There were points along the way when Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was anything other than a shoo-in for the 2014 Heisman Trophy.
There was the early-season blur that was Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, the quarterback who led the Bulldogs to the top of the national polls and, by the halfway point, was the strong Heisman leader.
There was, of course, the Ducks’ October defeat at home against Arizona.
By the time last weekend’s conference championship games were over, though, there was no doubt Mariota would win the award — by a landslide. And that’s what he did Saturday, receiving 788 of 891 first-place votes and the second-highest percentage of possible points in history.
“I’m humbled to be standing here today and honored by this award,” Mariota told the Heisman gathering in New York.
“This award belongs to my teammates. The amount of hard work and sacrifice that each of them has made has not gone unnoticed. Thank you to the offensive line and their ability to fight through adversity. Thank you to the skill guys, who constantly make my job a lot easier. Thank you to the defense, for making our team complete and bailing the offense out of bad situations. And to all my teammates: I love every single one of you, and I’m truly grateful for all the experiences.”
As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (2,336 yards rushing, 29 total touchdowns), the nation’s leading ball-carrier and the Badgers’ single-season record-breaker, topped my Heisman list. As Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper (115 receptions, 1,656 yards, 14 touchdowns) came on strong, there was a temptation to give in to his best-player-on-the-best-team status. Gordon finished second with 1,250 points and Cooper received 1,023, far behind Mariota’s 2,534.
In the end, though, Mariota was an easy call for me. His stats alone — nearly 4,500 total yards, 52 total touchdowns, only two interceptions thrown — tell a compelling tale. But Mariota is about more than numbers. He’s a conductor. He’s a leader. He’s the calmest and most dangerous guy on the field.
Frankly, it was a pleasure to vote for Mariota, who has all the talent of Heisman predecessors Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel without a sliver of the controversy. In his third season as Oregon’s starter, he enters the College Football Playoff as he began his career — as one of the truly good citizens of the sport. College football has benefitted from his presence, and soon it will miss him.