Handicapping The Heisman Trophy's Journey Back To The West Coast

Stephen Dunn

The long-awaited return of College Football's most distinguished honor could be right around the corner.

The Heisman Trophy hasn't come to the Pac-12 since Reggie Bush brought home the award in 2005. Stanford has had three runners-up since then with Toby Gerhart in 2009 as well as Andrew Luck in both 2010-11, but no Pac-12 representative was even invited to the Heisman presentation ceremony the last two years. Could 2014 be the year that college football's most famous award comes back out to the West Coast?

The only finalist from last year's ceremony returning to play college ball this season is reigning national champion and Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The last player to win back-to-back Heismans was Archie Griffin of Ohio State between 1974-75. The only other returning players that finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting are Bryce Petty, quarterback at Baylor, and Braxton Miller, Ohio State's QB. Running back Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona finished in tenth place in the Heisman voting, the only Pac-12 player in the top ten, but he signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason.

Since 2000, only two Heisman winners have been running backs, the aforementioned Bush and Mark Ingram of Alabama in 2009. Of the five leading rushers from the conference last year, only Oregon's Byron Marshall will return, but he will likely split too much time with Tyner Thomas to make any splash in the national discussion. The same could be said for Tre Madden and Buck Allen, who finished seventh and eleventh respectively in rushing yards per game.

If anyone out of the Pac-12 gets invited to New York for the presentation this December, it will likely be a quarterback. Not only has the position come to dominate American football, but there are also plenty of great signal callers returning to their teams this fall.

All of the top five and eight of the top 10 passers from the conference last year will still be under center this coming season.

Two gunslingers broke the 4,500-yard mark, Oregon State's Sean Mannion and Connor Halliday of Washington State. Mannion led the conference with 4,662 yards and Halliday followed in a close second with 4,597. The duo trailed only Derek Carr of Fresno State, who threw for 5,082 yards before signing with the Oakland Raiders, for most in the nation. Mannion may see a drop-off with the departure of his best target in Brandin Cooks, who hauled in 1,730 of those yards. But Halliday could easily break the 5,000-yard mark and lead the country in passing this year with most of his targets coming back.

Halliday will probably have to cut his interception total in half-he threw for 22 picks last year- and the Cougars will probably need more than six wins for him to really factor into the Heisman discussion, but the program certainly looks like it's on the upswing under Head Coach Mike Leach, so don't sleep on Halliday.

Of the two-threat variety, the Pac-12 also has some athletes that should at least get mentions in the Heisman discussion. Of any Pac-12 hopefuls, Marcus Mariota is likely to be the favorite. He passed for 281.9 yards per game and rushed for 55.0 last year. He returns as the face of the offense that led the conference with 45.5 points per game, tied for third-best in the country, with most of his tools returning on offense.

A recent ESPN Football Power Index poll ranked Oregon as the second-best team in the country heading into the season. The Ducks trail only the defending national champions in that poll, but Oregon's offense's FPI did leapfrog the Seminoles for the top spot in the poll. The Heisman and national championship discussion usually goes hand-in-hand, and there's a chance Mariota wins both. It feels like it's about time for a Heisman and a national title to finally come back to Eugene, and this might be the year.

UCLA's Brett Hundley returns with a similar split to Mariota's. Hundley passed for 236.2 yards and rushed for 57.5. UCLA ranked No. 5 in ESPN's FPI poll, with the Bruin's offense ranked as No. 6. If Hundley can play the game of his life on Oct. 11 and upset the Ducks at the Rose Bowl and/or beat Oregon in a potential Pac-12 championship game showdown, Hundley may claim the title of best quarterback in the conference, earning himself an invitation to the Heisman ceremonies and his Bruins an invitation to the first ever college playoff.

This year may be the best chance for Jim Mora to win a conference title in a while if Hundley leaves for the NFL after his junior season, but Hundley and the Bruins would certainly be the underdogs against Mariota and the Oregon Ducks.

There are plenty of other strong QBs across the conference, like Taylor Kelly of Arizona State, Stanford's Kevin Hogan and even Cody Kessler. Any of those would be huge surprises if their names were called in December, but all three play for valid contenders for the conference title, so they could enter the discussion with breakout years.

Only seven weeks until this talk stops being entirely speculative and we get to see which players are poised to lead their team to a birth in the first ever playoff. And then as we all know, the list will waver back and forth each and every week of the unpredictable season.

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