that is perceived to be all pass, but he could shift the paradigm. Seastrunk gained more than 1,000 yards in 2012 and the quarterback position is untested. Still, you’d have more confidence if Seastrunk were throwing the ball.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
Mark is in an offense perfectly suited for him to put up big numbers. He hasn’t hit his ceiling as a player. He adds the additional threat of being a punt returner, as he scored on two returns last year. If Northwestern reaches the Big Ten title game, Mark will be the reason why.
And the Award goes to …
Clowney. Yes, I’m taking the defensive guy. The fact is I think a lot of people want to give the award to a defensive player and Clowney is the best to come along in a generation.