The calendar turns to November on Saturday, meaning semi-serious Heisman Trophy discussions can actually start happening. November is the month when the Heisman can be won or lost, when big-name players for high-profile teams play their most important games, when key rivalry games happen and when the natural picture finally starts becoming clear. It is the month for the game's best players (well, best quarterbacks mostly) to take center stage and push their teams toward national championships. Ultimately, that's what the Heisman is mostly about: High-profile players at glamor positions for national contenders.
Last year, Jameis Winston's defining game came in mid-October when Florida State blew out Clemson on the road in the ACC's biggest game, but he didn't move into the pole position until Marcus Mariota ran into the Stanford brick wall in early November. We're about to see similar position happening: Just before November begins, Winston will face the best defense he's seen all season (at Louisville on Thursday), given that he sat out the Clemson game. Mariota, meanwhile, has back-to-back games to open November against physical Stanford and Utah defenses with something to prove, given the way Stanford has handled Oregon each of the last two years. With many big games to come in the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, especially, some clarity should start developing in the race over the next few months. Entering the stretch run, here's how the landscape looks.
The Frontrunner: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
With Todd Gurley sidelined, nobody has been as consistently great as Mariota, who's had to fight through severe offensive line problems to keep Oregon afloat as a playoff contender. Mariota leads the nation in passing yards per attempt -- something three of the last four Heisman winners have done -- is completing 68.8 percent of his passes, didn't throw an interception until Week 9 and has 29 total touchdowns as the centerpiece of a Ducks offense that ranks fifth nationally in scoring and third in yards per play.
Mariota hasn't been as potent of a runner as he's been in the past, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but it's probably wise for Oregon to take some of the pressure off him, given last year's knee issues and the offensive line problems in front of him. He's getting hit enough in the passing game, and Oregon can't afford to lose him, as he is as important to his team as any player in the country, even if the Oregon offense is almost always prolific. Mariota is a polished passer and an explosive runner, when needed, with an exceptional command of the position, terrific accuracy and the ability to make throws downfield. Even when offensive line issues allowed him to be sacked seven times by Washington State, he still completed 21 of 25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns.
With Jake Fisher back at tackle, Mariota is better protected as Oregon gets set for the two best defenses on its schedule: Stanford, the Ducks' nemesis over the last few years, and Utah. While Stanford is in the middle of a down year, it has been among the nation's two or three best defenses, meaning a strong showing for Mariota would go a long toward further solidifying himself as the national frontrunner. If he's contained by Stanford and/or Utah and Oregon takes a hit in the playoff race, then get ready for a messy November/December finish to the Heisman race.
Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. Prescott is the face of the undefeated No. 1 team in the country, and he'll have chances to further establish his place nationally in November. Mississippi State has to play on the road against both Alabama and Ole Miss, two teams currently ranked in the top seven with the best defenses the Bulldogs will see this season. For now, Mariota gets the edge because Prescott hasn't been quite as consistently great, although he's obviously been one of the breakout stars in the sport as an ideal fit for Dan Mullen's offense.
In seven games, Prescott has completed 60 percent of his passes with an average of nine yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions, and he's also fourth nationally among quarterbacks with 664 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Mariota's the better pure passer, by far, but Prescott has been more heavily used in the run game as almost a power back, like Tebow was under Mullen.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. Yes, he's still here. There is a very, very slim chance of Winston actually winning the Heisman again -- unless there is no other choice -- but absurd second-half performance against Notre Dame showed that, at his peak, there's no better player in college football. Obviously, there's a ton working against him: He already sat out one game against a great defense because of a suspension, and off-the-field problems continue to hang over his head with a university conduct hearing still on its way.
On the field, Winston's numbers are down in some areas, but he also hasn't had nearly as much help, with a broken running game, an underperforming offensive line and less depth at wide receiver. That's not to say there isn't a ton of talent around him, but there's been more pressure on him to carry the offense along with WR Rashad Greene. In six games, Winston has completed 71 percent of his passes with an average of 8.9 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, along with two rushing TDs. Florida State doesn't have many high-profile games left, but Thursday's trip to Louisville is an opportunity to beat a good defense on the road, plus Virginia also had a solid defense and plenty of attention will be paid to games against Miami and Florida. He's not going to win, but if voters treat the Heisman as an award based solely on on-field accomplishments, then he's in the discussion.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska. Abdullah's hopes of winning rest on a rebound performance against Michigan State (or a big performance against Ohio State) in the Big Ten title game, should Nebraska get there. Abdullah has been outstanding most of the season, but in his most high-profile game, the Spartans held him to 45 yards on 24 carries, which will be tough to overcome. Still, Abdullah's overall numbers are impossible to ignore. He has 180 carries for 1,249 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 6.94 yards per carry, and he's also caught 13 passes for 169 yards and two TDs. Facing disaster against McNeese State, Abdullah bailed Nebraska out with a 58-yard TD catch. Against Miami, he ran for 229 yards -- one of his four 200-yard rushing performances in eight games. He's a dynamic runner with explosiveness and excellent vision, emerging as Nebraska's best offensive weapon since Eric Crouch won the Heisman in 2001.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin. Abdullah has a slight edge over Gordon right now, but it's hard to find much fault with Gordon. He was dominant in the first half against LSU before disappearing because of an apparent injury, and since a lousy day the next week against Western Illinois, he's been phenomenal despite playing in a one-dimensional offense. As the true lead runner for the first time in his career, Gordon hasn't lost any of his explosiveness, as he's averaging 7.58 yards per rush with 154 carries for 1,168 yards and 16 touchdowns. The big showcase will come on Nov. 15 in Madison, when Abdullah and Gordon -- two close friends -- will duel at Camp Randall Stadium in a game that could play a big role in determining if one of them gets to New York.
Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU. From potential wide receiver to star quarterback, Boykin has undergone an incredible transformation under new offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, emerging as a newly confident and polished passer who's been a perfect fit for an opened-up offense. It's also Boykin's first full year as the clear starter, and he's the centerpiece of an offense that has improved from 88th to first in scoring and 105th to 12th in yards per play. After the Horned Frogs scored 82 on Texas Tech, and given that they scored 58 in their loss to Baylor, Boykin has justifiably vaulted into the conversation. While his completion percentage is low at 58.7 percent and he ranks 31st in yards per attempt (8.1), he's been the driving force behind the team's incredible offensive improvement, with 24 total touchdowns, just three interceptions and 374 rushing yards. He just keeps getting better, too, throwing for over 400 yards in each of the last two games against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. With West Virginia on tap Saturday, keep in mind that Boykin had 100 receiving yards against the Mountaineers a year ago. Between WVU and next week's visit from Kansas State, he has two more big-time opportunities to leap into the conversation.
Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn. Marshall isn't the polished passer that others on this list are, but he's the most explosive running quarterback threat and has the ability to vault toward the forefront of the discussion if Auburn can survive its road gauntlet coming up that features Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. If Auburn is to somehow navigate this path and stay alive as a playoff contender, it will rely heavily on Marshall, who came through with key plays to edge South Carolina in Saturday's shootout, as he completed 12 of 14 passes for 139 yards and a TD, and he ran 10 times for 89 yards and three TDs. He's cracked 100 yards rushing four times this season with 581 yards on the ground, and he's shown some signs of improvement as a passer, although his completion percentage sits at 58.3 percent with an average of 7.7 yards per attempt.
Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame. At times, Golson has looked as good as any quarterback in the country, but stretches of bad mistakes -- nine turnovers against Stanford, Syracuse and North Carolina -- have held him back. While Golson could have had a season-defining win against Florida State, complete with his impossible fourth-down conversion, the offensive pass interference that lost the game for the Fighting Irish deprives of a head-to-head win over Winston in which he made some big plays. Beyond that, Golson has looked like a much different quarterback than the one who started as a redshirt freshman in 2012 as Notre Dame finished the regular season unbeaten. He's poised and decisive as a passer, and combined with his running ability he's allowed Brian Kelly to become more aggressive on offense. However, with a 61.9 completion percentage, the turnovers and an average of 7.4 yards per attempt, Golson is going to need a big November to vault back toward the top of the race. With road trips to Arizona State and USC, there are opportunities to assert himself and keep Notre Dame in the playoff mix.
Amari Cooper, Alabama, and Kevin White, West Virginia. Receivers haven't been totally ignored recently, with Marqise Lee finishing fourth in '12, Justin Blackmon finishing fifth in '10 and Michael Crabtree finishing fifth in '08, but obviously it is very, very difficult for one to get over the hump and break the QB/RB stranglehold on the award. The closest was '03, when Larry Fitzgerald finished a very close second to Oklahoma QB Jason White. This year, both Cooper and White have been impressive enough to warrant consideration, keeping open the possibility that one of them will get invited to New York.
Cooper has been the best player on a playoff-contending Alabama team, with 71 catches for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns in eight games. He had 185 yards in the first quarter alone against Tennessee, and he also had 201 yards against Vernon Hargreaves and Florida. As a breakout player in West Virginia's prolific offense, White's numbers have been very similar: 72 catches for 1,047 yards and eight touchdowns in eight games. Both are frequently un-coverable players with a knack for making big-time catches. Between them, they had 273 yards in Alabama's win over West Virginia in Week 1, and both have more opportunities to get attention on a big stage (Alabama against Mississippi State and Auburn, West Virginia against TCU and Kansas State).
Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana. If Abdullah and Gordon are in the race, then Coleman should be, too. Even when Indiana was down to its third-string freshman quarterback against Michigan State's defense, he still found a way to make big plays and rush for 132 yards. In seven games, he has 135 carries for 1,192 yards and 11 touchdowns, giving him an average of 8.83 yards per attempt as he has nine runs of at least 40 yards. While he may push for 2,000 yards in 12 games, Coleman will have a tough time getting serious consideration playing for an Indiana team that's 3-4 and winless in the Big Ten.
Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. He is the prolific quarterback of one of just three undefeated teams remaining, but like Marshall in its chase for consideration from the selection committee, he's burdened by the Thundering Herd's horrendous schedule. With an 8-0 record, Cato has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 2,130 yards (9.3 per attempt) with 20 TDs and six INTs. He needs to put up absurd, national-best type numbers to have a chance to even get to New York, though, and he's had to share the load with running back Devon Johnson, who is averaging 150 yards per game and 8.78 yards per attempt.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor. Petty has had a rather strange year for a Baylor offense that still ranks second in the nation in scoring and seventh in passing. The Bears didn't play anybody in non-conference play, Petty dealt with early back issues and; while he threw for 510 yards in leading a huge fourth-quarter comeback against TCU, he's also had a pair of underwhelming games: 7 of 22 for 111 yards against Texas and 16 of 36 for 223 yards in the loss to West Virginia. As was made obvious by the fourth-quarter performance vs. TCU, this offense always has a chance, though, and Petty can still put up big numbers down the stretch with big games remaining against Oklahoma and Kansas State as the Bears' playoff hopes are still alive.
Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA. The issues continue to be with the supporting cast, although sometimes Hundley is at fault for the number of times he gets sacked. Despite UCLA's two losses (and close wins over Cal and Colorado), he has played well, completing 70.8 percent of his passes with 19 total touchdowns, four interceptions, an average of 8.5 yards per attempt and 415 rushing yards. However, he missed most of the Texas game, he was out-dueled by Mariota in a head-to-head matchup and this could easily turn into a four-loss team.
Playoff Contender QBs
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State. Michigan State is actually fifth in scoring offense, putting up 45.5 points per game behind the big-play combination of Cook and WR Tony Lippett. Cook ranks sixth in yards per attempt (9.4), completing 60 percent of his attempts for 1,868 yards with 17 TDs and five INTs. He's still a bit erratic with his decision-making, but behind a good offensive line he has looked great at times, particularly on deep throws. If Michigan State beats Ohio State and wins the Big Ten title to push for a playoff spot and other contenders start falling, it wouldn't be impossible for him to sneak on a few ballots. Remember, AJ McCarron finished second last year.
Jake Waters, QB, Kansas State. Defense has transformed Kansas State into a Big 12 and possible playoff contender, but Waters had been much-improved, also serving as a steady running threat. He's not '12 Heisman finalist Collin Klein, but he's been somewhat underappreciated. In seven games, Waters has hit 64.8 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, three picks and an average of 8.4 yards per attempt, and he also has 86 carries for 370 yards and seven touchdowns.
Blake Sims, QB, Alabama. Amari Cooper is the most established star, and it's hard for Sims to get consideration when so much of his production has gone to one receiver. Still, while hardly perfect, Sims has largely played well under Lane Kiffin, averaging 10.2 yards per attempt with 15 TDs, three INTs and a 65.5 percent completion rate. His numbers could end up being better than McCarron's last year, and nobody expected him to even win the job after the transfer of Jacob Coker to Alabama.
Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona. The Wildcats are essentially the forgotten one-loss team, as they've never been taken seriously after close wins over California (on a Hail Mary), Nevada and UTSA. Still, they're also a field goal against USC away from being undefeated, and they own a win over Oregon, even if the Ducks were shorthanded. Solomon, a freshman, has played well in Rich Rodriguez's offense, completing 63 percent of his passes with 20 TDs, four INTs and an average of 7.7 yards per attempt, with the help of a stellar receiving corps. He's not going to be a serious candidate this year, but he could position himself for consideration in '15, assuming Rodriguez isn't coaching Florida.
Defensive players have gotten some Heisman love recently, with Manti Te'o finishing second in '12, Tyrann Mathieu finishing fourth in '11 and Ndamukong Suh finishing fifth in '09, but it remains a very steep battle. There have been some exceptional defensive performances this year, including Vic Beasley, Joey Bosa and two-way threat Shaq Thompson, but nobody is going to make up enough ground to become a serious threat.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. Would it be crazy for Gurley to vault back into the mix if he is ruled eligible again? Not at all. Georgia has applied for reinstatement, with Gurley missing two games thus far while under investigation for accepting money for autographs. Before the suspension, Gurley was probably the Heisman frontrunner, living up to the hype as a rare talent at running back. Georgia has been careful not to over-use him at times -- perhaps too careful -- but he has 94 carries for 773 yards (8.22 per carry) and eight touchdowns, and he also returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown against Clemson. Few people actually care about the whole autograph thing anymore, and while he missed two games, Gurley could still play 11 games before the vote (including the SEC title game) if he can actually get on the field against Florida this Saturday.