The college football season starts in less than a month, and bold predictions are rolling out. Just don’t believe everything you hear, especially when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. Making picks about the sport’s preeminent award is as difficult as ever.
The Heisman is always a standard futures bet before the season kicks off. But in the past decade, according to Sports Odds History, only one of the 10 players favored to win the award entering Week 1 has hoisted the trophy in December: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014, who was a slim favorite after leapfrogging returning winner Jameis Winston of Florida State in the offseason. If we add up their implied probabilities, the past 10 favorites should have produced 2.14 winners. But a $10 bet on each of the 10 would have cost $100 and paid out just $42.50, on Mariota.
In fact, of the past 10 winners, four started the season off the board — Alabama’s Mark Ingram in 2009, Auburn’s Cam Newton in 2010, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Winston in 2013 — as did 15 of 40 finalists. That’s because college football is filled with unexpected breakout stars. Especially as the top performers have been younger recently,1 predicting which candidates will live up to the hype is a tough task.
On paper, the Heisman winner seems like a reasonable thing to handicap as the winners tend to fit a longstanding mold. Almost all are quarterbacks or running backs, and most will be competing in the national title picture late in the fall. If the teams favored to compete for the title this season hold up, that would seem to whittle the Heisman field to a pair of easy choices: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. Neither is mired in a quarterback competition this summer,2 and both were brilliant for much of last season. They’re co-favorites at 11-4 odds, according to the Westgate Superbook. In the past 10 years, only Tim Tebow (9-4) in 2009 was a bigger preseason favorite.
But change comes quickly in college football. One year ago, neither Tagovailoa nor Lawrence was even certain to start his team’s season opener. Tagovailoa spent much of the fall as the Heisman front-runner until he went down with an ankle injury and Kyler Murray surpassed him for the Heisman. Lawrence ended the season as the spectacle of the national championship game. But now Tagovailoa is healthy again and coming off a season in which he had better overall numbers than Lawrence. Would you bet money on one of the two weathering another long season to prevail as the country’s most outstanding player? And even if you would, which one?
Of the top five Heisman contenders according to Westgate, three — Lawrence, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — are in their first full year as the starting quarterback on their current team. Two of the five are transfers, and only Tagovailoa has been a finalist before.3 Then contend with the fact that five of the past 10 winners started with odds of 100-1 or longer, which opens the door to the likes of Arizona’s Khalil Tate, Washington State’s Gage Gubrud and Florida’s Feleipe Franks. If they seem obscure, just remember Manziel in the summer of 2012.
That 2012 race was perhaps the wildest in recent memory, complete with the awarding of a “September Heisman.” Through five weeks, West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was unstoppable, it seemed — a 1-1 favorite. In his first five games, Smith completed 81.4 percent of his passes with 399.2 yards per game, 24 touchdowns and zero interceptions. But in his last eight games, he completed just 64.6 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Manziel, meanwhile, went from off the board to 7-4 in five weeks. If that sounds quick, this is Lawrence’s 2018 in comparison: He was a 40-1 contender entering Week 1 despite the fact that he wasn’t the starter until Week 5. Then Lawrence threw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions in his last five games than Manziel did in the last five of his redshirt freshman season.
The odds are not a science,4 for many reasons. They also favor big names. The “leaderboard” trends toward returning winners (like Tebow in 2009 or Ingram in 2010), even though only Ohio State’s Archie Griffin has won the Heisman twice, in 1974 and 1975. Who might make a rise from relative obscurity this year to win the trophy?
It should be clear by now that guessing is a fool’s errand. But the winner has typically been someone with a combination of a firm hold on the starting job, a place on a team that will contend and a role in an offense conducive to big numbers. Outside the top five preseason contenders, Washington’s Jacob Eason and Notre Dame’s Ian Book fit that profile. The winner could be someone better-known. It could also be someone you’ve never heard of.
One year ago, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded the worst defense to ever qualify for the College Football Playoff. Under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, and behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma took a 17-point lead on Georgia, the eventual national runner-up, before losing in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Twelve months later, Riley has another Heisman-winning quarterback in Kyler Murray and has piloted another one-dimensional Sooners team to a playoff berth.
