The University of Oregon has never had a Heisman Trophy winner, but Marcus Mariota may be the best quarterback ever at the school. Will he bring home college football's most important trophy? Mariota is a +725 second-favorite on NCAA football odds.
Should He Have Returned?
Remember in 2011 when Southern Cal had a very good team and Matt Barkley had his best season, throwing for 3,528 yards, 39 touchdowns and only seven interceptions? Barkley finished sixth in the Heisman voting, won by Baylor's Robert Griffin III. The Trojans were 10-2 but weren't bowl eligible. Barkley likely would have been a Top-10 pick in the 2012 draft -- wouldn't the Dolphins had taken him at No. 8 overall ahead of Ryan Tannehill? -- but he decided to return for his senior season with a chance to hopefully play for a national title and perhaps win a Heisman. The move backfired. USC was the preseason No. 1 team but they and Barkley struggled, with him missing the final two games due to injury. He would be drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 draft by the Eagles, costing himself millions of dollars.
That brings us to Oregon's Mariota. He might have been the top quarterback selected in the 2014 draft had he left school, maybe No. 1 overall by Houston. He led the Ducks to an 8-0 start in 2013 and might have been the Heisman favorite to that point, throwing for 20 touchdowns with no interceptions and running for nine more scores. However, then the Ducks ran into nemesis Stanford on Nov. 7 and the Cardinal physically bludgeoned Oregon for a 26-20 win that wasn't that close. Mariota had hurt his knee the game before against UCLA and appeared to have tweaked it against the Cardinal. He largely wasn't the same the rest of the year. He didn't run for another score and had back-to-back two interception games to close the regular season. Mariota had set a Pac-12 record from the end of the 2012 season into 2013 by attempting 353 passes without an interception. The streak came to an end on his first attempt against Arizona on Nov. 23. After Mariota hurt his knee against UCLA on Oct. 26, the Ducks went 3-2 and averaged 29.2 points per game — down from 55.6 points per game during the team's 8-0 start.
Looking Ahead To 2014
Mariota's return assured that the Oregon Ducks would be the Pac-12 favorites again. They are +150 to win the Pac-12 title game (held at the new San Francisco 49ers stadium this season), +120 to make the four-team College Football Playoff and +1400 to win the national title. As usual the offense should be terrific. The Ducks lost leading receiver Josh Huff and running back/receiver De'Anthony Thomas but have two very good running backs returning in Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner.
The schedule shapes up nicely. The opener is going to be one of those 60-point games for the Ducks against South Dakota. So it's likely Mariota puts up huge numbers for a half or so before being pulled. Then comes the biggest test of the season, Sept. 6 at home against reigning Rose Bowl champion and defensive heavyweight Michigan State. The Spartans play exactly like Stanford does: MSU shoves it down your throat and steps on your neck. That's the type of team that gives Oregon fits because while the Ducks have tons of speed they are usually undersized up front.
In the Pac-12, there only appear to be two potential stumbling blocks because Oregon is so tough at home: Oct. 11 at UCLA and Nov. 29 at Oregon State. The Ducks routed the Bruins 42-17 in Eugene last year -- it was 14-14 at halftime -- with Mariota throwing for 230 yards and a score and vastly outplaying another 2014 Heisman candidate in UCLA QB Brett Hundley. Oregon beat visiting Oregon State in a thriller in the regular-season finale, 36-35. Mariota threw for 285 yards and three scores, including the game-winning 12-yard TD to Huff with 12 seconds left.
Oregon could face UCLA again in the Pac-12 title game or perhaps USC or Arizona State, who aren't on the regular-season slate, which is a benefit.
NCAA Football free picks: Take over Oregon's 10.5 regular-season wins and it should win the Pac-12 and make the playoff, but I don't think Mariota wins the Heisman. With such a good backfield, he might not put up monster numbers.