Heisman race: Did Tua Tagovailoa's SEC title game flop open door for Kyler Murray, Dwayne Haskins?

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A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.

Tua Tagovailoa, the seeming lock to win the Heisman Trophy, might have lost it at the last hour. The Alabama quarterback was at his worst for much of the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday against Georgia — errant passes, bad reads, shaky decisions — and his team was on the verge of stunning defeat. Tagovailoa sprained an ankle in the first half, tried to play through it and then eventually went down and out after being stepped on in the third quarter.

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That cleared the way for the full-circle story of 2018, with backup Jalen Hurts riding to the rescue in eerily similar fashion to the way Tua relieved Hurts in the same building against the same opponent to win the national title in January.

It was great theater. And it was a damaging day for Tua in terms of winning the Heisman.

His worst performance of the year by far — 10-of-25 passing for 164 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions — was sandwiched between one last great performance for each of his two closest Heisman pursuers. Earlier in the day in the Big 12 championship game, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray had produced another gem: 25-of-34 passing for 379 yards and three touchdowns. Later in the day in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins strafed Northwestern for 499 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) was the Heisman frontrunner before the SEC championship. (AP file photo)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) was the Heisman frontrunner before the SEC championship. (AP file photo)

For voters who held their Heisman ballots until after those games, there suddenly was a lot to think about.

I sent in my ballot Monday, the last day possible. A few hours later the finalists for the award were announced: Haskins, Murray, Tagovailoa. That’s it, that’s the list.

We are actively discouraged by the Heisman Trust from revealing our votes, so I won’t. But astute readers of this column should at least be able to discern which players are on my ballot, if not the order.

(Because they’re the only players mentioned. Sneaky, right?)

It was a difficult decision, one of the hardest in the 25-plus years I’ve been a voter. There is some melding of art and science and flat guesswork in terms of deciding who should win an individual award in what is the ultimate team sport. The voters have gotten it wrong plenty of times through the years.

The raw numbers favor Murray. On Saturday he passed Tagovailoa for the national lead in pass efficiency, now standing at 205.72 and on pace to break former teammate Baker Mayfield’s NCAA single-season record of 198.92. Tua is second at 202.30, his rating dropping 10 points after that 92.3 dud against Georgia. Haskins checks in fourth at 175.77.

Murray ranks highest of the three in total offense (380.4 yards per game, just 1.3 behind national leader Gardner Minshew of Washington State), with Haskins at 361.7 and Tagovailoa at 272.5. Murray is also first in yards per play (10.68, tops in the nation), with Tua directly behind him at 10.4 and Haskins at 8.26. Murray has 51 total touchdowns, which is equaled by Haskins; Tagovailoa has 42 total TDs.

Delving beyond the raw numbers, you get to a substantial part of Tagovailoa’s case for winning the award — he simply didn’t play as much as the other two quarterbacks, because Alabama’s games were almost all out of reach early. Tua barely played in the fourth quarter all season.

He threw eight fourth-quarter passes and never ran the ball in the fourth all season. Murray ran or passed 69 times in the fourth quarter, Haskins 120 times.

All told, Murray ran or passed 121 more times than Tua did. Haskins ran or passed a whopping 227 more times.

If Tagovailoa had the same number of plays as Murray and maintained his 10.4 yards-per-play average, he would have put up 368 yards per game — 12 less than Murray. If both Tua and Murray had an equal number of plays as Haskins, they would have averaged 451 and 467 yards per game, respectively, compared to Haskins’ 362.

Did Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) do enough in the Big 12 title game to pass Tua Tagovailoa on Heisman ballots? (AP)
Did Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) do enough in the Big 12 title game to pass Tua Tagovailoa on Heisman ballots? (AP)

It can be argued that Murray and Haskins were more valuable for their teams. Their defenses put them in danger of losing so routinely that the offenses had to keep moving and keep scoring — they had to be great. But that also gave both of them more opportunities to play longer and pile up numbers.

Now, what about the defenses they faced? By national ranking, both Tagovailoa and Haskins played slightly tougher defenses than Murray did. The average total defensive ranking of Alabama’s opponents is 63.4; Ohio State’s is 64.1; Oklahoma’s is 70.3.

The Sooners haven’t faced a defense ranked in the top half of the FBS (65 or higher) since Oct. 20. Alabama has faced defenses ranked 53 or better in six of the past seven games (FCS Citadel is the exception). Ohio State has faced four straight defenses ranked in the top half of the FBS.

Then there is team success, which is no small part of the equation. Alabama is undefeated with Tua as its starter, and is on pace to break school records for scoring (47.9), yards per game (527.6) and yards per play (7.92). Oklahoma has one loss, but is on pace to break the NCAA record for yards per play (8.75, the record is 8.58 by Hawaii in 20006). Ohio State also has just one loss — a 29-point whopper that kept the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff — and is on pace to break the school record for yards per game (548.8).

The thing that compromised Tagovailoa’s candidacy was the last impression he left voters — Alabama came back to win in spite of him, and thanks to his replacement. That’s not a ringing endorsement of a player’s Heisman candidacy, especially when there are other quality candidates playing well on big stages on the very same day.

We’ll see how it turns out Saturday night. But a Heisman race that seemed over for weeks now takes on added drama at the end.

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