The reward — a date with Alabama, college football’s lead power broker — seems more like a punishment. The Tide, long a defensive force under coach Nick Saban, now boast what’s likely the best offense in program history. Las Vegas oddsmakers cared not for Oklahoma’s three-game winning streak against the Tide and opened with Alabama as two-touchdown favorites. According to FiveThirtyEight’s college football prediction model, Alabama has a 41 percent probability of winning the national title. Oklahoma faces much taller odds, with an 11 percent probability of winning it all.
Here’s what to look for the when the two programs meet in the Orange Bowl semifinal Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Will Tua Tagovailoa or Kyler Murray win the QB showdown?
Seldom do a Heisman winner and his runner-up meet after the winner is crowned. Even given that rarity, this may be the best postseason clash of college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. Both are coming off of historic regular seasons, with each in line to trump the record for Total Quarterback Rating, which ESPN has tracked since 2004 and is measured on a scale of 0 to 100.
But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In terms of offensive efficiency, this is the best matchup since the playoff began in 2014. Oddsmakers have taken notice, setting a points over/under total that’s unprecedented in the playoff era.
It seemed logical that the departure of Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL draft, would abate Oklahoma’s offensive horsepower. That 2017 team had the most efficient offense ever tracked, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group.1 But in Murray’s first full season as a starting college quarterback, the Sooners’ offense has actually improved. “Kyler Murray has accomplished more in one season and had more impact on the Sooners’ tradition in one season than any other player in our history,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer told The Athletic. “He’s broke all the damn records.”
The Sooners have gotten better under Murray
Oklahoma’s offensive production in 2018, with Kyler Murray at quarterback, vs. 2017, with Baker Mayfield at quarterback
Offensive points per game
Yards per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per play
Percentage of first downs or TDs per pass attempt
Percentage of plays for zero or negative yards
As if spring-loaded, Murray’s legs have minced opposing defenses. On a 75-yard touchdown run against Kansas, a broadcaster declared, “You’re not going to catch him,” before Murray had passed the 40-yard line. The junior is the country’s pre-eminent dual-threat wizard, whose 892 rushing yards place him seventh among all Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this year.
At the same time, Tagovailoa has been the figurehead of the Tide’s offensive ascension since replacing Jalen Hurts in last season’s national championship game. Saban has been in Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this year’s offense has been his best in terms of, well, everything.
This is Saban’s most dominant Alabama offense
Alabama’s offense by season under head coach Nick Saban
Both Murray and Tagovailoa are having little difficulty stretching the field. If they keep up this pace during the playoffs, each would rank in the top three among all QBs since 2004 in single-season passing yards per attempt, with Murray’s current 11.92 mark in line to set the all-time record.
They won’t, however, be competing against equally proficient defensive units. Murray will be staring down a top-flight fortress that spent the past few months razing offensive lines and leveling quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide rank second in defensive efficiency, behind Clemson, and they lead the country in adjusted defensive quarterback rating, which accounts for the strength of the opposing quarterback. The Tide ranks among the 15 best teams in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (5.86).
Tagovailoa will have the luxury of playing against a defense that might seem as though it’s providing Alabama an escort to the end zone. Oklahoma ranks 92nd in defensive efficiency, unseating last year’s squad as the new worst defense to make it to the playoff; the Sooners have allowed 56 touchdowns this year, 13 more than Alabama has allowed since the beginning of the 2017 season. Uninspired performances led to the midseason firing of defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. But the unit’s play hasn’t improved. After giving up 39 first downs to Oklahoma State, the most allowed by any FBS team this season, interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill found room to praise his team for making “critical stops.”
Pass defense, in particular, has been ghastly for the Sooners. No FBS team allows more passing yards per game (291.4), and only five allow more completions (22.3). The Sooners love to give up the long play, having allowed 56 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most by any team.
