Winston is the reigning Heisman winner and if he were to win it again, the Florida State quarterback would join Ohio State’s Archie Griffin as the only two-time winner. In 2013, he threw for 4,057 yards and completed 66.9 percent of his passes. He had 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Mariota -- who was slowed by a knee injury during the Pac-12 season -- finished the 2013 season with 3,665 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions. He completed 63.5 percent of his passes en route to picking up his second consecutive All-Pac-12 honor.
But they’ve grown and matured. Their teams are a bit different than they were last season and the biggest question at this point is: Which player is the early favorite to win the Heisman in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff?
Jared Shanker and Chantel Jennings discussed a few key points to see where different advantages fall in regard to this debate.
Offensive line: Florida State
Shanker: Among the positions we’re looking at, the gap may be widest at offensive line. Florida State’s offensive line consists of five seniors, all with starting experience. Combined, they have more than 100 career starts. Cameron Erving is one of the best left tackles in the country, and right guard Tre’ Jackson could be the first guard taken in the NFL draft next spring. The Ducks might have center Hroniss Grasu, but overall, the Oregon offensive line can’t compete with the Seminoles’ O-line. Right, Chantel?
Jennings: A week ago, I might have fought you a little harder on this, but now that Tyler Johnstone is out for the season with an ACL injury, I’d say you’re completely right. Andre Yruretagoyena will replace the 26-game starter Johnstone … but Yruretagoyena has never started a game at Oregon. Grasu is the headliner of the bunch, but outside of his conference-leading 40 starts, the other three combine for just 41 total. Advantage definitely goes to Winston’s offensive front.
Running backs: Oregon
Jennings: Mariota returns his top two running threats from 2013 and, from everything Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is saying, these two are even better than numbers last year. Both Byron Marshall and Tyner averaged 6.2 yards per carry, and Marshall led the team overall with 1,038 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Tyner rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns. Take those two and add Mariota -- who accounted for 715 yards and nine rushing touchdowns -- and you have a three-headed monster that might be the best backfield in college football.
Shanker: Agree that the edge has to go to Oregon here. The Florida State coaching staff is high on senior running back Karlos Williams, but he was a safety entering the 2013 season and has taken very few carries during the meaningful portions of games. He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and had very strong numbers last season as the No. 3 running back, but we’ll see how he fares this season as “The Guy.” This could be a much closer debate by the end of the season depending on the progress of Williams and his backups Dalvin Cook and Mario Pender.
Wide receivers: Florida State, but it’s close
Shanker: This is a tough one as both quarterbacks have some question marks on the outside. Rashad Greene is a potential All-American, but who is going to replace Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw’s production -- nearly 2,000 receiving yards combined. There is certainly talent at receiver, especially in the freshman class. Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph were top-10 receivers nationally coming out of high school, but Rudolph’s foot has been slow to heal from offseason surgery. Jesus “Bobo” Wilson is indefinitely suspended, and Isaiah Jones could be an academic casualty. The positive here is that the attention Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary will draw should facilitate the emergence of a legitimate No. 2 receiver.
Jennings: If the coaches at Oregon are to be believed in what they’re saying at this point in fall camp, then this is one of the deepest groups of wide receivers in recent memory. Now, it’s untested talent, so it’s still just potential. But the fact that wide receivers coach Matt Lubick thinks -- that if the Ducks played today -- that they could go with eight different receivers, that’s pretty impressive. Even if half of those guys pan out, it’s still pretty good. But in this case one proven guy is greater than eight unproven guys -- though veteran Keanon Lowe returns -- he was fifth on the team last year with 18 receptions.
Schedule: Florida State, and it’s not close
Shanker: Certainly the schedule is tougher, and 2014 won’t be a cakewalk, but the Seminoles do not have three teams in the top 11 of the USA Today Coaches Poll on their schedule. Oregon does. And two of those teams, Michigan State and Stanford, are among the best teams defensively. Florida State does have to face Clemson, which could be vastly improved on defense, but the Seminoles hung 50 on the Tigers on the road in 2013. Oklahoma State is rebuilding, and Notre Dame has potential with Everett Golson back, but it would not be a shock if both teams finish the season unranked. The Florida defense should be very good again this season, but it might not matter if their offense cannot alleviate any of the pressure. That’s exactly what happened when Florida and Florida State played last season.
Jennings: The Ducks take off in Week 2 against Michigan State and don’t slow from there. In Week 4 they’ll travel to Pullman, Wash. to take on Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, which is always a headache for defensive coordinators. They have Arizona, Stanford and Washington at home. They have UCLA and Oregon State on the road. I’d like to see FSU play half of that schedule and see what their record is. If a player’s team needs to be perfect -- or nearly perfect -- then Winston has a much, much better shot at that with Florida State's schedule.
National perception: Mariota
Jennings: People know Mariota because he's a darn good player. In his career for the Ducks, he has never made a misstep. The only people who don’t like Mariota are the fans of the teams that play against him. And even then, I would bet if he showed up at a dinner party or wanted to date someone’s daughter, he’d be welcomed in no problem. He has already graduated. His teammates love him. His coaches talk about him as if he's their golden child. Even other quarterbacks in the conference like him.
Shanker: It’s no secret Winston is not well-liked outside of Tallahassee for the most part, as David Hale pointed out earlier this week. Considered affable in September, Winston was considered arrogant and above the law two months later. The sexual assault investigation, coupled with the seafood heist, has brought a lot of notoriety to Winston. On the field, the expectations will be higher for Winston this season. As the returning Heisman winner, Winston is going to be held to a higher standard. It’s unlikely he repeats his 4,000-yard, 40-touchdown season in 2014, and if Winston gives voters any reason to not vote for him, there will be more than a few who won't.