Much like the rest of college football, the SEC has taken over the Heisman Trophy debate.
Herschel Walker (1982) and Bo Jackson ('85) won memorable Heisman Trophy awards in the early 1980s. However, between 1986 and 2006, the league won one stiff-armed trophy (Danny Wuerffel, 1996).
Yet, the SEC wasn’t satisfied with just winning the BCS National Championship every single year. The league has won four of the last six Heisman Trophies, including the first such award for the Alabama Crimson Tide (Mark Ingram, 2009).
With the defending Heisman Trophy winner, the nation’s No. 1 defensive player, the two-time defending BCS champion quarterback and a quarterback who will own every major career SEC passing record returning to the nation’s best conference, there is no reason to think this trend will end in 2013.
Here are the SEC’s top Heisman Trophy candidates for 2013 (complete with updated Vegas odds):
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (14/1)
There is little doubt that Clowney is the most physically gifted player in the nation. He is a near lock as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. And because he set the table as a sophomore with a monster hit against Michigan and huge numbers statistically, he has a great chance at landing in New York. The disruptive defensive end finished third in the nation in sacks (1.08 pg) and second nationally in tackles for loss (1.96 pg). He enters his third year with 21.0 sacks, eight forced fumbles and 35.5 tackles for loss and because he plays a stat-heavy defensive position, his box score will speak for itself. However, winning the SEC East might be a must if Clowney wants to become just the second true defensive player to ever win the Heisman.
2. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (9/2)
What else is there to say about Manziel? His numbers speak for themselves and his Cotton Bowl performance will go down in Aggie lore as one of the greatest postseason performances by a Heisman winner of all time. But Tim Tebow couldn’t repeat. Neither could Mark Ingram, Matt Leinart or Sam Bradford. All were elite talents like Manziel, but the odds of repeating are 1-in-77. And now that SEC defensive coordinators will be spending the next five months figuring out ways to stop him, a repeat of his production seems highly unlikely mostly because he set the bar so high for himself in 2012.
3. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (12/1)
The Dawgs' signal caller will make a push to rewrite the Georgia and SEC record books with another big year in Athens. He led the nation in passing efficiency and has 77 total touchdowns in the last two seasons. With a loaded offense returning around him, Murray just needs to eliminate the bizarro game from his resume — e.g., Florida and South Carolina in 2012, Mississippi State in '11 — to be an NYC finalist. He might also need to finish a season in Atlanta with a win instead of a loss.
4. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama (12/1)
Looking for another true sophomore to win the award? Look no further than the extremely gifted Yeldon. As just a freshman, he rushed for 1,000 yards and 10 scores as a backup last season en route to a national championship. Nick Saban’s offense is a proven Heisman commodity for running backs and Eddie Lacy has moved on to the NFL. If Yeldon gets 200+ touches, he easily has the skill to make it to New York.
5. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
It will be tough for Gurley to top his freshman numbers in the brutal SEC, but his quarterback and offensive line return intact. He led the league in rushing by a running back and scored 17 times. Only Trent Richardson has ever scored 20 rushing TDs in SEC history as a running back. With Murray and Gurley in the same backfield, one has to wonder if the UGA vote will be split between two elite players.
6. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama (10/1)
A big part of why Yeldon will be successful will be the return of McCarron. The O-line will have to be rebuilt (to some extent), but the talent at the skill positions could be better than Saban has ever had at the Capstone. If McCarron goes for 30 TDs and just three interceptions again, he will most definitely be in the Heisman race. The biggest issue is his offensive system may never allow for big numbers from the quarterback as names like Ingram, Richardson, Lacy and Yeldon get most of the attention.
7. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
He is a first-team All-American. He is the top linebacker prospect in the nation for next year’s NFL Draft. He plays a stat-heavy position and runs the defense for the two-time defending BCS champs. And his team will be preseason No. 1 again. He could very easily be this year’s Manti Te’o in terms of team success and individual production.
8. Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida (40/1)
The Gators quarterback flashed brilliance through the air at times last year (see the Tennessee game) and on the ground all season (see the Vanderbilt game). If the Gators can provide him with a capable supporting cast, his raw athletic ability will shine in 2013. He has all the physical tools to take the next step in his development and become one of the nation’s breakout stars this fall.
9. Ben Malena, RB, Texas A&M
If fans want a deep sleeper pick for a monster 2013 campaign it would be the Aggies running back. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns despite only getting 138 carries on the ground. Now with Christine Michael gone and Kevin Sumlin wanting to keep his star quarterback healthy, the powerful Malena could break onto the national scene as one of the SEC’s best running backs.
10. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Few players in the nation have as explosive a first step as Cooper. He was on full display in the SEC and BCS championship games a year ago. He finished with 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as just a true freshman on 59 receptions for a hefty 16.9 yards per catch. With a great offensive line, quarterback and running game, Cooper could be facing single coverage all season.
11. Ladarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs tailback won’t ever be confused with the burly power backs this league has been known for, but he has tons of ability and proved himself a year ago. In his first season as the starter, the explosive and versatile Perkins rushed for 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns. He also is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and will get plenty of touches in Dan Mullen’s spread offense.
12. Keith Marshall, RB, Georgia
As a true freshman, change-of-pace, backup last year, Marshall rushed for 759 yards and scored nine total touchdowns. Behind an offensive line with all five starters back and Murray at quarterback, Marshall has a chance to improve on those numbers significantly this fall. The only thing keeping him from an All-American season might be fellow backfield mate Todd Gurley.
13. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
The heady wide receiver had as good a season as any Vandy wideout in history. He led the SEC with 94 receptions, was second with 1,323 yards and caught eight touchdowns. He will have to try to repeat those numbers with a new quarterback under center this fall.
14. Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia
The big-play dynamo for the Dawgs should quickly establish himself as one of the nation’s most explosive wideouts now that he is a full-time offensive player. He can stretch the field and excels in the slot and will have one of the nation’s top offenses returning around him.
15. Tyler Russell, QB, Mississippi State
The Dan Mullen-coached quarterback showed great signs of growth last year, finishing with one of Mississippi State’s best passing seasons in history. Should he improve even slightly on his numbers (2,897 yards, 24 TD, 10 INT) and pull an upset or two, he could place himself as the league’s No. 4 passer
16. HaHa Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
The nation’s best safety is eyeing a third straight BCS national title.
17. Jake Matthews, OL, Texas A&M
The pedigree, track record and NFL upside are there. Will be protecting Manziel’s blindside.
18. Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia (pictured below)
Taking over for Jarvis Jones as SEC’s top outside linebacker/pass rusher.
19. Cyrus Kouandjio, OL, Alabama
Arguably the top left tackle prospect in the nation on potential three-time BCS champ.
20. Wesley Tate, RB, Vanderbilt
Very talented runner who has plenty of competition in the Dores backfield.
21. Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina
If he can stay on the field, he could be the best darkhorse candidate in the SEC.
22. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
Topped 1,000-yards last year and set to be unleashed in new, up-tempo offense under Guz Malzahn.
23. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia
Second-best tight end in the nation is wildly underrated by fans — not by opposing coaches.
24. Antonio Richardson, OL, Tennessee
First-round talent with elite upside and a chance to prove himself against Clowney.
25. Matt Jones, RB, Florida
Could also be Mack Brown or Kelvin Taylor. A Gators workhorse back would be in the mix.