The Heisman Five: Players with best chance at the trophy

Of late, the business of Heisman Trophy prognosticating has become a fool’s errand.

Three of the last four winners — Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III — weren’t on anyone’s radar in the preseason. And then, there’s Johnny Manziel, who came out of nowhere to claim the stiff-armed prize.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that Griffin and Manziel bucked trends that have largely defined the trophy during the BCS era. Neither one played in a BCS game, making them the third and fourth such winners overall — joining Ricky Williams in 1998 and Tim Tebow in 2007. Both were also out of the box candidates — Griffin on a nontraditional power in Baylor and Manziel, of course, a freshman.

Their wins would seem to signal a change in the voting populace, a desire to award the best player and not the best player on the best team. But for those thinking we voters are altering course, this is a season that could push the Heisman back to its old ways.

The leading candidates aren’t just well defined; they’re the names that have largely dominated the offseason, making the prospects of an off-the-radar winner relatively small. That is, unless, we have a season like 2012 — in which the top contenders (first Matt Barkley/Montee Ball, then Geno Smith and Collin Klein) all take themselves out of the race.

But with a mix of star power and an ability to carry their voting regions, your 79th Heisman winner should come from this list.

JADEVEON CLOWNEY, DE, SOUTH CAROLINA, JR.

Why he’ll win: No defender has entered a season with more buzz since Pitt’s Hugh Green, who went on to take second in voting during 1980. Clowney’s hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl went viral. Voters have gotten behind him before, putting him sixth last season when he had 13 sacks and 23 1/2 tackles for loss.

Why he won’t win: He’s a defender — and no strictly defensive player has ever won the award. Green entered his senior season at Pitt as a three-time All-American and still couldn’t do it, losing by 267 points to George Rogers; last year Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o set a record for defenders in points (1,706) and still finished 323 points behind Manziel.

JOHNNY MANZIEL, QB, TEXAS A&M, RS SOPH.

Why he’ll win: Johnny Football is the biggest star in college football — and when you add in that he’s playing in the SEC, he’s going to be everywhere. He’ll also be the centerpiece of arguably the biggest game of the season on Sept. 14 vs. No. 1 Alabama. Should he dominate there, Manziel could make the rest of the season a formality.

Why he won’t: As detailed here, since Archie Griffin won his second Heisman in 1975, the degree of difficulty in winning No. 2 has only grown. Given Manziel’s offseason antics, it would be hard to believe voters would let Manziel do what the likes of Tim Tebow could not, even if he eclipses last year’s record totals.

MARCUS MARIOTA, QB, OREGON, RS SOPH.

Why he’ll win: In just his first season at the controls, Mariota threw for 32 TDs, one shy of the Ducks’ record — and he should only improve those numbers in Year 2 as the leader of a national title contender. Not a believer? Stanford’s David Shaw called him the “most complete quarterback in the nation.”

Why he won’t: He has another strong candidate in his backfield in RB De’Anthony Thomas, who will have his own Heisman supporters. The West is deep with USC WR Marqise Lee and Arizona RB Ka’Deem Carey among the contenders. With Oregon still seen as a system, Mariota will have to be truly sensational to stand out.

AJ McCARRON, QB, ALABAMA, SR.

Why he’ll win: In another era, running back T.J. Yeldon may be the most logical Crimson Tide contender. But, considering that QBs have won in 11 of the past 13 years, McCarron is the prime suspect. He could head to New York on his way to a third straight title as the face of ‘Bama’s dominance.

Why he won’t: The nation’s leader in pass efficiency (174.28) last season, McCarron can put up big numbers when given a chance. But that would go completely against Nick Saban’s run-first philosophy. It doesn’t help McCarron’s chances that he has a number of strong candidates in his own voting region (including Georgia QB Aaron Murray).

BRAXTON MILLER, QB, OHIO STATE, JR.

Why he’ll win: Dual threat QBs have come to rule the college football landscape, winning the trophy each of the last three seasons. Miller may be the best chance at being the fourth to do so. He totaled 3,310 yards and 28 TDs in his first year under Urban Meyer and worked with QB guru George Whitfield Jr. to improve his accuracy.

Why he won’t: The Buckeye is Las Vegas’ pick to win, which hasn’t exactly been a strong indicator of the actual Heisman winners; Matt Leinart (’05) was the last favorite to actually win the award. Miller put in the work this offseason, but he still has to show he can be more pinpoint with completion percentages of 58.3 as a sophomore and 54.1 as a freshman.