Heis­man race might be closer than first thought

Tago­v­ailoa is leader but Mur­ray, Hask­ins have closed the gap.


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 topranked 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. “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 touch­down passes lead the na­tion.

But the Buck­eyes star ranks third in Heis­man polls be­cause his team suf­fered a mid­sea­son 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.

Last week­end proved that Alabama might not be as ex­plo­sive with­out Tago­v­ailoa un­der cen­ter but still can 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 also might 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 in a pro­tec­tive boot.

“It means a lot,” he said on his team’s web­site. “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 truly is best.

Andy Lyons Getty Im­ages

OHIO STATE’S Dwayne Hask­ins of­fers the best pure num­bers.

Michael Woods As­so­ci­ated Press

ALABAMA’S Tua Tago­v­ailoa suf­fered in­juries to both of his an­kles.

Jef­frey McWhorter AP

OK­LA­HOMA’S Kyler Mur­ray is a dou­blethreat quar­ter­back.

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