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Heisman Watch: College Football’s Top Contenders And Sleepers

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TALLAHASSEE, FL - APRIL 12: Jameis Winston #5 of the Garnet team reacts to a pass against the Gold team during Florida State's Garnet and Gold spring game at Doak Campbell Stadium on April 12, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.

Jameis Winston (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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By Kevin McGuire

It is the single most recognized individual award in sports, and has one of the coolest trophies. The Heisman Trophy has been awarded annually since 1935 to the top player in college football, creating legends and legacies each fall. This year’s Heisman Trophy race should be a fun one to watch with one reigning Heisman Trophy winner back to lead a championship repeat bid, a pair of West Coast quarterbacks giving fans and voters reasons to stay up late, and a handful of running backs looking to break the recent trend of the Heisman Trophy going to quarterbacks. Not to be totally overshadowed, some quarterbacks from the non-power conferences are worthy of at least a bit of consideration and have opportunities to create some early buzz.

Here is a rundown of some of the top favorites, a batch of other potential contenders and a few names flying under the radar to keep an eye on. 

QB JAMEIS WINSTON, FLORIDA STATE

The historical trends are against Florida State’s reigning Heisman Trophy winner. There has only been one two-time Heisman Trophy winner in the history of the award (Ohio State’s Archie Griffin), and recent seasons have seen multiple resigning Heisman winners fail to complete the repeat bid (Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Johnny Manziel). Is Winston any different? He may be, with an easier schedule than previous returning Heisman winners. He should put up plenty of great numbers while leading Florida State to a third straight ACC title and a spot in the new playoff. It may be wise to bet the field, but Winston could come as close as we have seen to a two-time winner since Griffin.

QB MARCUS MARIOTA, OREGON

Despite what many may think, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota had a pretty darn good season in 2013. The quarterback tossed 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions and racked up 3,665 yards through the air and another 715 (and nine touchdowns) on the ground. But Oregon lost twice and was locked out of the Pac-12 Championship. Mariota needs to beat Stanford (and Michigan State) to prove worthy of frontrunner status for this season’s Heisman Trophy.

QB BRYCE PETTY, BAYLOR

One of the top offensive players in the Big 12, Baylor’s Bryce Petty is sure to pile up great numbers once again this season. The problem Petty faces is playing in an offensive system designed to rack up those numbers without many challenges in front of him to really impress Heisman voters. A victory over Oklahoma could be just what he needs this season, although beating the Sooners last year was negated by losing to Oklahoma State in ugly fashion.

QB BRETT HUNDLEY, UCLA

Another one of the top quarterbacks in the Pac-12, UCLA’s Brett Hundley is the best chance the Bruins have had to end their Heisman drought. UCLA’s last Heisman winner was Gary Beban in 1967. Hundley could have the best schedule to make his case for a Heisman Trophy. If he can manage to lead UCLA to wins over Stanford and Oregon (and USC and Arizona State and Texas), then Hundley will emerge as the top favorite.

RB MELVIN GORDON, WISCONSIN

A running back has won the Heisman Trophy just three times since 1999, when Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne took home the stiff-arm trophy. Melvin Gordon enters the 2014 season as one of the top running backs in the country, and Wisconsin should have a schedule that sees Gordon rack up the yardage on the ground. An early showcase against LSU could set the table for a Heisman run in Madison.

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Other possible contenders

RB Todd Gurley, Georgia: One of the top running backs in the SEC, if he stays healthy, he should remain a top contender among non-quarterbacks.

RB T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: He’s also one of the top running backs in the SEC, and could be aided by Alabama making a playoff run this fall.

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn: He will not start the season opener, but should be Auburn’s top offensive player after Tre Mason moved to the NFL.

RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The nation’s top returning running back will carry the load for the Huskers in 2014.

QB Trevor Knight, Oklahoma: Oklahoma is a favorite in the Big 12, which means Knight will have a chance to stay in the spotlight.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Duke Johnson has a bit of a history with injuries, but if he stays healthy and leads Miami to a division title, he could stay in the mix.

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Under-the-Radar Sleeper Picks

QB Chuckie Keeton, Utah State: Keeton gets a chance to make his case in week one on the road at Tennessee. He has battled injuries, but is so fun to watch.

QB Taysom Hill, BYU: Hill could improve his passing abilities, but his running the football is a big part of the BYU offense.

QB Keenan Reynolds, Navy: Reynolds is looking to become Navy’s first Heisman winner since Roger Staubach in 1963.

QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall: Cato could lead Marshall to a 13-0 record this fall. He will need to in order to be considered for a trip to New York.

Check out our other Heisman hopefuls.

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Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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