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|Marcus Mariota returns for his senior season after leading the country in adjusted QBR.|
Jameis Winston turned 20 on Monday, and he celebrated by becoming just the third quarterback in college football history to lead an undefeated team, win the Heisman Trophy and claim a national title in the same season.
The rest of us can celebrate the fact Winston will be back at Florida State for at least one more year. He's the second consecutive redshirt freshman quarterback to win the Heisman, and like Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Winston will return to the college game after winning the award. If his second season is anything like Manziel's, the sport is in for a treat.
Unlike college basketball, which typically says goodbye to its best players after just one year, college football gets to enjoy its stars for a little longer. Winston certainly achieved stardom in 2013: He completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
"Florida State is the national champion again, and I guarantee you we're bringing that swag back," Winston said. "You'd better believe it."
Winston tops the players to watch list for 2014, but narrowing the group was no easy task, especially with several NFL draft decisions yet to be announced. Assumptions had to be made about players like Manziel, Auburn's Tre Mason, Clemson's Vic Beasley and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. The list slants toward offense and the quarterback position, in part because most standout defenders from 2013 are gone.
Along with Winston here are 10 other stars to keep an eye on when the season kicks off (2014 eligibility in parentheses):
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson (redshirt junior): Remember him? Golson quarterbacked the Irish to the national title game in 2012, and then sat out all of 2013 after being suspended for academic issues. He was later readmitted by the school and spent the fall working with quarterbacks coach George Whitfield and added weight to his frame. Although Notre Dame's defense triggered the title run, Golson's improvement down the stretch -- he eclipsed 200 pass yards in his final five regular-season games -- played a role, too. If Notre Dame regains a better version of Golson, it could navigate a brutal schedule that includes Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC.
|Melvin Gordon should be a Heisman contender in 2014.|
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon (redshirt junior): That Gordon would be on a list like this seemed laughable in late September, when he led the FBS in rushing with 624 yards and seven touchdowns through the first four games. Gordon looked like a surefire early draft entry through the first half of the season, but his production slowed a bit during Big Ten play as teammate James White emerged. The redshirt sophomore still rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged a whopping 7.8 yards per carry. He surprised some by announcing he would return for 2014, where he should be Wisconsin's featured back and a definite Heisman contender.
Georgia running back Todd Gurley (junior): Along with his Bulldogs backfield mate Aaron Murray, Gurley found himself on the Heisman radar early this past season after rushing for a combined 286 yards against Clemson and South Carolina. A knee injury slowed Gurley midway through the season and sidelined him for three games, but he was very tough to bring down when healthy, averaging six yards per carry with 10 touchdowns. The 6-1, 232-pound bruiser will enter 2014 pegged for big things as Georgia tries to replace Murray and make a run in the SEC East division.
Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (sophomore): The Gators have some major issues to iron out on offense, but the defense once again remains strong, thanks in part to Hargreaves, the SEC's next superstar corner. He was the only freshman to earn first-team All-SEC honors. Hargreaves finished second in the league in passes defended (1.17 per game) and tied for seventh in the league in interceptions (3), recording picks in each of his final two games. He tied Janoris Jenkins' team freshman record for pass breakups with 11. The SEC loses most of its defensive standouts, but Hargreaves will be in the mix for national honors as a sophomore.
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley (redshirt junior): Hundley delighted UCLA fans -- and college football fans who enjoy exciting players -- by spurning the NFL for another season in Westwood, despite being pegged as possibly the top quarterback on the draft boards. Hundley followed a breakout freshman season with more dual-threat brilliance, racking up 3,071 pass yards, 748 rush yards and 35 touchdowns (24 pass, 11 rush). He has completed more than two-thirds of his pass attempts in his two-year career and brings explosive running ability. Reboot the Hundley4Heisman campaign for 2014.
