John Baker

Marcus Mariota: Heisman Frontrunner?

Created on Sept. 19, 2013 11:17 AM EST

It sure feels that the Oregon Ducks find another dynamic offensive player every time they change their uniform and helmet combinations. Josh Huff, Keenan Lowe, De'Anthony Thomas, Bralon Addison, Colt Lyerla, Marcus Mariota and the now-famous Johnny Mundt have shined at various levels so far as Oregon has built a 3-0 record. 

The exciting part, aside from the fast start and the potential to run the table, is that DAT and Mariota are getting some serious Heisman talk. While Thomas has touched the ball 49 times, is the team's leading rusher and scored six times in three games, it is Mariota who has thrust himself into the conversation — an interesting little twist considering the hype DAT was getting in the offseason as a potential Heisman frontrunner. Right now, it feels like Mariota has a chance.

Let's just accept that right now, Mariota at quarterback is as good as anyone playing at any position in the land. Mariota has passed for just under 900 yards and seven scores in three games, then added 260 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Currently, he's fourth in total offense (383 yards per game) and second in yards per completion (18.1) while demonstrating a greater command of the offense.

Perhaps most importantly, he's making dynamic plays that still have analysts talking — and that's key. And remember, because the Ducks have blown out its first three opponents, Mariota is averaging less than three quarters of play per game. Extrapolating his stats through a full game would put him at or near the top of every quarterback-relevant statistic except completion percentage. And even there, he's nipping at the 60 percent mark.

Can Mariota win it?

Yes, he can, but he's going to need to demonstrate a high level of consistency through the rest of the season and deliver big-time performances in the marquee games.

What are those key games?

The first of those will be Oct. 12 at a resurgent Washington. The new stadium will be rocking at the chance to knock a likely unbeaten Oregon off at home. The Ducks have supplanted the Huskies as the Pacific Northwest's preeminent program and Huskies fans don't like it

Two weeks later, the Ducks will host UCLA, a team that, like Washington, has a dynamic, mobile quarterback who can change the complexion of the game. UCLA looks like the team to beat in the Pac-12 South, so sending them a message with a big win — and big performance by Mariota — will catch the Heisman voters' attention

Then, in a nationally-televised Thursday nighter on Nov. 7, the Ducks travel to Palo Alto for a rematch with Stanford. A year ago, the Cardinal cost the Ducks a chance to play for the national championship. If the pieces fall into place this season, the Ducks again could need to beat Stanford to make the BCS championship game. The contest will give Mariota the stage he needs to solidify his standing as a serious Heisman contender. Win this one with a dynamic performance and it could happen.

Projecting the Ducks to finish the year with three wins after disposing of Stanford, including a Civil War tussle with Oregon State in Eugene, the Ducks and Mariota get one last chance to fire up a national audience in the Pac-12 championship game the first week of December. Win them all, put up big plays and impressive numbers and Mariota should be a serious contender.

What is his biggest hindrance?

Mariota's biggest obstacle may be the one guy on his team that's every bit as dynamic as he is — Thomas. To this point, Thomas is getting about 16 touches a game via rush, pass and return. It's important to remember that 45 of those touches have come via the ground game, numbers the Ducks coaches hope to alleviate by finding some other running backs who can contribute. However, Thomas is capable of turning 15 to 18 touches a game into multiple scores, often from long distance, and offering a dynamic counterpoint to Mariota's play at quarterback.

As of now, the Heisman advantage is in Mariota's court. He has his hands on the ball every snap, has played beyond brilliantly even when he's gotten off to a slow start and has made enough big plays to fill most quarterback's yearly quota. He's getting the talk from media across the country, something that can't be discounted.

Now, in order to bring home the hardware, he needs to continue playing at this level, win a couple big games with big-time performances, and hope the voters see brilliance in his play. Because that's what he's been so far.

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