Since Archie Griffin’s 1975 repeat, eight other players have come back to school with a Heisman Trophy in hand and all nine failed. They put up impressive bids, like Tim Tebow in 2008 and Johnny Manziel in ’13, and now it’s on Jameis Winston to try and join the most exclusive of fraternities within a exclusive fraternity.
To be realistic — which is what we’re all about here at the Heisman Forecast — Winston is playing a different game than everyone else before the first weekend even unfolds. The Florida State quarterback is chasing his own accomplishments, while trying to outrun the stigma that has haunted defending winners for nearly 40 years.
Good or bad, heightened expectations or not, the focus will be on Winston on Saturday night as his Seminoles face Oklahoma State in Dallas — and he’s far from the only contender or potential contender to have an envious platform.
No Heisman is won on opening weekend, though it can provide a springboard (think Robert Griffin III in 2011) or spoil a campaign (Jadeveon Clowney last fall). This week the Forecast is focusing are the players whose fortunes should rise and fall this week, but before we begin, here’s a look how the trophy race should play out in 2014.
The only top candidate to take the field on Thursday night, Davis is also one of the few that gets to go up against a ranked opponent as the No. 9 Gamecocks host No. 21 Texas A&M. The Aggies defense was awful last year, ranking 110th against the rush (222.3) and lost two of its best players with the dismissal of tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne. Davis could be in for a big night, but one thing worth monitoring as his candidacy continues: he has already dealt with hamstring and rib issues in camp and while he went to Twitter to defend his well-being after Steve Spurrier wondered if he’d be ready for the opener.
Manziel and Winston are the only first-year players to win, but no true freshman has ever claimed the award and only two have ever come close with Herschel Walker in 1980 and Adrian Peterson in 2004. But every indication is Fournette is going to be the next to make a strong push in a Tigers offense that should ride the running game given the inexperience at QB and wide receiver. He can firmly throw himself into the mix in Week 1 by stealing the spotlight from Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon when they meet in AT&T Stadium and Fournette will be doing it against a Badgers D that was fifth against the rush last year (102.5 ypg), but also has an entirely new front seven.
The odds of Keeton getting to New York, let alone actually winning the Heisman, are extremely long. But he can stay on the fringe of this race by taking advantage of an early schedule that begins Saturday at Tennessee and includes Wake Forest (Sept. 13) and BYU (Oct. 3). Keeton has come close to pulling the upset in the past, losing by three to USC last season, two to Wisconsin in 2012 and four against Auburn in ’11. He may finally break through against a Volunteers D that was 83rd last year (418.4 ypg) and is thin and inexperienced along the defensive front, which the veteran Keeton should use to his advantage.
If Fournette’s chances get a boost, the other running back in the weekend’s biggest clash of contenders is going to have to take a hit. With the season-ending injury to Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Gordon is and should continue to be the Midwest voting region’s best hope — especially with a schedule that’s without the Buckeyes, Michigan State and Penn State — but he may have to make a run at 2,000 yards should he falter vs. LSU. After ranking 10th in FBS with 1,609 yards in a timeshare last season and carrying a 8.1 yards per carry average in his career, that is well within reason for Gordon.
The mere fact that he’s not starting against Arkansas — that would be Jeremy Johnson — and Gus Malzahn hasn’t let it be known when or how much we’ll see Marshall due to an offseason marijuana citation doesn’t bode well for his chances, especially when we’re coming off a year in which morals were a hot Heisman topic. Las Vegas is certainly seeing it that was as Marshall’s odds fell from 9-to-1 to 16-to-1 per sports book Bovada. Keeping the Tigers in line for an SEC repeat will certainly boost those chances and can help voters to try and forget Marshall’s summer transgression. But for now he’s playing catch-up … whenever he actually plays, that is.
Here’s your weekend wildcard. The Midshipmen open up against a fourth-ranked Buckeyes team at M&T Stadium in Baltimore that is regrouping after losing Miller and will feature a redshirt freshman QB in J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes aren’t above struggling against mid-level teams in openers (see Buffalo last year and Navy in ’09), making this an opportunity for Reynolds, who set a NCAA record for a QB with 31 rushing TDs as a sophomore, to feast. He’s going to get his yards — the Midshipmen did run for 300 yards in six straight games last season — but the defense is now Ohio State’s clear strength and is poised to cool the Reynolds’ push before it truly gets started.