Heisman Watch: Can Jalen Hurts make it 3 Oklahoma QBs in a row?

Yahoo Sports

Each week for the rest of the season, we will highlight the five players we think are the top Heisman Trophy contenders. The list will likely change often before the true candidates separate themselves from the pack.

Can an Oklahoma quarterback win the Heisman Trophy for an unprecedented third straight year?

When Jalen Hurts announced his decision to transfer from Alabama to Oklahoma for his final season, we all wondered how he would fit in Lincoln Riley’s offense. Riley had taken two other transfer QBs — Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray — and helped their games take off to new heights. Both Mayfield and Murray won the Heisman before being selected No. 1 in the NFL draft in back-to-back seasons.

But when Hurts arrived in Norman, he came saddled with the label of being a better runner than thrower. His lack of proficiency in the downfield passing game was part of the reason he was cast aside for Tua Tagovailoa in Tuscaloosa. During his year as a backup, Hurts vowed to improve his passing. It has certainly showed so far for the Sooners.

In Saturday’s 55-16 victory over Texas Tech, Hurts completed 17-of-24 passes for 415 yards and three scores. He also had 70 yards and a score on the ground while helping the sixth-ranked Sooners open Big 12 play on a positive note and improve to 4-0.

And when you compare Hurts’ output through four games to Mayfield and Murray, it’s hard to put Hurts anywhere but the top of the current crop of Heisman Trophy contenders after one month of the season.

(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

1. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

As we noted over the weekend, Hurts is off to a ridiculous start through four games at OU. He has thrown for 1,295 yards, 12 touchdowns and only one interception while completing a whopping 77.6 percent (66-of-85) of his passes. Hurts is averaging 15.2 yards per attempt — nearly double what he did in 2017 at Alabama (8.2) — to go with a 249.9 passer rating. On top of that, Hurts has already rushed for 443 yards and five scores, averaging more than nine yards per carry.

It may be hard to believe, but Hurts, from a statistical standpoint, compares favorably to both Mayfield and Murray in their Heisman-winning seasons. Through four games in 2017, Mayfield had 1,329 yards and 13 touchdowns without an interception while completing 75.2 percent of his throws. In 2018, Murray had 1,028 yards and 11 touchdowns passing, hitting on 68.2 percent of his attempts, to go with 240 yards and three scores rushing in his first four games.

With a trip to Kansas this weekend, Hurts has another opportunity to put up video game-like numbers. But it gets harder after that. On Oct. 12 is Hurts’ first taste of Texas in the Red River Rivalry.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

After his 2017 national title game triumph in relief of Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa had a mostly excellent debut season as Alabama’s starting quarterback. He was the talk of college football throughout September and October, but had some struggles down the stretch, prompting an offseason challenge from Nick Saban.

Saban told reporters he wanted Tagovailoa to get into better shape after he dealt with health issues down the stretch. The QB responded by losing 15 pounds and is off to another scintillating start. Through five weeks for the No. 1 Crimson Tide, Tagovailoa has completed 113-of-148 passes (76.4 percent) for 1,718 yards and 23 touchdowns without an interception. His 23 TDs leads the country and his yardage is second behind Washington State’s Anthony Gordon.

By comparison, Tagovailoa had 1,161 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions at this time last year. Albeit those figures came on far fewer attempts — 66-of-88 in five games with Alabama blowing out teams left and right. Tagovailoa went on to finish second in the Heisman voting behind Murray. We’ll see if he can come out on top this time around.

3. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

Who could have envisioned this kind of rise from Joe Burrow? When he arrived at LSU last fall as a transfer from Ohio State, Burrow fit into the tough, smart, game manager role of so many LSU quarterbacks before him. But now that the Tigers run a more modern spread, up-tempo offense, Burrow has been able to flourish.

Burrow threw for 2,894 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions on 57.8 percent throwing in 2018. Those are respectable numbers, but he is on pace to fly past them in 2019. In four games, Burrow has thrown for 1,520 yards and 17 touchdowns with only two INTs. Perhaps most impressively, Burrow is completing 80.6 percent (100/124) of his throws — a figure that leads the country.

Burrow’s development is a big reason why there’s belief that the Tigers can realistically compete with Alabama in the SEC West this season. And if LSU can usurp the Crimson Tide, Burrow will find himself in the thick of the Heisman race.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) celebrates after connecting with wide receiver Justin Jefferson for a touchdown against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) celebrates after connecting with wide receiver Justin Jefferson for a touchdown against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

4. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

Folks who pay attention to the Big 12 got to see the potential of Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard in 2018, especially late in the year. Hubbard rushed for 740 yards and seven touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, with 383 of those yards and five of those scores coming in OSU’s last four games.

Through the month of September, Hubbard has already sprinted past those totals. In five games, he has 938 yards and 10 touchdowns on a whopping 128 carries. That’s a 7.3-yard average. Hubbard leads the nation in rushing by 284 yards and already has three 200-yard games: 221 against Oregon State, 256 against Tulsa and 296 in the win over Kansas State on Saturday. He did not fare quite as well in OSU’s biggest game of the year, going for just 121 yards on 37 carries in the loss to Texas.

If Oklahoma State, now ranked No. 21 in the AP poll, is going to be a factor in the Big 12 race, Hubbard is going to have to lead the way.

5. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Now a junior, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor finished in the top 10 of the Heisman voting in his first two college seasons: sixth in 2017 and ninth in 2018. He also rushed for more than 2,000 yards in both of those seasons and is on a comparable pace through four games in 2019.

2017: 72 carries, 518 yards, 7 TDs, 7.2 avg

2018: 102 carries, 628 yards, 5 TDs, 6.2 avg

2019: 84 carries, 559 yards, 8 TDs, 6.7 avg

His best performance so far in 2019 was in a big win over Michigan. Taylor gashed the UM defense for 203 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, including a 72-yard score that would set the tone for a rough afternoon for the Wolverines. Taylor and the Badgers have one final non-conference game this weekend against Kent State before gearing up for a run through the Big Ten.

Also considered:

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: So far, so good for Justin Fields at Ohio State. The high-profile Georgia transfer was a five-star recruit out of high school, but could not take the starting job away from Jake Fromm in Athens. That prompted a move to Columbus, where he is leading a high-flying Buckeyes offense. Fields has thrown for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns without an interception. He also has 222 yards and seven touchdowns rushing. With OSU ranked No. 4 in the country and playing at a high level, expect Fields to stay in the Heisman conversation throughout the season.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State: Fields has been aided by a return to form from Dobbins in the OSU backfield. Dobbins rushed for 1,403 yards as a freshman, but dropped down to 1,053 yards a year ago. This year, Dobbins is back running in his punishing style, breaking tackles left and right. He already has 654 yards on 92 carries this year, good enough for second in the nation behind Hubbard.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: After leading Clemson to a national title as a freshman in 2018, Lawrence was expected to be at the top of the Heisman conversation in 2019. But he’s off to somewhat of a slow start and hasn’t appeared as sharp as he did in last year’s CFP run. Lawrence is completing only 61.8 percent of his passes this year and has already thrown five interceptions — one more than he did in 15 games in 2018. But there’s still time for Lawrence to round into form and assert himself in the Heisman race. It will be an uphill climb.

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