It took the strangest pair of Heisman Trophy favorites in recent history for the award to produce its first compelling race in almost a decade.
Favorite no. 1 is a professional baseball player. The Oakland A’s selected Kyler Murray with the ninth overall pick in this year’s MLB draft, and in June he signed a $4.7 million contract to play in their organization. The former five-star recruit just wanted to play one more season of amateur football before going pro in the sport that he will get paid handsomely for moving forward; stunningly, the A’s agreed to this arrangement. They let Murray play quarterback for Oklahoma in 2018 and risk sustaining a career-altering injury on the gridiron. The A’s claimed they were rooting for Murray’s Sooners, but I’m not sure they wanted him to be this good—good enough to add extra games to his football career by making the Big 12 championship and the College Football Playoff, and good enough to reignite talk that maybe he should consider going pro in football.
Favorite no. 2 has not played a full game all season. Over the years the college football world has become accustomed to having a “Heisman moment,” the play during a critical contest when a Heisman contender reveals he’s far and away the best player on the field and wins his team the game single-handedly. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hasn’t had one of those, because he has made the Crimson Tide offense so explosive and efficient that Bama doesn’t play in close games. Tagovailoa has thrown just eight passes in the fourth quarter this entire season. Statistics generally factor into the Heisman race, and Tagovailoa has basically played three quarters of a season.
Both players are having all-time passing seasons. Last December, when trumpeting Baker Mayfield’s Heisman credentials, I highlighted that he demolished the single-season yards-per-passing-attempt record set by Michael Vick in 1999. That all-time leaderboard now looks a lot different: Murray’s 2018 campaign is no. 1 (11.92 yards per attempt), Mayfield’s 2017 season (11.45) is no. 2, and Tagovailoa’s 2018 (11.40) sits just a smidge behind at no. 3. The list had been Murray, Tagovailoa, and then Mayfield heading into last week’s SEC championship game, when Tagovailoa struggled and got hurt.
It’s been a long time since there were two legitimately worthy Heisman candidates. With the Heisman, the voters’ groupthink typically makes clear who’s going to win weeks, if not months, in advance. And on the rare occasions when the Heisman vote is close, it’s generally because nobody stands apart from the pack. The last year there wasn’t clarity over who’d win the award entering the week of the Heisman presentation was 2009, when Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy each received more than 200 first-place votes.
Suffice it to say, the Kyler-Tua debate does not feel like the Ingram-Gerhart-McCoy debate. Football is undergoing a passing efficiency revolution, and Murray and Tagovailoa are at its forefront, showcasing what dynamic athletes with dynamic passing skills can accomplish in dynamic offensive schemes.
I don’t know who will win the Heisman, but for once I’m genuinely curious to find out. Murray and Tagovailoa will face off in the Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal December 29, and ideally the trophy would be placed at the 50-yard line with the winning quarterback taking it home. Unfortunately, though, the Heisman ceremony is set for Saturday. Who should win the award?
Murray and Tagovailoa have had two of the most fascinating seasons in recent college football memory. Whoever wins will get to have one of the most distinctive legacies in the sport’s storied history.
A Heisman win for Murray would be a monument to what could’ve been.
There used to be a perception that every quarterback in an Air Raid offense was merely a product of their team’s system, making easy reads and easy throws to a bevy of open receivers. Mayfield smashed that narrative last year, showing that a signal-caller could be part of an Air Raid offense and still emerge as the clear-cut best player in the nation. This year Murray has taken the narrative’s broken pieces and lit them on fire.
Murray plays quarterback like a queen on the chess board. He is capable of going as far as he wants in any direction, at any time. Sometimes, he chooses to uncork bombs to the wide-open receiver downfield:
On top of that, Murray’s straight-line speed might be the fastest in the sport. Sometimes the defense drops back to defend a pass and looks up to see a red rocket hurtling toward the end zone:
And when Murray threatens to run or pass on the same play? What the hell are you supposed to do with this?
(By the way, all three of these touchdowns came from the same game.)
(By the way, Oklahoma lost that game, because Oklahoma’s defense enjoys watching Murray as much as we do and apparently made the decision in August to encourage Murray to score as many touchdowns as possible by allowing 30-plus points per game.)
Murray’s speed isn’t limited to sprinting in straight lines. My favorite part of watching him play is his ability to change directions, weaving in, out, around, and past defenders, making them look like cats chasing a laser pointer. He’s like Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson.
Kyler Murray is GOOD at this football thing pic.twitter.com/0ZYJTuRxrP— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) September 1, 2018
While we’re talking about Heisman winners who went on to play professional baseball, Murray is making the smart decision to pursue baseball rather than football. He already has guaranteed millions on the table, and MLB players have longer careers and get paid higher salaries than NFL players do. Football is known for giving its players debilitating brain injuries, while baseball is known for giving its players quality time in the sun hanging out with friends.
However, I remain frustrated that Murray will soon play baseball instead of football, because, well, look at him. He seems engineered to terrorize football opponents with a limitless array of options: run straight, switch directions, or hurl the ball 50 yards to hit a receiver between the numbers.
