Heisman Trophy race might be too close to call
It is a pass that Kyler Murray figures he has thrown “a million times.”
“Something we work on every day,” he says.
So when the Oklahoma quarterback saw his tight end covered one-on-one by a safety, he took a three-step drop and lofted a perfect strike toward the corner of the end zone.
The touchdown play did more than seal his team’s victory over rival Texas in the Big 12 Conference championship last weekend. It also served as a punctuation mark for Murray’s resurgent Heisman Trophy campaign.
Barely a week ago, the contest for college football’s highest individual honor seemed like a foregone conclusion, with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lapping the field.
But as the finalists gather in New York on Saturday night, the race is suddenly wide-open.
It wasn’t just Murray’s big day that flipped the script. Tagovailoa had a shaky performance in the Southeastern championship game and another late-charger, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins, passed for 499 yards and five touchdowns in the Big Ten title game.
“I’ve seen the statistics of the other two great players and there’s no doubt,” outgoing Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “Dwayne Haskins is a Heisman candidate.”
The trio of quarterbacks received invitations to the ceremony because they are the leading vote-getters in a tally whose exact numbers are known only to the Heisman Trust’s accounting firm.
The fact that no one else was summoned to New York means that no one else came close enough.
For what it’s worth, some oddsmakers are sticking with Tagovailoa as the favorite, albeit by a thinner margin, while others have switched.
Murray’s performance at AT&T Stadium — 379 yards and three touchdowns through the air — featured an accurate passing touch along with blurry speed as he eluded rushers and zipped downfield.
This uncanny combination has made the Sooners an offensive juggernaut, leading the nation at 578 yards and 49.5 points a game. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban said: “I think he’s about as dynamic as any player I’ve seen all season long.”
But Saban also stuck up for his guy.
Against Georgia in the SEC championship, Tagovailoa completed only 10 of 25 passes with two interceptions before leaving the game with injuries to both ankles, which almost certainly hampered his play.
The spotlight quickly shifted to reserve Jalen Hurts, who guided the top-ranked Crimson Tide to a comeback victory with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives.
It was hardly the sort of closing argument Tagovailoa or any other Heisman contender would hope for, but it doesn’t change the fact that the big, strong-armed sophomore has turbo-charged an Alabama offense that for years played second-fiddle to a smothering defense.
His quarterback efficiency rating remains just a tick below Murray’s, even if his yardage lags behind because he has so often staked the Crimson Tide to big leads and watched the end of games from the sideline.
“He may be the most productive for the time that he played,” Saban told reporters this week, adding: “I think that everybody should look at the whole body of work when they’re deciding who the best player is.”
By numbers alone, the best quarterback of the three is actually Haskins, whose 4,580 yards and 47 touchdowns lead the nation.
But the Buckeyes star ranks third in Heisman polls because his team suffered a mid-season lull during which he was all but forgotten for a few weeks.
Ohio State’s dominant victory over then-No. 4 Michigan put him back in the spotlight and, on one of his touchdown passes against Northwestern in the conference championship, he flashed a quick Heisman pose.
“I felt it was the right moment for me to do that,” he said. “I tried to be low key with it, but that didn’t work out.”
Though the Heisman is not by definition a most valuable player award — it is officially meant to recognize “great ability” — the notion of a candidate’s worth to his team often sneaks into the conversation.
Saturday night proved that Alabama might not be as explosive without Tagovailoa under center, but can still win. It is hard to imagine Oklahoma or Ohio State having nearly as much success without their starters.
Murray has “had to continually make big plays in big games through the entire year,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “And he’s done that.”
There’s another issue with the Heisman race that is difficult to quantify. Electronic ballots are sent to 870 media members and 58 former winners the week of conference championships; each fall, some of them submit their choices early.
Last season, 11% of votes were cast before the final games.
That could make a difference this time around, robbing Murray and Haskins of their last chance to shine while sparing Tagovailoa of his rough outing.
The Alabama star underwent surgery this week to repair one of those injured ankles and should be out of commission for a bit.
“They scope those things to get them to come back together a bit quicker,” Saban said. “It’s usually about a two-week deal.”
Murray, meanwhile, is hoping to make history: If he is called to the stage Saturday evening, Oklahoma will become the first school to have a player receive the trophy after taking over for the previous year’s winner — Baker Mayfield — in the lineup.
Winning might also raise questions about the future of a quarterback who was selected ninth in last summer’s baseball draft and is expected to report to the Oakland Athletics.
Murray’s football stock rose this week when he was named the Associated Press player of the year and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s best quarterback. Those honors are often strong indications of the eventual Heisman winner.
The problem is, Tagovailoa took the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards as the best player in college football, showing up at a televised ceremony with his left leg encased in a protective boot.
“It means a lot,” he said on his team’s website, adding; “It’s definitely not an individual success without the team success.”
And that might be the greatest thing about this season’s rekindled Heisman race: No. 1 Alabama will face No. 4 Oklahoma in a College Football Playoff semifinal Dec. 29 at the Orange Bowl.
Maybe then we’ll find out who is truly best.
Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.