[caption id="attachment_33208" align="aligncenter" width="480"] The Heisman Trophy is displayed prior to the announcement of the winner, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in New York. The trophy will be awarded to one of the three finalists who are Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Alabama receiver Amari Cooper and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)[/caption]
Both players constructed wildly impressive statistical profiles in 2014, so it was difficult to establish a hierarchy between Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Alabama’s Amari Cooper on my Heisman Trophy ballot.
Gordon is the nation’s best running back. Cooper is the nation’s best receiver. That made for a tough decision.
For second place, anyway. The No. 1 spot couldn’t have been clearer.
Like almost all of the Heisman electorate, my first-place vote went to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who, predictably, was announced as this year’s Heisman winner during Saturday night’s ceremony in New York.
Voting for Mariota, the fourth-year junior from Honolulu, Hawaii, was a no-brainer. He shot to the front of the Heisman race weeks ago, and did nothing during the final month of the season to make anyone believe he is anything other than the best college football player in the country.
He completed 254 of his 372 pass attempts (68.3 percent) for a school-record 3,783 yards, 38 touchdowns and two – two! – interceptions. That calculates to an efficiency rating of 186.3, which leads the country. His average of 10.2 yards per pass attempt also leads the country. Mariota also rushed for 669 yards – lost sack-yardage included – and another 14 touchdowns on the ground, looking in the open field as if he could just as easily line up at tailback. He was responsible for 318 of his team's 602 points. No player in the country accounted for more.
Winning helped, too. Mariota led the Ducks (12-1) to the Pac-12 North championship, then orchestrated a 51-13 destruction of Arizona in the league title game to avenge Oregon’s only loss and clinch a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. He was consistently great against the big boys, too. In five games against teams currently ranked in the CFP top 25, Mariota completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 1,305 yards, 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
When the Ducks needed him to save their season, he did. In what could have been a demoralizing loss at Washington State, with the Cougars shredding Oregon’s makeshift offensive line, Mariota shook off seven sacks to complete 21 of 25 passes for 329 yards and five touchdowns, including the game-winning, 6-yard scoring toss to Keanon Lowe with 5:33 remaining. He somehow finished with a rushing total of 58 yards despite all the sacks. He turned broken plays into devastating third-down conversions, whether by arm or by leg. He faced unfavorable circumstances with a shrug and a stiff-arm. Throughout a near-perfect season, he gashed, he passed, he scored and he won.
And, unlike reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston, Mariota kept a clean sheet off the field, too – save for one speeding ticket he earned in November by driving 80 miles-per-hour in a 55 zone.
But even then, an Oregon state police Lt. told the Oregonian: “Mr. Mariota was polite and respectful. He was professional and took the citation appropriately and acted appropriately.”
Which is almost more impressive than simply driving the speed limit.
Hashing out the second and third spots on my ballot was a little trickier. Ultimately, I settled on Gordon at No. 2. His nation-leading totals of 2,336 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns might have been enough to win the Heisman most other years. Sure, he had 309 carries, fewer than only Boise State running back Jay Ajayi’s total of 325. But Gordon also ranks 15th nationally in yards per carry with a ridiculous 7.6, and averaged 191.2 yards per game against Big Ten competition.
That number is buoyed, of course, by his 408-yard performance against Nebraska – on just 25 carries – which established an FBS record that stood exactly one week.
Cooper’s statistics were nearly as impressive. He leads the nation in total receptions (115) and yards (1,656), and did it in an Alabama offense that ranked just 53rd nationally in total pass attempts. It doesn’t hurt that his team enters the CFP as the No. 1 overall seed.
But Cooper wasn’t quite Gordon, and Gordon wasn’t nearly Mariota. Nobody was.
The first Heisman winner in Oregon history didn’t just stand out in 2014. By the end of the season, he stood alone.
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple