6. Melvin Gordon, running back, Wisconsin Badgers
The Big Ten is living up to the reputation it has acquired over the years as being the conference of “three yards and a cloud of dust” with the elite running backs who’ve emerged this season. In the case of most of them, “ten yards and a mushroom cloud” might be the more accurate term to describe the way these guys run. Melvin Gordon is no exception.
The week after Bowling Green pulled off an upset of the Badgers’ conference compatriot Indiana, the Falcons had to have felt good about themselves going into Camp Randall Stadium the following week. Wisconsin’s running game in general and Gordon in particular put a quick end to that sentiment. The team as a whole totaled 644 yards rushing (you read that right, just rushing yards) and Gordon accounted for 253 of those yards while punching it into the end zone five times. The Kenosha, WI native leads the nation in rushing yards per game (174.3), is third in total touchdowns with 13 and averages 7.92 yards per carry which ranks fourth nationally.
7. Amari Cooper, wide receiver, Alabama Crimson Tide
Not since Desmond Howard in 1991 has a wide receiver taken home college football’s top individual honor, and Cooper has as good a chance as anyone in the country to pull it off this year. Whether or not he’s a part of the festivities that the Downtown Athletic Club puts together in New York remains to be seen, but he’s a near-certain finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation’s best wideout.
Cooper’s two standout games against SEC competition came in the conference opener, a 42-21 win over Florida, and last week’s complete massacre of Texas A&M when the Crimson Tide cruised 59-0. He was masterful against the Gators, catching 10 passes for a whopping 201 yards and three touchdowns and was no slouch when the now-reeling Aggies came to Tuscaloosa with 140 receiving yards and two scores. He is currently fourth nationally in receiving yards per game (129.7) and fifth overall in receptions per game (8.9).
8. Connor Cook, quarterback, Michigan State Spartans
I anticipate that my inclusion of Spartan junior quarterback Connor Cook on this list is most likely to raise the most eyebrows. After all, most readers are quick to associate the success MSU has had recently to a physical, stingy defense that continuously put a major dent in opposing quarterbacks hopes for postseason accolades. Hopefully, I’ll convince you that Cook is worthy of being on this list and quite capable of getting into the mix to become Michigan State’s first-ever Heisman Trophy winner.
You began to see signs of Cook’s evolution in Michigan State’s final two games of the 2013 season, the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl, both of which were won by the Spartans en route to an historic 13-1 season. Cook threw for 304 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in the 34-24 upset of Ohio State in Indianapolis. He followed that up with a 332 yard, two touchdown, one pick performance in Pasadena where MSU beat Stanford 24-20 and Cook was named named offensive MVP.
Fast forward to the current season, and you’re beginning to see Cook pick up where he left off from the end of last year. Similar to Prescott from the other MSU down in Starkville, his raw numbers aren’t exactly going to set the world on fire. However, he’s an efficient quarterback that can make crucial throws in important, high-pressure situations. It’s a primary reason he ranks eighth nationally in passing efficiency (164.0) and sixth overall in Total QBR (83.8). If the Spartans repeat as Big Ten champions and find themselves in the CFP, don’t sleep on Cook as a dark horse invitee to the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
9. Tevin Coleman, running back, Indiana Hoosiers
The last time a player on a team with a losing record won the Heisman Trophy was way back in 1956 when Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung won the award despite the Irish’s 2-8 record that year. With the Hoosiers at 3-4 and severely depleted at quarterback, getting to .500 will be a challenge even with Coleman’s exploits as one of the nation’s best running backs. His numbers are impressive at this point, but they’re going to have to border on the historic at season’s end if he wants to get an invite to New York if IU isn’t at the very least bowl eligible.
Coleman’s meteoric rise as a nationally recognized player has seen him get added to the Maxwell Award watch list, which is similar to the Heisman Trophy in that it recognizes the most outstanding offensive player in the country. When you’re in the top five in virtually every major rushing category, that will tend to happen. He currently leads FBS in total rushing yards (1192) and yards per carry (8.83), is second in yards per game (170.3) and fifth in rushing touchdowns (11).
10. Rakeem Cato, quarterback, Marshall Thundering Herd
Cato is an inspiring story of rising from adversity to become the starting quarterback of a major college football program. He grew up in the extremely tough Liberty City neighborhood in the Miami, FL area, and tragically lost his mother at the age of 13 when she passed away at the age of 39 due to complications from pneumonia.
The senior quarterback is currently in the midst of leading the Thundering Herd on a special campaign that is bringing back memories of the dominance the Marshall program enjoyed when Randy Moss and Chad Pennington were doing their thing in Huntington. Saturday’s game was a homecoming of sorts for Cato as the Herd traveled down to the Miami area to take on C-USA rival Florida International. Marshall would romp 45-13, and Cato would throw for four touchdowns, marking the 39th consecutive game he has found the end zone through the air, a new FBS record.
Let’s not forget that Marshall is one of four remaining undefeated teams, and Cato is a major reason for the unblemished record. He is among the nation’s leaders in yards per completion (16.07), passing touchdowns (19) and passing efficiency (161.9) where he ranks fourth, seventh and 11th respectively. Though the selection committee will never consider them for the CFP given the weakness of their strength of schedule, it’s much more likely Cato could receive an invite to New York especially if the Herd finish the season undefeated.
Honorable Mention: Bo Wallace, quarterback, Ole Miss Rebels; Blake Sims, quarterback, Alabama Crimson Tide; Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska Cornhuskers; Bryce Petty, quarterback, Baylor Bears; Clint Trickett, quarterback, West Virginia Mountaineers.
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