Tom Lindley

Much discussion during the college football season centers on who’s going to win the Heisman Trophy – the award given to the year’s top player, typically a quarterback or running back.

Not this year. Talk this fall, understandably, has dealt with which four teams will be picked for the inaugural College Football Playoff.  Week after week, the potential lineup seems to change, with further jockeying likely to come.

Even if there's less talk, the Heisman Trophy remains prestigious, and selecting from college football's top players will be difficult. This year is no exception.

Most teams are scheduled for just two more games in the 2014 season, and the list of stars still dreaming of seeing their names engraved on the trophy is shrinking.

Leaders on the list of contenders include Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’s passed for 2,780 yards, with 29 passes going for touchdowns. Only two of his throws have been intercepted. Oregon plays Colorado this week - a game that offers Mariota a good chance to fatten those numbers.

What’s more the past four Heisman winners - and 8 of the last 10 - have been quarterbacks.

Critics have denigrated the Big Ten Conference all year, but the league has produced three of the country’s top running backs – Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman.

All have been mentioned in the discussion, but it’s Gordon who has moved into contention with Mariota to win the award. Gordon smashed the college record for rushing yards in a game last weekend when he ran for 408 yards against Nebraska, breaking the old record of 406 yards set by TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson in 1999.

Wide receivers normally don’t win the Heisman - only two have earned the honor, most recently Michigan’s Desmond Howard – but Alabama’s Amari Cooper could pull it off with a  blowout performance in the last two regular season games.

Cooper has 87 receptions good for 1,303 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has games remaining against Western Carolina and  Auburn to pad his statistics and pick up Heisman votes. Regardless, he looks to be a sure early pick in the National Football League draft.

Others still prominently mentioned as Heisman hopefuls are quarterback Trevone Boykin, who heads Texas Christian’s high-scoring offense, and Dak Prescott, who had Mississippi State ranked No. 1 in most polls before slipping against Alabama last weekend. Boykin has 24 TD strikes and Prescott has 20.

A name missing from Heisman discussion for most of the year has been Florida State’s Jameis Winston, who won the award last season as a freshman. Winston’s off-field troubles hurt his campaign this year, even though the Seminoles are the defending national champions and remain unbeaten. His 12 interceptions, however, are a glaring number on his statistical worksheet this year.

At the start of the year Winston looked to be the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman and become only the second player to claim it twice, an achievement accomplished by only Ohio State’s Archie Griffin. But the award goes to the “outstanding player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Regardless of what Winston does on the field – and it has been considerable – his off-field antics seem to disqualify him from serious consideration.

Just a quick review of past Heisman Trophy winners makes clear what a select group the 2014 recipient will join.

By a strange twist of fate, Jay Berwanger was the first Heisman winner and his school, the University of Chicago, doesn’t field a team anymore. Though drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Berwanger chose not to play professional football because he didn't feel it paid enough. Today’s winners are all but guaranteed NFL contracts sure to make them wealthy.

The secret to winning the Heisman is to start strong and finish brilliantly. Outstanding performances in the final games of the year count mightily with voters. Gordon's 408-yard performance rocketed him to the top of the rankings. Conversely injuries, like the ones suffered by Nebraska’s Abdullah or Georgia’s Todd Gurley, can be devastating.

In the end there will be 870 media voters plus 58 former Heisman winners casting their ballots for college football’s  top performer. The winner gets the most prestigious trophy awarded in amateur sports and immortality in college football history.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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