It’s a fool’s errand to declare a Heisman winner in September. Nearly every season produces what seems like a wire-to-wire favorite, only for that gridiron shooting star to fizzle out in the season’s closing stretch. In 2015, LSU running back Leonard Fournette looked the part, racking up 631 rushing yards and eight touchdowns through three September games. But back-to-back November clunkers in losses against Alabama and Arkansas ended his campaign.
In 2012, West Virginia’s Geno Smith set Morgantown aflame, ending the month with 1,728 passing yards with 20 touchdowns and no interceptions. After a win over Texas the following week, his claim got even stronger. But his candidacy faded after the Mountaineers lost five straight Big 12 games. And in 2010, Denard Robinson looked like the next great dual-threat quarterback when he tallied 1,008 passing yards, seven touchdowns, one interception through the air, and 905 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground en route to Michigan’s first 5-0 record since 2006, and just their second since Tom Brady was under center. But his time in the sun didn’t last. Like Fournette, Robinson finished sixth in the Heisman voting.
There’s no way of knowing which of the contenders for college football’s ultimate individual prize will have staying power. Maybe one of the front-runners this season will sustain their excellence, like Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in 2007 or Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2016. Here are the favorites to take home the trophy in 2019 through five weeks:
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Last year, Tagovailoa looked like a shoo-in for the trophy before Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray swiped it with a late-season push. Tagovailoa had a legend-making performance in the second half of the previous season’s national championship against Georgia. In 2018, the sophomore quarterback was almost too good at slicing through opposing defenses. Through the first eight games of the season, Tagovailoa completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 2,066 yards, 25 touchdowns, and no interceptions, and did so without taking a single fourth-quarter snap. He still finished the season with 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns, and six picks, but there’s an argument to be made that not being able to finish games with gaudier numbers kept Murray in the hunt. When Alabama won the SEC championship with former starter Jalen Hurts guiding the team from behind, critics wondered whether Alabama’s success was due to Tagovailoa or just the team’s overall excellence.
So far this season, Tagovailoa has done a good job of building on last season’s success. Through five games, he’s thrown for 1,718 yards (343.6 per game), 23 touchdowns, and no interceptions, and he’s improved on his NCAA-record passing-efficiency rating. Alabama retook the no. 1 ranking in the coaches poll from Clemson this week, and Tagovailoa bunkered down at the top of most people’s Heisman rankings, logging 418 yards and seven total scores against Ole Miss on Saturday. This season’s Heisman race is more open than last fall’s, but if Tagovailoa continues to outpace entire teams on his own (he has 1,763 total yards, just 1 shy of eighth-ranked Wisconsin for total offense), there won’t be anyone who can catch him.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
The past two seasons, the Heisman trophy has gone to a dynamic Oklahoma quarterback who started his career elsewhere. First, it was Baker Mayfield who flag-planted and crotch-grabbed his way to the trophy. Then it was Murray, whose abilities as a runner and passer made him a darling of pundits and NFL scouts alike. Now, Hurts has a chance to add his name to the list. The former Alabama standout had a reputation as a game manager under Nick Saban, which was exaggerated by the vertical offense Tagovailoa ran for the Tide in his stead.
Hurts followed the example of Mayfield and Murray by transferring to Oklahoma. Under Lincoln Riley’s stewardship, he played in a pedal-to-the-metal Air Raid offense and has looked unstoppable. In four games, the senior QB has completed 77.6 percent of his passes for 1,295 yards, 12 touchdowns, and one interception, and added 443 yards and five scores with his feet. What’s more, his 249.9 passer efficiency rating is by far the highest on record, besting Tagovailoa’s 2018 score by more than 50 points. With Hurts playing beyond what many thought he was capable of, Oklahoma is poised to make a return trip to the college football playoff. If he can shine during the Red River Showdown against Texas, he might just jump Tagovailoa and give the Sooners a Heisman threepeat.
Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
For as long as I can remember, LSU has entered the season claiming they’d finally figured out how to run an offense. This year was no different, with head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger announcing they’d be running a spread for senior transfer gunslinger, Joe Burrow. Last season, Burrow showed promise, throwing for just shy of 2,900 yards and 16 scores en route to a 10-3 record. And while those numbers were somewhat mediocre, they represented an improvement for a team that hadn’t broken the top 50 in per-game scoring since 2013, when Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were receiving passes. This season, remarkably, LSU actually followed through on its plans and is running an honest-to-God spread offense and leaving all who challenge it in its wake.
Through four games, the undefeated Tigers are first in the nation in scoring, averaging 57.8 points per game, and Burrow is second in the country in passing yards per game, logging 380 per contest. Burrow is completing 80.6 (!) percent of his passes—the best mark in the country—and isn’t just dinking-and-dumping to pad his stats. He’s tallied the fifth-most completions of 20 yards or more, and his passing efficiency rating is better than Tagovailoa’s. A 471-yard, four-touchdown performance against Texas put Burrow on the map, and a similar performance in mid-October against a top-10 Florida Gators squad—one that’s allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in the country—could catapult him to the top of voters’ ballots.
The New Kid on the Block
Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Three of the top contenders for this year’s trophy are transfer quarterbacks: Hurts from Alabama to Oklahoma, Burrow from Ohio State to LSU, and Fields from Georgia to Ohio State. Justin Fields was once the no. 2 overall recruit in the country behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, signing with Penn State before decommitting and joining Georgia, where he played wide receiver and occasionally spelled starting quarterback Jake Fromm. The lack of playing time didn’t sit well with Fields, and he transferred to Columbus, dispelling the Buckeyes’ own touted youngster Tate Martell in the process.
Through five games, Fields has shown what made him such an exciting prospect, throwing for 1,092 yards, 16 touchdowns, and no picks with 222 rushing yards and seven more scores. Ohio State once again looks like the class of the Big Ten, and Fields gives them a dynamism they’ve had with past superstar quarterbacks in Columbus. His first real test will come next week against a 4-1 Michigan State team that boasts a subpar offense but a suffocating defense.
The Running Back
Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
Only two running backs have won the Heisman in the last 13 years, and only three (counting Reggie Bush) have won this century. The last two winners, Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram, almost fell into the award, taking home the prize as bellwether backs for dominant Alabama squads in otherwise lackluster fields. With a handful of truly impressive quarterbacks ahead of him, it could be tough for Taylor to break through. Still, his play thus far has been impressive. In four games, he’s rushed for 559 yards and eight touchdowns and added three touchdowns receiving as well.
Taylor, like Wisconsin, entered the season as an afterthought on the national stage. But with each subsequent domination of lesser foes, they’ve climbed into the spotlight. No game better represents what both the Badgers and Taylor are about than their decimation of Michigan, wherein Taylor ran for 203 yards and two scores on 23 carries, despite missing a significant portion of the game with an injury. Taylor has broken 100 yards on the ground in each of his four contests. A late October matchup against Fields and Ohio State could help determine both of their Heisman futures.
Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State
No player has tallied more yards on the ground than Hubbard, whose 938 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns are both NCAA highs. Oklahoma State is 4-1, and playing Big 12 defenses each week will allow Hubbard to keep inflating his stats. But running backs have an inherent disadvantage in this race, and Hubbard would have to put up numbers resembling Barry Sanders’s, the last Oklahoma State running back to win the award, to have a real chance.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Golden boy, national champion, potential Garnier Fructis model, Heisman winner? That was the plan at least, though it hasn’t worked out thus far. Clemson is undefeated, but Lawrence hasn’t looked stellar, completing just 61.8 percent of his passes for 1,131 yards, eight touchdowns, and five interceptions through five games. A strong second half could put Lawrence back in the conversation, but for now, he’s on the outside looking in.
Sam Ehlinger, QB, Texas
Of all the players on the fringes of the Heisman hunt, Ehlinger is the one with the best chance of breaking in. The Longhorns gunslinger has 1,237 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, and one interception across four games, and 191 yards and a score on the ground to go with it. Like Hubbard, a soft Big 12 schedule should allow him to rack up numbers, and a spotlight game against Oklahoma in October could serve as a launchpad for his campaign.