2018 has actual Heisman drama for the first time in a long time

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Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa.

It looked like a Tua Tagovailoa runaway all year, but Kyler Murray closed the gap and might have beaten him.

ESPN announced three finalists for the Heisman Trophy on Monday: Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, and Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins.

There’s no set number of finalists that get to go to New York every year. The number is always at least three, but whether it’s more than that depends on how close the voting was, and this is the crew voters have settled on.

Finalist snubs include Washington State QB Gardner Minshew, West Virginia QB Will Grier, Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, and every defender or lineman in the country.

Either Murray or Tagovailoa will be your winner, though.

From the early weeks of the season until recently, Tagovailoa was widely considered the runaway winner.

He started putting up absurd numbers right away for the best team in the country. Every single Bama game until November featured between two and four passing TDs by Tagovailoa, him averaging at least 10.6 yards per throw with no interceptions, and Nick Saban taking him out in the second half in granting mercy to the other team.

Those early hooks meant Tagovailoa was getting way fewer touches per game than previous Heisman-winning QBs, but his performances were so bonkers that he stacked up well against them anyway. Tagovailoa put up better numbers in his first six games than any of those Heisman QBs ever put up in their best six games if someone cherry-picked them.

Tagovailoa had been the overwhelming betting favorite along with that. But in the last month, Murray has caught and now passed him there.

Bovada released these odds to win the trophy on Monday:

  • Murray: 1/2
  • Tagovailoa: 3/2
  • Haskins: 60/1

Everyone else was off the board altogether.

For a sense of how much ground Murray’s made up: On Nov. 5, Tagovailoa was 1/10 to win, and Murray was next at 6/1, with Haskins following at 14/1.

If you wanted to call it a two-man race before, it would’ve been Tagovailoa against Murray. But it was actually just a one-man race for first and a one-man race for second.

With the ceremony closing in, we truly don’t know who’s going to win. That hasn’t been true in years. The last time was … 2009?

Consider the number of first-place votes players have gotten since then, via Sports Reference:

  • 2009: Mark Ingram 227, Toby Gerhart 222, Colt McCoy 203
  • 2010: Cam Newton 729, Andrew Luck 78
  • 2011: Robert Griffin III 405, Andrew Luck 247, Trent Richardson 138
  • 2012: Johnny Manziel 474, Manti Te’o 321
  • 2013: Jameis Winston 668, A.J. McCarron 79
  • 2014: Marcus Mariota 788, Amari Cooper 49, Melvin Gordon 37
  • 2015: Derrick Henry 378, Christian McCaffrey 290, Deshaun Watson 148
  • 2016: Lamar Jackson 526, Watson 269
  • 2017: Baker Mayfield 732, Bryce Love 75

The ‘09 race was really close. The ‘11, ‘12, ‘15, and ‘16 races weren’t routs, but there wasn’t a great deal of question heading into New York who would win. (2012 was the closest of any two-man race, and that was partially because Manziel was a freshman.)

This year feels different. I think Murray will win, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The two QBs have had similar years, but Murray’s been better lately.

In Bama’s 13 games, Tagovailoa’s been great in 10. Twice in November, in wins against LSU and Mississippi State, he was between fine and pretty good. And in the SEC Championship against Georgia, he was horrible. Injuries certainly played a role, but he went 10-of-25 for 164 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions (making up half his season total of INTs). Backup Jalen Hurts won the game for Bama after Tagovailoa exited injured in the fourth.

Meanwhile, Murray’s had a similar season. In Oklahoma’s 13 games, he’s been through-the-roof awesome 10 times and merely “good” three times, with no games nearly as bad as the one Tagovailoa put up against Georgia. It seemed like they were getting closer when Murray had 478 total yards and four total TDs in a Week 13 barnburner at West Virginia. And it definitely seemed like the gap was tightening when Murray had a flawless, three-TD Big 12 Championship on the same day Tagovailoa was having his worst outing.

Murray has a 206 passer rating. Tagovailoa’s at 202. Both of those are slated to break Baker Mayfield’s all-time record of 198.9, set last year (and previously set by Mayfield in 2016). Nobody else is above 176 this year. Murray and Tagovailoa also lapping the field in yards per throw at 11.9 and 11.4, respectively, with nobody else beating 10.0.

The biggest difference in their numbers comes on the ground. Lincoln Riley’s made Murray a big part of his running game, especially since star back Rodney Anderson was lost for the season in Week 2. Not counting sacks, Murray has 108 carries for 982 yards (a 9.1-yard average) and 11 scores. Bama’s chosen to keep Tagovailoa cleaner, running him 37 times for 289 yards and five TDs. That’s a 7.8-yard average, but it’s not close to Murray’s line.

Personally, I cast one award vote for Tagovailoa over Murray, because Bama’s QB has done it against more challenging defenses.

That was for the Davey O’Brien Award, for the best QB in the country. I’m a voter for that one but not the Heisman, though I would’ve made the same Heisman vote.

I had a hard time picking between the two. Murray has bigger raw numbers, but in the passing game in particular, it’s best to grade the two QBs on efficiency stats because of how often Tagovailoa’s been yanked early. Murray’s numbers there are every so slightly better, but Tagovailoa’s have come against notably (though not hugely) better defenses.

The average Alabama opponent this year ranks 59th in Defensive S&P+. The average OU opponent is 71st. Those Bama figures don’t include The Citadel, an FCS team, so let’s cut out OU’s worst opponent, No. 103 UCLA, and the average number for OU goes up to 69.

It’s not a huge difference. Anyone who claims Tagovailoa has been playing way harder competition than Murray is lying to you or speaking in stereotypes about the SEC and Big 12. But in an incredibly close race, quality of opposition put Tagovailoa over the top for me.

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