How will Murray’s powers translate to the baseball diamond, a sport of straight lines and straightforward decisions? Murray the football player overwhelms opponents with the vast number of choices his multifaceted skill set creates; Murray the baseball player will compete in a sport that dictates which direction he’s supposed to move in at any given time. Is he going to fake out defenses by hitting the ball and then juking toward third base before running to first?
Murray would not be the first Heisman winner to have a future in another sport. (As a Knicks-supporting child in the 1990s, I had no idea that Charlie Ward was anything except a point guard.) But Murray would be the first Heisman winner to show this much promise and then voluntarily abandon the sport. I believe that Murray could be an exceptional pro quarterback, but I don’t think we’ll ever get a chance to find out.
A Heisman win for Murray would be the defining proof of his megatalent. He’d have achieved the pinnacle of a sport he took on as a hobby before moving on to green-and-gold pastures. Watching Murray’s highlight reel makes me wistful that he’s leaving football behind. But it also gives me hope: There used to be perceived limits on what Air Raid quarterbacks were capable of. Maybe Murray can smash the mold of how thrilling baseball players can be too.
A Heisman win for Tagovailoa could put him on the path to having the greatest college football career of all time.
Tagovailoa came into last season’s national championship game after halftime and won Bama the title. (Comeback win, championship-winning pass in overtime—pretty casual way to start a career.) That prompted me to wonder what Alabama, the best program in football, might look like if it suddenly had the best quarterback in football. Tagovailoa has shown us. He has turned the Crimson Tide’s juggernaut into … ah, crap, they don’t make words for being more dominant than a juggernaut. I’m sorry. Let’s just start a new paragraph.
Alabama won its first 12 games this fall by 22 points or more, putting the Tide in the GOAT discussion. The games would have been more lopsided, but Alabama often raced ahead by so much—it scored opening-drive touchdowns in 10 of 13 games, generally on fewer than five plays—that Tagovailoa was frequently on the bench by the start of the fourth quarter. (He still threw 37 touchdowns, third most in the FBS.)
So, Tagovailoa won the title as a true freshman. He could win the Heisman and another national championship as a sophomore. And he could win the Heisman and a national championship as a junior. He’s yet to lose a game he’s played in. (It seems a bit much to project so far into the future in a sport that changes so rapidly, but college football has one constant: Alabama isn’t going anywhere.)
If a guy wins three national championships and two Heisman trophies, he’d automatically be the greatest college football player of all time, right? There’s not even a debate there. No team has three-peated in college football since Army in the 1940s, and the only person to win the Heisman twice is Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, in 1974 and 1975.
Voters have recently been tough on Heisman winners seeking a repeat, but Tua seems like the kind of player who could pull it off. The Heisman usually goes to one of two types of candidates: the Best Player on the Best Team or the Guy With Ridiculous Stats. Tua was both this season, and he should be next season as well.
Still, I see more for Tua. I wanted to identify his most perfect pass of the year, but couldn’t choose among this one, a corner route to a tight end that beat excellent coverage by a corner and a closing safety ...
... and this one, a throw that fits into a roughly 2-foot radius where it could be a touchdown ...
I can't get over how good Tua is. Look at how perfect this ball is. pic.twitter.com/231pU3fWr1— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) September 15, 2018
... and this one, a pass that makes quick work of double coverage:
Tagovailoa is the best collegiate passer I’ve ever seen. But his most YouTube-worthy highlights stem from his unreal ability to escape sacks, like on this play or this play or the below play, my favorite:
A few weeks ago, I attended an NFL game between the Chiefs and Rams that seemed like the future of football. It was defined by innovative offenses dialing up brilliant passing plays and defenses that realized the only way to stop those offenses was not by sticking with receivers—that’s hopeless—but by getting to the quarterback as quickly as humanly possible.
Tagovailoa is the ideal quarterback for this future. He is not merely blessed with remarkable arm strength and bull’s-eye precision, but he’s also capable of staying alive in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, and making pinpoint passes from unconventional angles and different speeds while evading the rush.
Even if Tagovailoa leaves Alabama with just one national championship and zero Heismans, he should still go on to become the best prospect to enter the NFL draft in years. But a Heisman win for Tagovailoa could be a stepping stone on his path to greatness.
So who’s going to win the award? Right now, it’s looking like Murray. He’s favored by oddsmakers (Murray is -190 to win the award; Tagovailoa is +150, according to Bovada), and has won a variety of pre-vote straw polls. Personally, I’d vote for Tagovailoa. He led Heisman watch lists all season until this past week, when his poor performance in the SEC championship game, coupled with Murray’s effort in the Big 12 title game, flipped the pecking order. The fact that Jalen Hurts subbed in for Tagovailoa and led Alabama to a 35-28 win over Georgia made Tagovailoa seem disposable, whereas Oklahoma has needed to lean on Murray for every ounce of its success. I think that logic is unfair. Tagovailoa was clearly injured Saturday. When he was healthy, Alabama blew everyone out. That Alabama was also capable of winning a non-blowout without him does not diminish the blowouts it achieved with him.
But I’m happy with whoever wins. These two college superstars are both poised to have careers unlike any that came before them. If Murray wins the Heisman, it will likely mark his greatest individual achievement in a football career cut short by the fact that his dazzling array of talents translates to other sports. If Tagovailoa wins, it could be the next step in his path to football transcendence.