Expectations high for Marcus Mariota

Every summer we do our “Proving Grounds” post for the North and South divisions. We’ll hit that up again this summer.

But for now, ESPN Insider Travis Haney took a look at some offensive players with something to proveInsider on a national level. Only one Pac-12 player is listed, but he’s an important one.

Haney notes that this is a critical season for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, stating that for the third-year starter, it’s Heisman Trophy finalist or bust.

Writes Haney:

Mariota, in particular, has something to prove after racing out as the Heisman front-runner but then fading with a knee injury that limited his ability to run and react.

The Ducks have been on the cusp of national title contention the past two seasons, only to be stunted by losses to Stanford. That game in 2013 was the first evidence of a limited Mariota, who had negative rushing yards that week and the one after.

Before the aforementioned knee injury, Mariota looked like a lock to end up in New York. But the injury, coupled with losses to Stanford and Arizona to close out the season, put him in a nationally recognized tailspin from which he could not recover. That the Ducks didn’t qualify for a BCS bowl game didn’t help, either.

With all of that said, Mariota is still, without question, one of the top handful of players in the country and should receive plenty of preseason Heisman buzz. Last year he led the nation in Adjusted QBR and was second only to Jameis Winston in Total QBR. You might recall, also, a tiny little Pac-12 record he set by throwing 353 passes without an interception. Last year he threw 31 touchdowns to just four interceptions and ran for another nine scores.

The Ducks have won at least 10 games in six straight seasons, so they’ll remain in the national spotlight. And Mariota’s stock could rise with a strong performance early in the season when Rose Bowl champion Michigan State comes to Eugene on Sept. 6. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest, nonconference games in the Pac-12 in 2014, and a lot of folks will be watching. He’ll start the Heisman race behind Winston, last year’s winner and the clear front-runner. But Michigan State could provide a huge statement game early in the season for the Ducks and their quarterback.