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The quarterback trio of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins have earned the prestigious honor of attending the 2018 Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City on Saturday night.
Each one distinguished himself as a premier collegiate athlete during the season and now has the chance to be etched into history as a Heisman Trophy winner.
Tagovailoa was the favorite from the start of the season up until his puzzling, injured-affected performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Will his season-long dominance be forgotten because of one subpar showing?
Murray took over for 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and posted even more absurd numbers in Lincoln Riley’s offense. His blend of production through the air and on the ground gives him a unique argument as to why he should win.
Haskins also followed a school legend in J.T. Barrett, and shredded the Buckeyes’ record book in his first-year as a starter. The fact he led the nation in passing yards and touchdowns en route to a Big Ten title propelled him to the big stage.
We’re going to look at the case for and against each of these stellar playmakers. By the end, you’ll know why each is deserving of the prize and the knocks in their arguments as to why they should win the Heisman Trophy.
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Many pondered what would happen the moment that Alabama head coach Nick Saban landed a premier passing quarterback, and we finally saw the destruction that occurred for all but one game with Tua Tagovailoa at the helm of this Crimson Tide team. Tagovailoa served as the linchpin of an incredibly dominant passing offense for Saban, ranking second in the nation in scoring offense.
Tagovailoa’s statistical feats were most impressive considering how little he played in the fourth quarter. He had just three pass attempts in the fourth quarter all season until the Georgia game for a total of 46 yards thanks to how easily he racked up points prior to the final frame. Through his first six games, he had a total of 18 passing touchdowns to only 25 incompletions.
His 3,353 yards and 37 touchdowns through the air came by playing the bare minimum in most games, a feat no other quarterback in college football history can boast. While the focus will be on his lone poor individual performance, there were many other games wherein he was the catalyst of an unstoppable unit.
Alabama looked unbeatable until he suffered a nasty ankle injury against Georgia, and his stats suffered from at least four drops in the SEC title game. Even his worst game had context to make the situation look slightly more favorable to him.
Tagovailoa’s greatest strengths include an unparalleled touch on throws that allows him to hit tight passing windows over defenders while maximizing yards after the catch. The lefty has uncanny accuracy and precision for the position, which was immediately on display in last season’s CFP National Championship against Georgia. He’s a fantastic talent in the pocket despite this being his first season starting.
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The biggest question facing Tagovailoa from a team standpoint is whether it’s fair to hold it against him that Alabama would likely be undefeated regardless of his presence. His backup, Jalen Hurts, showed in prior years and in relief against the Georgia Bulldogs that the Tide have enough talent around the quarterback to win regardless of elite passing ability.
While he elevated the passing game of Alabama, he is not as important to the Crimson Tide as his competition for the Heisman are to their respective teams.
Also, his ugly performance in the biggest game of the year cannot go unnoticed and unaccounted for. Tagovailoa dealt with a knee injury earlier in the year, and his high ankle sprain that he has since had surgery for visibly hobbled him against Georgia. However, his performance nearly cost the Tide a chance to defend their title, as he completed only 40 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in a critical game.
Will voters be able to overlook such a limited performance in prime time and see the sheer efficiency and cerebral element that Tagovailoa introduced this year? If they can’t shake the image of Hurts saving the day for the Tide, they’ll opt for a quarterback who was irreplaceable, meaning Tagovailoa won’t get their votes.
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If you voted for Baker Mayfield last year because of his passing efficiency, then Kyler Murray’s case is just as strong as the 2017 Heisman winner’s. Murray’s 13-game pace is even better than Mayfield’s.
He’s on course to set the record for passing efficiency (205.7), passing yards per attempt (11.9) and percentage of passes thrown for touchdowns (11.8). He’s also the only FBS player to average more than 300 passing yards per game and 60 yards rushing.
Oklahoma’s offensive juggernaut is first in the country in scoring thanks to Murray’s contributions. He also produces 380.4 total yards per game, good for second in the nation. It’s an absurdly good statistical season.
Unlike Tagovailoa, Murray stomped on his biggest competition when the Sooners needed him most. His clutch performance on the road in West Virginia was one for the ages, as he accumulated 364 passing yards and 114 rushing yards in a must-win game. His four touchdowns and numerous key chunk gains helped the team outlast Will Grier’s Mountaineers.
