Heisman Watch: How will Tua's ankle injury affect his chances?

Each week for the rest of the season, we will highlight the five players we think are the top Heisman Trophy contenders. The list could change weekly as new players emerge and the true candidates separate themselves from the pack.

Previously: Preseason, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7

For the second straight season, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has suffered a high-ankle sprain. How long the star junior will be sidelined is anybody’s guess.

Tagovailoa was injured in Saturday night’s win over Tennessee, and Nick Saban said Sunday that his quarterback will definitely miss next week’s game against Arkansas. No. 1 Alabama has a bye after that with a showdown against No. 2 LSU on Nov. 9.

Will Tagovailoa be able return in three weeks as his teammates said he claimed he would be able to? It’s no guarantee, according to some reports out of Tuscaloosa. Not only could Alabama’s College Football Playoff hopes hinge on his health, but so does his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

We saw it last year when Tagovailoa suffered the same injury in the opposite ankle. He was the Heisman frontrunner all season long but dealt with a few injuries late in the year, causing his insanely high level of play to dip and allowing Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray to close the gap. And when Tagovailoa hurt his ankle in a struggle-filled SEC title game, Murray sped past him to claim college football’s most coveted award.

This year’s circumstances are a little different, especially from a timing perspective. Tagovailoa did not miss any time last year, but we know he will miss at least one game this time around.

A Heisman Trophy winner has not missed a game since Florida State’s Charlie Ward in 1993. Ward was injured late in the first half against Wake Forest, and Bobby Bowden opted to sit his star quarterback the following week against Maryland in order to get him healthy for a trip to play No. 2 Notre Dame. FSU would go on to lose that game to the Irish, but Ward finished the season strong and claimed the first Heisman win in FSU history.

Could Tagovailoa follow a similar path? It’s possible, but it will take a standout performance against LSU, the team led by current Heisman frontrunner Joe Burrow.

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

1. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

Burrow had yet another sterling performance in an LSU win. The Tigers trounced Mississippi State 36-13 in Starkville, and Burrow torched the Bulldogs for 327 yards and four touchdowns on 25-of-32 passing.

LSU had some early red-zone struggles and settled for three first-half field goals inside 25 yards. In fact, LSU’s lead was just 9-7 midway through the second quarter, but Burrow tossed two touchdown passes before halftime, including a 60-yarder to Racey McMath, to halt any potential for an upset.

Burrow continues to lead the nation in completion percentage (79.4) and is now tied for first with Washington State’s Anthony Gordon with 29 touchdown passes. Burrow’s 2,484 passing yards trail only Gordon, but the Wazzu senior has 129 more attempts playing in Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense.

(Last week: 1)

2. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

It looks like the uncharacteristic mistakes Hurts made against Texas are all out of his system. Hurts was stellar in Saturday’s 52-14 win over West Virginia, completing 16-of-17 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He also added 75 yards and two scores on the ground while helping Oklahoma improve to 7-0.

The game was 28-14 at halftime, but Hurts and the Sooners blitzed the Mountaineers to open the second half. Within six minutes of the third quarter, OU’s lead had increased to 42-14 — first on a 22-yard Hurts TD run and then on a 46-yard Hurts TD pass to Lee Morris.

Hurts has thrown for 2,074 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 74 percent of his passes. Those figures all rank in the top 10 nationally. Hurts’ 705 rushing yards rank 18th in the nation and second-best among quarterbacks. He also has 10 TDs on the ground, tied for seventh-best.

(Last week: 2)

3. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Before sustaining the ankle injury against Tennessee, Tagovailoa had just one incompletion. It was a bad one. Down near the goal line, Tagovailoa felt pressure and scrambled all the way back to the 20-yard line before firing a prayer into traffic. The pass never had a chance and was picked off by Nigel Warrior.

(via ESPN)
(via ESPN)

Other than that, Tagovailoa was 11-of-12 for 155 yards, upping his season totals to 2,166 yards (sixth nationally) and 27 touchdowns (third), while completing 74.7 percent of his throws (third). The interception was just the second he has thrown all season.

(Last week: 3)

4. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Tagovailoa’s injury could open the door for Fields to make a move. Fields has been excellent in his first year for Ohio State, which improved to 7-0 by trouncing Northwestern 52-3 on Friday night. Fields had another efficient outing, completing 18-of-23 passes for 194 yards and four touchdowns.

Fields hasn’t been putting up eye-popping passing numbers, but he hasn’t needed to for the Buckeyes to win games by huge margins. His 1,492 passing yards are sixth in the Big Ten, but his 22 touchdowns (to just one interception) lead the conference by a long shot. Fields also has 291 yards and eight scores rushing.

A visit from the Wisconsin defense this weekend will be Fields’ biggest challenge yet.

(Last week: Unranked)

EVANSTON, IL - OCTOBER 18: Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) passes the ball in the 1st quarter during a college football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats on October 18, 2019, at Ryan Field in Evanston, IL. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Justin Fields has helped Ohio State start the season 7-0. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

5. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State

Hubbard continues to be a work horse for Oklahoma State. Hubbard registered his sixth effort of at least 120 yards, going for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries against Baylor. Hubbard is now up to 1,265 rushing yards on the year — nearly 300 more than any other running back in the country. Hubbard’s 15 touchdowns are tied with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for the national lead.

Hubbard also leads the country in rushing attempts (194), but he’s still averaging 6.52 yards per rush. That’s fifth-best among the 58 FBS players with at least 100 attempts. Hubbard is going to continue putting up big numbers as long as he stays healthy, but he’s going to have a hard time moving up ballots if the Cowboys (now 4-3) keep losing Big 12 games.

(Last week: Unranked)

Also considered

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin: Taylor’s issues with fumbling came back at a horrible time. The Badgers held a 23-14 fourth quarter lead over Illinois when Taylor fumbled the ball back to the Illini. The fumble set up an Illinois touchdown and the Illini ended up pulling off the upset on a last-second field goal. The loss is a huge blow to Wisconsin’s Big Ten title and CFP hopes. Taylor had 132 rushing yards in the loss, bringing his total to 957 on the year. But the lost fumble, his first of the year (he lost a combined 10 in 2017 and 2018), will be the focus.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State: Like Fields, Dobbins continues to gash the opposition with ease. Dobbins had 18 carries for 121 yards and two total TDs in the Northwestern win. Dobbins is fourth in the nation with 947 rushing yards this season on 7.1 yards per carry.

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