The Heisman chase between Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray began with equal parts skepticism and great expectations. Tagovailoa had his coming-out party on the game's biggest stage, leading an Alabama comeback over Georgia in the national championship game. But he had never started a game in his career.
Kyler Murray was one of the greatest high school players in Texas history and had flashed in brief playing time at Texas A&M and Oklahoma. But now he was replacing the legendary Baker Mayfield on an Oklahoma team that had playoff aspirations.
Three months later, they had taken college football by storm and have given us a Heisman race with legitimate suspense for the first time in a long time. In a normal year, Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins would be right up there, but this seems to be a two-person race.
How did they get here? Let's break down their magical seasons and why they measure up with the best Heisman-winning seasons in recent memory.
'He does magic tricks back there'
Can an entire season's worth of production be undone during the course of a single game?
That's the question at the heart of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's Heisman candidacy today. A week ago, the sophomore from Hawaii seemed to be a shoo-in for the award. He'd just scored six touchdowns to help beat Auburn and lead the top-ranked Crimson Tide to an undefeated regular season. All told, he'd thrown 36 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
He was a human highlight reel, beginning with that Houdini-like first touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy against Louisville and culminating with three picture-perfect, second-half touchdown passes to put Auburn out of its misery. It was all there on full display: his accuracy, his touch, his ability to make plays where there appeared to be none.
"With him, you just never know," said linebacker Anfernee Jennings. "He does great stuff in practice, but in a game, I don't know. He does magic tricks back there."
Then came the then-No. 4-ranked Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. Then came the SEC championship game, the multiple drops by his receivers, the injuries and the worst performance of Tagovailoa's career -- relatively speaking, of course. Tagovailoa reaggravated his bothersome knee early and had to settle for 10-of-25 passing for 164 yards and two interceptions when a high ankle sprain during the fourth quarter forced him off the field with the help of trainers.
His backup, Jalen Hurts, came off the bench and led the comeback, throwing the game-tying touchdown and running in the go-ahead score. Alabama secured its spot in the playoff and Tagovailoa's perfect 13-0 record remained intact, but the game seemed to tarnish his formerly unsullied reputation as a passer. Coach Nick Saban seemed to sense as much when he noted the following day that injuries likely affected Tagovailoa's performance.
"Everybody should look at the whole body of work when they're deciding who the best player is," Saban suggested.
If Tagovailoa is to become the first Alabama quarterback to win the Heisman, he'll need voters to overlook the Georgia game and buy into the idea that he accomplished everything he did in a tougher set of circumstances than his opponent. Because whereas Murray faced only three opponents that ranked in the top 50 in total defense in the FBS (Army, TCU, Iowa State), Tagovailoa faced six such opponents (LSU, Mississippi State, Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, Texas A&M). And he put together the numbers he did despite taking eight dropbacks in the fourth quarter compared to Murray's 52.
In the end, if Tagovailoa were to fail to complete what once looked to be a wire-to-wire run from preseason Heisman favorite to Heisman winner, he would need look only to the fourth quarter to understand why. It was that time that cost him the ability to rebound against Georgia, and it might be the missed time he didn't have late in games during the regular season that allowed Murray to stack up better raw numbers and tip the scales.
In a race this close, every little bit counts, even if it's one subpar game in a sea of otherwise miraculous performances. -- Alex Scarborough
'It's been everything I've dreamed of'
Not since Bo Jackson has anyone had a year like the one that Kyler Murray is having.
It began in the summer, when the Oakland Athletics selected him with the ninth overall pick in the MLB draft. After giving him a $4.66 million signing bonus, the A's gave Murray permission to play one final season of college football.
And what a season it has been.
On the way to quarterbacking Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, Murray has delivered the highest QBR (96.0) going into bowl season of any FBS player since ESPN began tracking the data in 2004.
Not only has Murray seamlessly replaced 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield in orchestrating the Oklahoma attack, he is on pace to shatter the FBS season passing efficiency record set by his predecessor last year.
As a result, Murray, who is the first FBS player to enter a bowl averaging at least 300 yards passing and 60 yards rushing, is primed to give the Sooners the first back-to-back Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks from any school in the history of the award.
"I really haven't had a lot of time to reflect," Murray said Monday of these past few whirlwind months. "It went by quick. I feel like obviously it's not over, but for me, going into it knowing that [it would be] one season, one-and-done-type deal possibly, it's been everything I dreamed of, everything that I put in the work for. ... I can't ask for much more."
Unlike Jackson, Murray is planning to give up football after this season to focus on his pro baseball career with the A's. After Auburn, Jackson continued to play both sports and became a Pro Bowl running back with the Raiders and All-Star outfielder for the Royals.
Murray, however, can still accomplish something Jackson never did -- win an undisputed national championship. Of course, he'll have to go through Alabama and Tagovailoa first in the playoff semifinal.
If he does, Murray's lone season with the Sooners will go from being great to one of the greatest. -- Jake Trotter