Most unique to Murray in this race is his talent outside of the pocket. Not only can he extend plays, but his 892 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns added a new dimension to Oklahoma offense. His quickness and downfield speed rival what most teams have starting at receiver, let alone at quarterback.
It’s also impossible to overlook the pressure that the Sooners defense put on Murray to play so well. With the 96th-best scoring defense, Murray and this offense had no choice but to score as often as possible. Their margin for error was smaller than both Alabama’s and Ohio State’s, and Murray answered at the most critical points in the season.
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Now that Lincoln Riley has overseen back-to-back seasons with record-breaking passing attacks, there’s reason to question how much of the production is due to Riley and the surrounding cast around the quarterbacks in Norman. Both Mayfield and Murray are undoubtedly talented players, but both had nowhere near their unprecedented success until Riley was their head coach.
Pro Football Focus named six of Murray’s teammates to its All-Big 12 team, and that wasn’t counting several of their other highly talented offensive linemen who kept Murray clean throughout the year. The playmakers and scheme are as good as any as we’ve seen in some time in college football.
There’s also always questions about the defenses in the Big 12. It’s a fair point. Even in Murray’s best game, against West Virginia, both teams had receivers running wide open with little resistance, leaving the quarterback to make routine throws that major teams expect their signal-callers to make.
There would be a couple of games that voters could revisit and question his performances too.
The Sooners nearly lost to Army and Oklahoma State, in part because of key interceptions and sacks by Murray at inopportune times. Had the Cowboys converted on a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter, his Heisman discussion would center on why his offense had just 14 points at home in the second half against a terrible defense.
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The quarterback with the most on his plate of this trio despite also being a first-year starter is Ohio State redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins. Despite playing for a spread option head coach in Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes trusted Ryan Day to overhaul their scheme to fit Haskins’ immense arm talent. Haskins responded by completing 70.2 percent of his 496 passes for a nation-leading 4,580 yards and 47 touchdowns.
While personnel changes and coaching hiccups led to an inconsistent run game and defense for much of the year, Haskins quickly became the star of the team. He was a constant force in almost every contest, notably passing for more than 250 yards in all but two contests (one came in a 49-point blowout against Rutgers).
What’s most to like about Haskins is how he avoids mistakes while he’s still capable of varying his depth of attempts. He threw an interception on just 1.6 percent of his throws, which is between Tagovailoa’s 1.4 percent rate and Murray’s 2.1 percent rate. That’s also despite throwing 156 more times than Murray and 202 times more than Tagovailoa.
There’s no question his workload was higher, and he showed tremendous accuracy and timing on short, intermediate and deep throws. His final three-game stretch against Maryland, Michigan, and Northwestern featured some of the best quarterback play all season. And his quick release and comfort reading defenses allows him to keep the Buckeyes offense on time and in short-yardage situations better than most seniors could.
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One of the trade-offs with Haskins’ workload is that his efficiency numbers aren’t quite as astronomical as those of his peers. He ranks fourth in passing efficiency and third in total offense—still excellent but trailing Murray in both and Tagovailoa in efficiency. He’s not clearly been more dominant than either, and his team is the odd one out in the Playoff picture.
One of the big issues with the Buckeyes this season was their inconsistency, leading to several close games wherein the team failed to deliver expected blowouts against divisional foes. Some of that was on Haskins, and while much of it wasn’t, it still reflected on him.
It will hurt him that the Buckeyes never seemed to grab the momentum they had built after their Penn State win. The team had a rough stretch during which they scraped by opponents like Minnesota and Nebraska, killing off buzz around Haskins despite his quality play.
For example, Haskins wasn’t able to deliver lights-out prime-time performances against TCU, Penn State and in a shocking blowout loss to Purdue. Although his receivers dropped a total of 18 passes, three of which would’ve been touchdowns, the prevailing feeling after those games was that the team won because of other performances, not solely because Haskins had breakout moments.
Another knock is the usage of the screen game. Haskins tallied seven touchdowns on passes behind the line of scrimmage, artificially boosting his numbers. While all quarterbacks have been benefiting from tap passes, Day’s gone out of his way to get Haskins easy ones near the goal line.