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SEC Heisman Candidate Series: Dak Prescott

Mississippi State's quarterback should be the best returning player at his position this year. Could continued improvement put him in the conversation for the best player in the nation?

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit that I was skeptical, too. There are few people outside of the Mississippi State fan base who are bigger fans of Dak Prescott than myself, in part because of a South Carolina fan's natural soft spot for underdog teams, and in part because I just like the way Prescott plays. But when Greg McElroy started talking up Prescott in the run-up to the 2014 season -- well, even I thought he got a bit ahead of himself.

McElroy got his fair share of mockery for that prediction. And then the season started, and by October, Dak Prescott was a favorite for the trophy with 2-to-1 odds. Some of that was because Las Vegas will take your money if you want to award the Heisman based on the first few weeks of the season, but a lot of it was also legitimate.

Like most good things that happen to Mississippi State early in a football season, the Prescott hype machine eventually came crashing back down to reality. After being crowned the favorite, Dak Prescott would go on to have his worst four performances by quarterback rating in 2014, and previously undefeated Mississippi State would lose three games.

This year, Dak is back -- and it's not just Greg McElroy touting his Heisman chances. Bovada has installed him as the second-likeliest player to win the award. And while in retrospect Prescott ended up well short of the Heisman in 2014, there are reasons from last season to think that he could head to New York City this year.

First, the elephant in the room with Mississippi State: Under Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs have developed a reputation for obliterating undermanned teams to pump up expectations, then struggling with the better outfits that stand between them and an SEC West title. Mississippi State overturned some of that perception this past season, beating Auburn and LSU, but still fell short against Alabama, Ole Miss and (in the bowl game) Georgia Tech.

Dak had some similar issues. His numbers were significantly better against teams who were not in the Top 30 of S&P defense last year than against those who were. This should surprise no one who is at all familiar with the game of football -- "QUARTERBACK DID BETTER AGAINST WORSE DEFENSES" is not exactly startling analysis. But it still had something to do with Prescott's fall from the top of the rankings. Both Alabama and Ole Miss were ranked in the Top 30 last year.

DAK PRESCOTT, 2014 (TOP 30) 100 170 1,417 7 7 134.19 102 417 4.09 4
DAK PRESCOTT, 2014 (OTHERS) 130 203 1,826 18 4 164.92 102 515 5.05 9
DAK PRESCOTT, 2014 (TOTAL) 230 373 3,243 25 11 150.91 204 932 4.57 13
DAK PRESCOTT, 2013 (TOP 30) 61 108 652 0 4 99.79 52 249 4.79 5
DAK PRESCOTT, 2013 (OTHERS) 83 140 1,114 8 3 140.70 78 560 7.18 7
DAK PRESCOTT, 2013 (TOTAL) 144 248 1,766 8 7 122.88 130 809 6.22 12

A quarterback rating in the 130-140 range is average or slightly above it. And an overall ranking of 150.91 is not going to win anyone the Heisman Trophy; among the last five winners of the award, only Johnny Manziel ranked below 180 (Prescott was reasonably close to Manziel's 155.32) and didn't rank either first or second in the nation in that category.

But when you look at Prescott's numbers against the better defenses in 2013 -- they're awful. That's perhaps to be expected of a sophomore getting his first taste of essentially full-time duty (he was platooning with Tyler Russell that season), but Prescott showed off amazing growth against the best defenses between that year and last season.

In fact, as you'll notice, Prescott did better across the board in 2014. If he were to improve at the same rate between 2014 and 2015, Prescott would be on track for a quarterback rating of 185.33 this season, which would put him well within the recent norm for quarterbacks who won the award. And while we all know that growth doesn't happen quite that way -- if anything, Prescott's improvement can be expected to slow down in 2015 -- it's still a glimmer of encouragement.

And Prescott already fits the mold of players who have won the Heisman lately. Of the last five players to claim the trophy, only one -- Jameis Winston -- would fall outside the relatively elastic term of "dual-threat quarterback." Another 900-yard season on the ground paired with another year of seasoning at quarterback would put Prescott in the conversation. And with Josh Robinson heading to the NFL, Prescott could get more opportunities this year than last, depending on how well Robinson's replacements perform.

Finally, Prescott should be the best returning full-time starting quarterback in the SEC this year. Among those who are graduating or otherwise moving on (or, in one case, just moving): Blake Sims, Hutson Mason, Kenny Hill, Nick Marshall, Bo Wallace and Dylan Thompson. That would be the other six quarterbacks in the top seven in passer rating in 2014. Being the best quarterback in any power conference is likely to get a player's name in the mix, if nothing else; if Prescott continues to improve, that goal is well within his reach.

There are a couple of factors that cut against Prescott. He's at a non-traditional power, and while that hasn't proven to be a bar to some players -- Robert Griffin III played at Baylor, after all -- it is a factor, particularly if Mississippi State struggles to replicate its 2014 success. (The Heisman is not a team award, but it often functions like one, because voters.) And he's a favorite this year, and Heisman voters of late have been more interested in new players who make a big splash -- see Cam Newton, Manziel and Winston.

But if you're talking merit, there's no reason to count Dak Prescott out this year. Last season might have been too early, but 2015 is looking like his time.