By Kevin McGuire
As the calendars begin to flip from September to October, the Heisman Trophy chase is starting to heat up. Conference play will bring more opportunities for the top players in college football to step up in critical situations. Those who succeed will remain in the Heisman hunt while those who struggle may fall behind the pack. Here is a look at one player looking to keep his Heisman profile on the radar while also trying to keep his team in the BCS Championship picture as well.
QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
With Oregon achieving plenty of success on the field early on in the 2013 season, quarterback Marcus Mariota has become one of the emerging top contenders for the Heisman Trophy. The hype is warranted, as NFL fans hoping for a new franchise quarterback are also checking out Mariota as a potential draft pick.
Mariota passed for 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions a season ago and he is already off to a fast start again in 2013 with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions after playing three games. Oregon’s offense has been difficult for opponents to slow down, and Mariota keeps defenses on their toes. When Mariota takes off to run, he often does so for a big gain. Entering this weekend, the Ducks quarterback is averaging 17.5 yards per rushing attempt for 262 yards and has run for four touchdowns. Last year, Mariota rushed for 752 yards and five touchdowns.
Mariota’s overall production should continue to turn in big numbers as the Ducks move in to Pac 12 play. That begins this weekend when the Ducks host Cal. Last season, Mariota passed for a career high of six touchdowns and 377 yards in a 59-17 rout of the Bears. Mariota set a new career high for passing yards last weekend against Tennessee, passing for 456 yards.
As long as Oregon continues to win football games, Mariota should easily be in the top three among the candidates for the Heisman Trophy. What will help his overall profile is improving his pass accuracy. In his first two games of 2013, Mariota completed just 53 percent of his passes, but against Tennessee, he completed 69.7 percent of his pass attempts. If he can be that accurate in Pac 12 play, Mariota’s numbers will be huge in the passing game. Mariota is also on pace to run for 16 touchdowns. Last season, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 21 touchdowns. Mariota with 16 touchdowns would be in the same neighborhood, but getting to 20 may help put him over the edge.
Heisman Match-Up of the Week
LSU at Georgia: The big game of the weekend will take place in Athens, Georgia. In a match-up that could also be a potential SEC Championship Game preview, Georgia will host LSU in a crossover division match-up, a bout of top 10 teams. The game should also serve as an opportunity for a couple of players to emerge in the Heisman Trophy race. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is a preseason All-SEC quarterback, ahead of Texas A&M’s Manziel and Alabama’s two-time BCS champion AJ McCarron. Murray is in the process of rewriting a number of passing records. Murray started off the season with a loss to Clemson and Tajh Boyd, but rebounded with a win against Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. Nobody really seems to be discussing Murray as a Heisman candidate, despite 36 touchdowns in 2012 and 35 touchdowns in 2011, but an impressive victory over LSU and he may enter the conversation.
The same may be said for LSU’s Zach Mettenberger. Mettenberger has already tossed 10 touchdown passes, two shy of his 2012 total, and has become one of the top players in the SEC in the early part of the season. He has yet to be discussed as a legitimate Heisman candidate by most, but if the Tigers continue to play like the best overall team in the SEC, as they have through the first few weeks, and win at Georgia, he could easily start rising in the Heisman race.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.