This is the eighth edition of the Heisman Watch, a weekly feature tracking the candidates for college football’s most prestigious award. For last week’s rankings, click here.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon QB (Last Week: 2)
Mariota returns to the top spot of the Heisman Watch for the first time since Week 7. I’ve been banking on the Mississippi State narrative for a while now as the reason behind Dak Prescott’s candidacy (more on that below), but it’s just too hard to ignore Mariota’s stats.
Every time I write about Mariota I feel like a broken record. He leads the country in efficiency rating, has 26 touchdowns and just two picks, ranks second in yards per pass attempt and is sixth in completion rate.
As the quarterback of a borderline Playoff team that’s circling like a shark waiting for SEC teams to kill each other, Mariota is now, by the slimmest of margins, the Heisman favorite over Prescott. The Ducks have a huge game next week on the road against Utah. If they win that one, expect them to finish 11-1 and make the Playoff.
2. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State QB (LW: 1)
It’s funny, when Mississippi State was moving up in the polls and Prescott was becoming a legitimate Heisman candidate, I kept looking for reasons to say the Bulldogs were for real. Now that they’re ranked No. 1, I’m jaded and find myself looking for reasons to say they aren’t worthy of the top spot.
Mississippi State just escaped an upset bid from Arkansas at home. Yikes. While the Bulldogs don’t need to go undefeated for Prescott to win the Heisman, it would be highly beneficial for his case if they were to do so. He has good numbers, but they aren’t in the same category as Mariota’s.
With two road matchups looming against Alabama and Ole Miss, I’d be really surprised if Mississippi State actually finished with a perfect 12-0 record. Like I said, a loss doesn’t kill Prescott’s candidacy, but it would certainly hinder it.
3. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin RB (LW: 3)
It’s a testament to how fantastic Gordon is that his 128-yard, two-touchdown day against Rutgers could be seen as a quiet game. With Indiana and Tevin Coleman fighting for bowl eligibility, Ameer Abdullah getting hurt last week and Todd Gurley the victim of a ridiculous suspension, Gordon is now the only running back in the nation with a legitimate chance of winning the Heisman.
Among players with at least 100 rushing attempts this season, Gordon ranks fifth in the nation with a superb 7.49 yards per carry. His 19 touchdowns are tied with Abdullah for second place. And he’s in a virtual tie with Coleman for the nation’s lead in yards per game.
Gordon faces the 86th ranked rushing defense this weekend in Purdue before finishing the season with three above-average rush defenses in Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Consider that three-game stretch as the make-or-break of Gordon’s candidacy.
4. Blake Sims, Alabama QB (LW: 5)
Alabama has been overlooked this season, yet could still theoretically finish 11-1 if the Tide successfully close out the final part of their difficult schedule. A road date this weekend with LSU and home games with current No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 3 Auburn later this month is the toughest remaining stretch in the nation among Playoff contenders.
Sims has been a key part of Alabama’s success so far. Though many expected Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to win the starting job in the preseason, Sims took the job and ran with it. He’s third in efficiency rating and tied for second in yards per pass attempt with Mariota. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions all season long.
I feel like nobody really considers Sims to be one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks, so an Alabama loss might kill his Heisman hopes solely because the Tide will then fall out of the Playoff picture. But his numbers are great.
5. Cody Kessler, USC QB (LW: Not Ranked)
Every Sunday morning when I stumble out of bed, question my weekend decisions and begin writing the latest Heisman Watch, I check cfbstats.com to see what changes I should make to the previous week’s rankings. This past weekend I asked myself why I had never included Kessler in the first seven editions.
At 6-3, USC is kind of a run-of-the-mill team this season, so I’ll use that as my excuse for why Kessler was left out. But 25 touchdowns, only two interceptions and a 69.7 percent completion rate deserve plenty of credit. And over the past three games, he’s thrown 14 TD passes and just one pick.
6. Jameis Winston, Florida State QB (LW: 7)
Every media outlet seems to have Winston as one of the top Heisman candidates in the country. If he wins then this award loses a ton of credibility.
His stats are inferior to a multitude of other quarterbacks. The only reason he would win is if Florida State goes 13-0, meaning he’d (presumably) finish his collegiate career without losing a game as a starter.
But that’s a terrible rationale. The Heisman is an award that honors individual seasons, not careers. And Winston’s season has been second-rate.
7. Everett Golson, Notre Dame QB (LW: NR)
I took Golson off this list last week just because he was coming off a bye and I felt like throwing a new name onto the list (shoutout to Hau’oli Kikaha). Golson is in the same category as Winston. His stats aren’t very good, ranking 27th in efficiency rating, 32nd in yards per pass attempt and 36th in completion percentage.
But oh my goodness he’s the quarterback of Notre Dame so everyone just salivates. The Irish are a fringe Playoff team and have a semi difficult schedule remaining. If they win out to go 11-1, Golson will be a Heisman finalist, even if his numbers aren’t worthy of it.
8. Brett Hundley, UCLA QB (LW: 8)
Hundley would probably be a much more high-profile quarterback if he had an offensive line that didn’t suck. He’s been sacked 28 times, tied for the third-highest figure among Power Five schools.
The Bruins have been on the victorious end of several close games this season, so their 7-2 record is slightly inflated. But the defense was great and so was Hundley last week against No. 12 Arizona. UCLA pulled out a 17-7 win partially thanks to Hundley’s 189 passing yards and 131 yards on the ground.
That win preserved the Bruins’ hopes in the Pac-12 South race. With the second-best completion percentage in the country, Hundley remains a Heisman candidate. However, his chances of winning are extremely slim considering his relative anonymity compared to other quarterbacks on this list.
9. Rakeem Cato, Marshall QB (LW: 9)
Marshall was on a bye last week, so nothing really to add here. The Thundering Herd are 8-0 and one of just three remaining undefeated teams in the FBS. Cato ranks eighth nationally in both efficiency rating and yards per pass attempt.
Cato has been on my Heisman Watch for four weeks now, and my rationale revolves solely around the fact the Herd could go undefeated. They probably will, considering their remaining opponents are a combined 15-17. If Marshall runs the table and makes a New Year’s bowl, Cato gets a few courtesy Heisman votes.
10. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska RB (LW: 4)
Nebraska is on a bye this weekend, which is the best coincidence to happen to Abdullah this year. The talented running back sprained his MCL early in the first quarter against Purdue last week and did not return to the game.
He only managed one yard on six carries before the injury, so he wasn’t exactly off to a good start. Leaving the game ended a streak of five consecutive games scoring multiple touchdowns.
Abdullah’s season has been full of highs (four 200-yard games) and lows (three worthless games). Missing basically an entire game against Purdue really hurts his Heisman chances, but here’s hoping he returns in time for the Wisconsin game Nov. 15 for a showdown of the nation’s two best running backs.