It’s unlikely that the turnover margin will favor the Sooners — even though Tagovailoa threw as many interceptions in his last outing as he did the rest of the season total. Oklahoma has generated 11 takeaways all season, the fewest of any qualifying team in the playoff era. Alabama has forced 11 since the beginning of October — and 21 in total.
On the opening drive of the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa suffered a high ankle injury, which required surgery the following day. The sophomore has said that he’ll be unencumbered come game time, and given how little he rushes — generating just the 89th-most rushing yards among QBs — he won’t need much mobility. Even a pocket-locked Tagovailoa can still shred an opposing defense.
Can Oklahoma survive Alabama’s first-half avalanche to win the second half?
Players come and go, and each season carries idiosyncrasies, but the narrative arcs of the Sooners’ two previous playoff appearances were seemingly penned by the same author. In both, a lead evaporated and a dominant first half gave way to a second-half dud.
Rewriting the script, then, will be paramount this time around for Oklahoma.
Offensively, the Sooners seem to have the first half covered. No team puts up more first-half yardage than Oklahoma, which averages 313.4 yards a game. The team racks up 9.5 yards per first-half play — nearly a first down on each play. Riley’s offense is outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 points in first halves this season, the eighth-best mark in the country.
Of course, what separates Alabama from Oklahoma is its defense. The Tide allow 7.9 points per game in first halves, 12th-fewest in the nation and 7.9 fewer points than the Sooners. Alabama doesn’t just shut the door on its opponents in the opening 30 minutes — it packs their bags, shuttles them to the airport and ushers them through TSA. Remember when the Tide turned Tiger Stadium into a morgue by the third quarter of November’s top-five showdown with LSU? Or when the Tide took a trip to Oxford, watched Ole Miss score on its opening play and then blitzed the Rebels with 62 unanswered points, including 49 in the first half?4
LSU and Ole Miss aren’t alone. Saban’s squad is outscoring opponents 388 to 103 in first halves this season. On average, the Crimson Tide enter the locker room at halftime with a 21.9-point lead, the second-biggest margin by any team since at least 2004, the first year for which data is available.5 Ninety-three teams have scored fewer total touchdowns than Alabama has scored in first halves. Only four teams in the past 15 seasons have scored more first-half touchdowns than the Tide’s 53.
These lopsided first halves mean that the Tide hardly ever fall behind on the scoreboard. The average college football team this season played 178.6 first-half offensive snaps when trailing. Alabama played 18 — 32 fewer than the next-closest team.
Bama rarely plays from behind
Total first-half snaps when trailing for this year’s playoff participants
Coming into the SEC title game, teams had run a combined 388 first-half plays against the Tide defense. They didn’t have the lead on any of them. Georgia finally broke through in the SEC championship; the Bulldogs ran 43 first-half offensive plays against the Tide and led for 12 of them.
The nightmare doesn’t end for Alabama opponents in second halves: Then they’re outscored by a touchdown and a half, on average. In second halves, teams score 0.92 touchdowns per game against the Tide, tied for the sixth-fewest.
Conversely, Oklahoma’s dominance tapers off considerably in the final two quarters, when it outscores opponents by only 5.2 points, which ranks 24th nationally.
Little if any of that decline is attributable to the offense, which roars from start to finish. But defensively, the bottom seems to fall out for the Sooners after halftime, as they allow an average of 2.23 touchdowns per game in second halves, the most by any team in the Big 12 and tied for the 20th-most nationally. Riley’s defense has allowed 29 second-half touchdowns, the most by an Oklahoma defense since at least 2004.
However, should Oklahoma keep the game close down the stretch, it has a peerless crunch-time quarterback in Murray. The Sooners have played seven games decided by 14 or fewer points, while Alabama has played only one. In the fourth quarter, when the scoring margin is within 14 points, Murray has a nation-leading quarterback rating of 99 — that’s on a 1-to-100 scale, mind you.
There’s an argument to be made that Oklahoma is better equipped — certainly more experienced — to handle high-leverage situations.6 But Alabama has been so dominant that it simply hasn’t mattered.