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Heisman Watch Week 12: With Kyler Murray surging, Tua's Heisman is not a sure thing

Sam Cooper
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Each week through 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.

Previously: Week 4, Week 5, Week 6, Week 7, Week 8, Week 9, Week 10, Week 11

After 12 weeks of college football, we’ve got a two-man race for the Heisman Trophy.

The top two candidates — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — have been constants all year long. Tagovailoa, the Tide’s star sophomore quarterback, has been the front-runner, but Murray has been able to close the gap with the Sooners fighting for their Big 12 title and College Football Playoff lives.

The first two months of Tagovailoa’s season were incredible as he took Alabama’s offense to new heights, but his gaudy statistics have tapered off — to an extent — in recent weeks. Alabama hasn’t faced much of a challenge either, so that — plus OU’s leaky defense — has allowed Murray to turn this into a real battle with two weeks remaining before Heisman ballots must be submitted.

Tagovailoa is guaranteed two more games. This week, Alabama hosts unranked Auburn in the Iron Bowl. ‘Bama has already wrapped up the SEC West title, so it will battle No. 5 Georgia in the SEC title game regardless of the outcome of the Auburn game. If Tagovailoa performs at a high level in both games and gets his team into the College Football Playoff, it’s hard to see him missing out on college football’s most prestigious award.

But if he slips up, the door could open even wider for Murray. Oklahoma travels to West Virginia this weekend in a crucial Big 12 matchup. A win guarantees a spot in the Big 12 title game for the Sooners and keeps them in the CFP hunt. That would also give Murray another big stage for a Heisman-worthy performance.

If Oklahoma loses, it could still make the conference title game, but only if Texas is upset by Kansas. That would set up a rematch with WVU in the title game. But if Oklahoma wins and Texas wins, the rivals would meet again with the conference title on the line.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Alabama was given a brief scare before turning it on against The Citadel. The game was actually tied 10-10 at halftime. It took fewer than five minutes of the third quarter for that to flip to a 24-10 Alabama lead in an eventual 50-17 victory. Tagovailoa was his usual efficient self, completing 18-of-22 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns. He had a 1-yard touchdown run, too.

That performance moved Tagovailoa, who has thrown for 2,865 yards, 32 touchdowns and just two interceptions, back to the No. 1 spot in quarterback efficiency (212.2), well ahead of the record (198.9) set by Baker Mayfield last season. He also leads the country in yards per attempt (12.1) and has still attempted just one pass in a fourth quarter this season.

(Last week: 1)

2. Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma

With Oklahoma’s defense unable to stop Kansas (yes, Kansas), Kyler Murray had another busy night on Saturday. In a 55-40 win, Murray threw for 272 yards, rushed for 99 yards and scored a combined five touchdowns — two passing and three rushing. The highlight of the game was Murray’s 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He took it to the house completely untouched, making it look effortless.

Murray is up to 3,310 yards (No. 8 nationally), 34 touchdowns (No. 4) and six interceptions on the year with 739 yards and 10 TDs rushing. His yards per attempt (11.9) ranks second in the country while his completion percentage (70.3) is sixth. With OU’s defense continuing to struggle, OU would not be anywhere near this position without Murray.

(Last week: 2)

3. Gardner Minshew, QB, Washington State

Gardner Minshew had his best game yet in Washington State’s 69-28 win over Arizona. The graduate transfer from East Carolina completed 43-of-55 passes for 473 yards and a ridiculous seven touchdowns. With 4,325 yards, he has thrown for 494 more yards than the nation’s second-leading passer, Jordan Ta’amu of Ole Miss. His 36 touchdown passes are tied for No. 1 nationally with Houston’s D’Eriq King and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins.

Right or wrong, Minshew’s accomplishments get brushed aside to an extent because he plays in the Pac-12 and in an Air Raid offense where he has thrown 123 more passes than any other quarterback in the country. But he has still done enough to deserve an invitation to New York, and that will be cemented if he leads the Cougars past rival Washington and into the Pac-12 title game.

(Last week: 3)

4. Dwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State

The Ohio State defense had no answer for Maryland’s rushing attack, so Dwayne Haskins had to put together a tremendous performance to keep OSU’s Big Ten and playoff hopes alive. He did just that playing perhaps his best game of the year with 405 passing yards, 59 rushing yards and six total touchdowns, including three on the ground.

Haskins, who is third in yards (3,685) and tied for first in touchdowns (36), was in the thick of the Heisman race early in the year while Ohio State was still undefeated. If he can turn in a big performance to help the Buckeyes upset rival Michigan on Saturday, and then lead OSU to a Big Ten title, he could find himself in New York for the Heisman ceremony.

(Last week: unranked)

5. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin

Jonathan Taylor added to his rushing total in a big way against Purdue. The sophomore rushed for a ridiculous 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 47-44 triple-overtime win. Two of Taylor’s scores came in extra time, including the game-winning 17-yarder in the third extra frame. Taylor now has 1,869 yards on the year, 348 more than any other back in the country. He’ll have the chance to pass 2,000 yards — and his freshman year total, 1,977 yards — next week vs. Minnesota. Taylor finished sixth in the Heisman voting last year.

(Last week: unranked)

Also considered:

Will Grier, QB, West Virginia: Grier dropped more because of the performances of Haskins and Taylor than anything. Still, he and the WVU offense could not put a drive together to close out Oklahoma State on Saturday night. If he can lead WVU past Oklahoma and into the Big 12 title game he could end up with an invitation to New York.

Andy Isabella, WR, UMass: Isabella has regularly produced at a ridiculous rate but has done so in obscurity. But in his final college game at Georgia, he impressed with 15 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns, giving him 102 catches for 1,698 yards for the season. Both of those totals lead the country. His 13 TD catches is tied for second. You’ll hear about Isabella in the lead-up to the NFL draft.

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