For the past several years, the Heisman Trophy race has not been particularly close in its final week. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was considered a certain winner last year, much as Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was the year before.
This year is different. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, a sophomore and the front-runner for much of the season, has slipped to second place behind Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, a redshirt junior, if the Bovada betting odds are to be believed.
Two factors make this such a confounding guessing game.
One is that these two generally similar players have some statistics that are strikingly disparate. Oklahoma’s offense — the same Air Raid variant that saw Mayfield win last year under Coach Lincoln Riley — had Murray throwing early and often, while the Alabama offense still relied heavily on the run, as is the tradition for Nick Saban-coached teams. (The dominant Crimson Tide also sat Tagovailoa during many fourth quarters.)
As a result, Murray threw for 700 more yards than Tagovailoa, although he also did it on 46 more attempts. Indeed, Murray averaged just 0.5 yards more per attempt than Tagovailoa, and their yards-per-attempt figures topped the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The other fly in the ointment is what happened last weekend. Murray turned in another spectacular game — 379 yards, three touchdowns — in the high-stakes Big 12 championship game versus Texas. Tagovailoa, limited by an injury on the first drive of the Southeastern Conference title game against Georgia, threw two interceptions (the same number he had thrown over the prior 12 games) and left in the fourth quarter with Alabama trailing by 7 points, only to watch his backup, Jalen Hurts, lead the Tide to victory. Tagovailoa underwent ankle surgery last Sunday and is expected back in a couple of weeks, in time for the college playoff games.
So how will voters make sense of that late turn of events, which came in the final weekend of balloting? We will find out Saturday night.
One thing we do know is that the winner will be a quarterback — the 16th signal-caller to be honored in the last 19 seasons. That is because the third finalist, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, a sophomore, is also a quarterback (one whose season should stand out more than it has against these two other talents).
If Murray wins, he will likely be the first Heisman winner to go on to play a different sport professionally since Florida State’s Charlie Ward won in 1993 and then entered the N.B.A. Murray was drafted by the Oakland Athletics and has said his plan is to report to spring training next February.
Here is a look at the three top candidates.
Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
His case by the numbers: Murray led the F.B.S. in yards per attempt (11.9) and ESPN’s passer efficiency rating. He was second in completion percentage (70.9 percent) and in passing touchdowns (40), adding 11 on the ground. He had a brilliant 65-yard run on the first drive of Oklahoma’s penultimate game versus West Virginia. The Sooners went 12-1, again, and won the Big 12, again, and will go to the playoff, again.
Scouting report: Could those “agains” hurt Murray’s case? This is very similar to what Mayfield did at Oklahoma a year ago. Of course, Mayfield went on to be the No. 1 overall draft pick and is now starting in the N.F.L. But one could foresee some voters arguing that Murray merely thrived in a system designed to boost quarterback statistics. Do not believe it, though. When you stop for a moment and consider where Oklahoma, with its 108th-ranked defense, would have been this year with a merely good quarterback, Murray’s case as college football’s exemplary player this season becomes much clearer.
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
His case by the numbers: Second in passer efficiency and yards per attempt. Third in touchdowns — he threw 37 touchdown passes against four interceptions, which is the kind of thing Tom Brady does. Although his Alabama coaches likely lived in constant fear that he would get injured, he still managed five touchdowns on the ground. Other important numbers are 13 and 0 — as in, Alabama went 13-0.
Scouting report: Remember last season’s national title game and the 41-yard vertical pass Tagovailoa hurled to end it in Alabama’s favor? He has been doing that same play all season, deep vertical routes to speedy receivers that blow games open for the Tide. It has produced exceptionally exciting offense at a program and for a coach not known for it. Tagovailoa would become the first Alabama quarterback and the first Nick Saban quarterback to win the Heisman. That speaks a lot to his distinctiveness. And Hurts’s ability to defeat Georgia last Saturday ought not diminish Tagovailoa’s achievement, as Hurts is no slouch, what with the two national championship games he led Alabama to in 2016 and 2017.
Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
His case by the numbers: By far the most touchdowns in the F.B.S., with 47 (next is Murray, with 40), and that is not counting four more on the ground. One of just six eligible quarterbacks with a completion rate above 70 percent. Like Oklahoma, Ohio State went 12-1 and won its conference. Haskins’s signature game came in the season’s most important, the 62-39 win over Michigan — against whose fantastic defense Haskins threw for 396 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Scouting report: It is surprising that Haskins is not more central to the Heisman conversation. While quarterbacks in the offenses of departing Ohio State coach Urban Meyer often thrive — see: Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, J.T. Barrett — none did so while running the ball as infrequently as Haskins did. So why did he never truly catch on in the Heisman race? Ohio State had a bad loss, at Purdue, though Haskins’s worst game came later, versus Nebraska. More broadly, he arguably peaked too late in the season, throwing for 11 touchdowns in his final two games. With quarterbacks coach Ryan Day ascending to Ohio State’s top job and Haskins still having two more years of collegiate eligibility, here is something else that would be surprising: if Haskins is not back in Manhattan one of the next two Decembers.
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