Marcus Mariota’s omission from the Heisman finalist group last season wasn’t the biggest travesty in world history, but he definitely should have been there. In fact, he played just as well as Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Unfortunately, two things – both out of his control – prevented Mariota from getting the Heisman finalist spot he deserved: the team he played for and his opponents.
Texas A&M fans probably think it’s ridiculous to suggest that anyone but the great “Johnny Football” deserved the Heisman. They’re in the SEC after all. But let’s compare Manziel’s and Mariota’s numbers.
Manziel threw for 3,706 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He also ran for 1,410 yards and 21 TDs.
Mariota threw for 2,677 yards, 32 TDs and 6 INTs, while running for just 752 yards and 5 TDs.
Other than Mariota’s slight advantage in passing TDs and INTs, Manziel’s numbers look significantly better. End of story, right, Aggies fans?
Wrong, Aggies fans.
Manziel accumulated more total yards and rushing TDs because he had more opportunities to rack them up. He passed 434 times last year; Mariota passed 336 times. Manziel also had 201 rushing attempts, nearly twice as many as Mariota who had 106. Also, 14 of Manziel’s 21 rushing TDs were 20 yards or less, showing just how often he ran in red zone situations. The Ducks actually had more red zone opportunities than Texas A&M; they just relied on their quarterback much less in those situations.
Mariota also completed a higher percentage of his passes and rushed for more yards per attempt than Manziel.
All this makes you wonder how much better Mariota’s stats would have looked had he just been given as large a workload as Manziel. It is possible Mariota wouldn’t have been able to handle more passing and rushing attempts, but that seems unlikely given the weapons around him.
Those weapons, in fact, likely hurt Mariota’s Heisman chances more than anything else.
For one, it was hard to determine Oregon’s most valuable offensive player. Mariota wasn’t even the team’s Heisman front-runner for much of the season, that was Kenjon Barner. Before the season began De’Anthony Thomas was getting the most hype as a Heisman candidate. Additionally, Mariota had receivers like Josh Huff and Colt Lyerla. Fair or not, voters often discredit a quarterback’s true level of performance when he has so many great players around him.
The abundance of offensive threats around Mariota also reduced his opportunities to be involved in the offense, especially because Oregon was so run-oriented. Manziel didn’t have superstars like Barner or Thomas taking possessions away from him. He was the most involved Aggie player on offense by far. A big reason why Mariota had much fewer passing and rushing attempts was because he wasn’t the clear-cut most dangerous player on his team.
Then there’s the other major reason why Mariota wasn’t involved in as many plays: his team blew out so many of its opponents.
Other than the loss to Stanford and a 62-51 win over USC, Oregon beat every opponent by 17 or more points. Before that USC game, people made jokes about Mariota never making big plays in the fourth quarter … because he never played past the third.
Manziel, on the other hand, played in five games where both teams were within 17 points of each other. In fact, the final point differentials from each of those games were five points or less. So, Manziel got to play all four quarters much more often than Mariota. Plus, because the scores were so close, Manziel got more chances to pass or scramble. The Ducks trounced their opponents so often and so early in games, Mariota would only get a couple of quarters to make plays before the offensive scheme turned decidedly conservative or the backup QB was called in.
These blowouts also prevented Mariota from having those “Heisman Moments” voters love so much. You probably remember this crazy play Manziel made last season:
That play came in a game against the eventual National Champion – a game that Texas A&M won by the way. Many consider it Manziel’s top Heisman Moment.
Mariota never had a play of that caliber, mostly because he didn’t play in many tight games against top 10 opponents.
Also, let’s be honest, Manziel’s play above was about as fluky as fluky plays get. He literally dropped the ball, somehow recovered it, and threw a TD. If Alabama had recovered that loose ball and ended up defeating the Aggies, Manziel might not have won the Heisman. It’s crazy that one play can mean that much but what are you gonna do?
As insane as it sounds, the Ducks’ dominance last season might have been the biggest reason why Mariota didn’t win the Heisman. At a minimum it prevented him from becoming a Heisman finalist (he was definitely better than Collin Klein).
If Marcus had played in more tight games, he would have been involved in more plays and had more potential Heisman Moments. If the Ducks played tougher opponents, his already gleaming numbers would shine even brighter. If he had fewer nationally elite players around him, he’d get more credit for his team’s success (Texas A&M also had much lower expectations than Oregon going into last season).
Every Heisman contender depends on factors, that are out of his control, going his way. There’s nothing egregiously wrong with that, either, it’s just the way the award works. If Mariota wants to win this year’s Heisman he has to hope Manziel, Marqise Lee and the other candidates don’t have record setting seasons. He also needs his team to be good, just not too good.
Ducks fans aren’t going to root for their team to be less dominant this season, nor should they, but a few closer games might net Oregon its first ever Heisman winner.