Heisman Hype 2014: Breaking the Quarterback Cycle

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Recent history tell us the winner of the 2014 Heisman Trophy will be a quarterback. , and the four best odds for next season’s winner according to Bovada are quarterbacks: Jameis Winston at 5/2; Marcus Mariota and Braxton Miller at 11/2; and Bryce Petty at 10/1.

Go ahead and cut Winston from that list for reasons discussed here at The College Football Huddle. In fact, start looking elsewhere in general, because each of the previous four Heisman winners—Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel and Winston—came from relative preseason obscurity.

But while this year’s specific winner may be a mystery, quarterbacks have a decided inside track.

Rules protecting them, coupled with the proliferation of pass-happy offensive schemes have placed particular emphasis on quarterbacks’ performance. Running back has been relegated to a more workmanlike, if not downright expendable role than it was a few decades ago, when running backs were the stars of the sport.

Make no mistake, running back was at one time THE glamour position. And it showed in Heisman ballots, as running backs claimed the award every year from 1972 through 1985 but one. That stretch featured such notable names as Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson.

Heisman voting is cyclical, and we are amid a quarterback cycle at present. Twelve of the last 13 and the last four consecutive recipients all played the position. The only interruption in that run of dominance was Alabama’s Mark Ingram, who ironically was only the second-most deserving running back Heisman finalist that season.

However last season, a stellar class of running backs helped restore some of the position’s prestige at the collegiate level.

The SEC unofficially embraces its reputation of playing a more traditional, power-based style; “Big Boy Football,” some like to call it. Thus, it’s no wonder the stable of elite running backs starts in the Southeast.

Georgia junior Todd Gurley’s return to full strength from an ankle injury has folks in Athens talking Heisman—even if they aren’t really talking Heisman.

Said head coach Mark Richt via Saturdays Down South:

I don’t think you have to have a campaign for the Heisman. I think the numbers will speak for themselves. I think his highlights will speak for themselves. The Heisman usually goes to a team that’s winning and somebody that’s just doing superb work, and has a little bit of a flare about him.

Georgia’s SEC East rival, South Carolina, has its own returning running back drawing headlines this offseason. Mike Davis rushed for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing a game. Davis may still only be scratching the surface of his potential.

No SEC program embodies the Big Boy Football ethos quite as exuberantly as Alabama. Really, the only thing stopping one of the Crimson Tide’s corps of bruising backs from bullying his way to Heisman-contending numbers is a teammate.

If one is to emerge as the breakaway star of the group, look for sophomore Derrick Henry. His Juggernaut impression in January’s Sugar Bowl set the tone for an offseason in which he garnered praise from head coach Nick Saban—an accomplishment almost as elusive as winning the Heisman.

Said Saban, per AL.com:

Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring,” said Saban, who carefully doles out praise of that magnitude. “He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it. Very conscientious guy.

Is there really much difference?

T.J. Yeldon rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns as the Crimson Tide’s primary running back a season ago, and don’t expect him to relinquish his job, or a possible Heisman candidacy, without battling.

For as much chest-thumping as there is among certain SEC circles over Big Boy Football, each of last season’s conference championship game participants ran a hurry-up spread. One was the brainchild of Gus Malzahn, who helped Newton win the 2010 while offensive coordinator at Auburn.

In his second season as head coach of Auburn, Malzahn has another quarterback generating preseason Heisman buzz in Nick Marshall.

However, one shouldn’t underestimate the potential for Malzahn’s offense to cultivate a Heisman-caliber running back; it certainly did last year. Tre Mason emerged from afterthought to third place in the Heisman voting, thanks in no small part to this SEC Championship game heroics.

Mason is gone and in his place is a three-man competition to assume his role. Cameron Artis-Payne was an internet favorite to lead the Tigers’ ground game a year ago at this time, and the talented senior could follow his predecessor’s arc.

The SEC doesn’t have a monopoly on potential Heisman-breakout running backs, however. Just don’t tell the more ardent SEC fans.

Big Ten backs Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon are two of the most productive rushers returning to college football in 2014. Gordon is coming off a season of 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Abdullah racked up 1,690 yards with nine scores. And don’t sleep on Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford.

Langford scored 18 touchdowns a season ago, and if the Spartans find themselves in the College Football Playoff picture, he’ll enter the Heisman discussion.

This year’s crop of Pac-12 ball-carriers is not nearly as deep as last year’s, when the conference featured Ka’Deem Carey, Bishop Sankey and Tyler Gaffney.

All are gone, but returning are the Oregon duo of Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, as well as USC’s late-season star of 2013, Buck Allen. Allen could thrive under Steve Sarkisian in a manner similar to Sankey at Washington, should Sarkisian choose to turn over more carries to the redshirt junior.

Oregon faces a similar situation in that its backfield is crowded, with the added matter of Mariota being an adept ball-carrier. Still, Tyner’s performance in the spring game was a teaser, a little sampling of what he could do when unleashed as the premier back.

Tyner and Allen are both capable receivers in the backfield, and that’s a possible X-factor in breaking the quarterback Heisman cycle. Many of the recent Heisman recipients were dual-threat, thus compiled stats in two phases of the game.

Backs that double as regular receivers and shoulder the majority of the run-game workload can similarly pad their Heisman portfolios.

South Carolina’s Davis is a dangerous weapon in the pass game; as is Nebraska’s Abdullah. Miami junior Duke Johnson saw his receiving duties take a significant dip in an injury-plagued 2013, but he hauled in 27 receptions as a freshman in 2012.

Arizona State’s D.J. Foster is the quintessential dual-threat running back in the Pac-12. Taking over as the Sun Devils’ primary option in the backfield, he’ll have abundant scoring opportunities—just ask former teammate Marion Grice, who was on pace to snap the program’s single-season touchdown record before suffering an injury.

The Heisman may currently be a quarterback’s award, but the 2014 cast of running backs may be the best bet yet to break the cycle.