By Kevin McGuire-
(CBS Local) With the college football season ready to wrap up this weekend (with the exception of the annual Army-Navy game next week), the Heisman Trophy race is also coming to a close. Next week the finalists will be announced and sent to New York City for the presentation, but there are three likely top candidates looking to win a conference championship this week.
This week’s slate of conference championship games not only serves as an appetizer or opening round to the College Football Playoff, but it doubles as the grand stage for this year’s top Heisman candidates to showcase their stuff and perhaps offer a signature Heisman moment before the votes are due.
Favorite: Marcus Mariota, Oregon QB
The stigma for some of the best players on the West Coast is that nobody really gets a chance to see you play. This makes it difficult for players out west to really stand much ground in the Heisman conversation, but Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is a little bit different. Mariota got started as Oregon’s quarterback early in his collegiate career and entered this season as a household name in the Heisman conversation. Mariota was among the preseason favorites to win this year’s Heisman Trophy and he has done nothing to drop out of the running.
Mariota has gotten past one of the big hurdles that has haunted him the past few years by proving that he and the Ducks can beat a team that is traditionally strong on defense. Mariota led the Ducks to wins against Michigan State and Stanford, and then went on the road to beat a strong defensive Utah team. This Friday, Mariota gets a chance for some redemption against the only team he came up short against, Arizona. A win in the Pac-12 Championship Game with the spotlight shining on the Pac-12 without much competition could be the grand finale stage Mariota needs to wrap up the first Heisman Trophy in Oregon’s program history.
Runner-up: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin RB
Wisconsin pumps out really good running backs, but Melvin Gordon is among the best to come through the program since Ron Dayne plowed his way to a Heisman Trophy. Gordon is on pace to set some new rushing records and he gets to continue that run to history against an Ohio State team vying for a College Football Playoff spot. Gordon and the Badgers are the favorites in the Big Ten championship game. If Gordon can put together a strong performance on the ground and lead the Badgers to another Big Ten title (three in four years), then Gordon could make up some ground on Mariota.
Within reach: Amari Cooper, Alabama WR
Wide receivers rarely make a run for the Heisman Trophy, but Alabama’s Amari Cooper has as good a shot as any wide receiver to play the game perhaps since Pittsburgh’s Larry Fitzgerald. Cooper has carried Alabama at times and has been a player flourishing under Lane Kiffin’s offensive coaching for the Crimson Tide. Cooper and Alabama are one win away from wrapping up a spot in the College Football Playoff, perhaps the number one spot.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football.