Miami running back Duke Johnson (junior): It's not a coincidence that Miami's season went south after Johnson, the Hurricanes' main big-play threat, broke his ankle Nov. 2 against Florida State. Johnson returns to a talented Miami squad this coming season after averaging 174.1 all-purpose yards in eight games as a running back/returner. He already has seven games of 200 yards or more in a season and a half, and earned second-team All-ACC honors despite missing Miami's final five contests. One of the nation's most explosive ball carriers, Johnson leads a Miami squad pegged for big things this coming season.
|Kansas State's Tyler Lockett had a spectacular junior season with seven 100-yard receiving games.|
Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett (senior): Like Johnson, Lockett can gash opposing teams both on offense and special teams after averaging 154.9 all-purpose yards. He set a single-game team record with 278 receiving yards and three touchdowns against eventual Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma, and had seven 100-yard receiving performances and three games with three receiving touchdowns, including in a blowout of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. He finished second on K-State's single-season receptions chart with 82, and ranked 16th nationally in kick return average. Lockett will be a top contender for the Biletnikoff Award in 2014 and returns to a Wildcats squad that could make a run for the Big 12 championship.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (redshirt junior): There wasn't a more underappreciated player in college football than Mariota in 2013. He quickly fell out of the Heisman race after Oregon's loss to Stanford, in which he played with a sprained knee. Mariota still put up staggering numbers for the season: 3,665 pass yards and 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions while completing 63.5 percent of his attempts, as well as 7.4 yards per rush with nine touchdowns. He led the nation in adjusted QBR (89.5) and surprised some by electing to return for his junior season.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (senior): He's already one of the more decorated quarterbacks in Ohio State history, but he wants to boost his game while leading the Buckeyes to their first outright Big Ten championship since the 2009 season. Miller could become the first three-time winner of the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football award, given to the Big Ten's MVP, and also can claim an unprecedented third offensive player of the year award. He has eclipsed 1,000 rush yards in each of the past two seasons and improved his accuracy by more than five percent in 2013. If he can take another step as a passer, he'll likely be in New York for the Heisman ceremony.
Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker (junior): His surname suits his game, as Striker made targeted attacks on opposing ball carriers. An incredibly gifted blitzer, he led Oklahoma in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10.5), while ranking second on the squad with seven quarterback hurries. Striker ended his sophomore season with a breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl, recording three sacks and a forced fumble that led to the game-clinching touchdown. He boasts superb speed and instincts and will trigger a Sooners defense that returns just about everyone in 2014.
And here are seven more sleepers to track ...
Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller (sophomore): Hardly a sleeper in ACC country, Fuller was named the league's defensive rookie of the year after recording a team-high six interceptions. He led the league in passes defended with 17 (six INTs, 11 pass breakups) and helped the Hokies finish eighth nationally in pass defense.
|A junior college transfer, Randy Gregory made an instant impact and became a first-team All-Big Ten defender.|
Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory (junior): The junior-college transfer provided the instant impact Nebraska fans had hoped for and helped the Blackshirts take a step late in the season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and ranked second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and should be in the mix for national awards in 2014.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry (sophomore): Freshman running backs simply don't look like Henry, who, at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, already might be the most physically imposing runner Nick Saban has had at Alabama. After a relatively quiet regular season (282 rush yards on 27 carries), Henry exploded in the Sugar Bowl with a 61-yard scoring reception and a 43-yard scoring run, and averaged 17.9 yards per touch.
UCLA linebacker/running back Myles Jack (sophomore): The most interesting player in college football supplemented his superb linebacker play with surprising running ability, collecting 265 yards and six touchdowns during a three-game stretch late in the year. Jack, who had 75 tackles, two interceptions and a team-high 11 pass breakups as a true freshman, will take on a bigger role as UCLA loses star linebacker Anthony Barr.
Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (sophomore): The No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class showed flashes as a freshman for the Rebels, recording two sacks and eight tackles for loss. Nkemdiche should take another step this coming season and might become the SEC's next truly dominant interior defensive lineman.
|Davis Webb completed his freshman season by throwing for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl.|
Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb (sophomore): Webb announced himself to Arizona State and the rest of the nation last month in the National University Holiday Bowl, tying a bowl record with four touchdown passes and racking up 403 pass yards in an impressive win. It marked Webb's third 400-yard passing performance, and he completed better than 62 percent of his passes in each of his final five games. Webb's stock should soar as he matures in Kliff Kingsbury's pass-heavy offense in Lubbock.
North Carolina wide receiver/returner Ryan Switzer (sophomore): If you punt the ball to Switzer, he'll probably make you pay. He led the nation in punt return average (20.9 YPR) and punt return touchdowns (5), three more than any FBS player, en route to becoming the first North Carolina true freshman since 1977 to earn first-team All-ACC honors. He added 32 receptions for 342 yards and three touchdowns and should have an even bigger role in the fall.