Heisman Watch: All eyes on Joe Burrow vs. Tua Tagovailoa showdown

Sam Cooper

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, Week 8, Week 9

All eyes will be on Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Saturday when No. 2 Alabama hosts No. 1 LSU. Not only is first place in the SEC West on the line, the game could serve as a significant resume boost for two of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy: LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Burrow’s ascendance from underwhelming game manager to Heisman frontrunner has been one of the biggest stories of the season. Burrow has fit in seamlessly in LSU’s out-of-nowhere high-flying offense, putting up 300-yard passing efforts with remarkable consistency. Burrow has thrown for 300 yards in six of LSU’s eight games, leads the nation in completion percentage (78.8) and is second in passing yards (2,805) and touchdowns (30).

Meanwhile, Tagovailoa is working his way back from the high-ankle sprain suffered Oct. 20 in Alabama’s win over Tennessee. The junior was back on the practice field throwing in front of reporters on Monday afternoon. Nick Saban said Tagovailoa, the 2018 Heisman runner-up, participated in two practices during Alabama’s bye week and labeled his quarterback as a “gametime decision” for Saturday. It’d be a shock if Tagovailoa was held out.

Before the injury, Tagovailoa trailed both Burrow and his 2018 backup, Jalen Hurts (now at Oklahoma), in our weekly Heisman check-in. But with a monstrous performance in the biggest game of the year, he has the stage to vault himself back toward the top — even after missing the Arkansas game.

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

1. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU

In Burrow’s most recent outing, a 23-20 win over Auburn, he completed 32-of-42 passes for 321 yards and a touchdown. Burrow had been so efficient through his first seven games that his completion percentage actually dropped from 79.4 to 78.8 after that effort. That’s 205 completions in 260 attempts if you’re keeping track at home.

Even after that figure dipped a bit, Burrow is still on a record-setting pace for completion percentage. Texas’ Colt McCoy set the current record FBS record — 76.7 — back in 2008 when UT went 12-1 and beat Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Burrow and LSU have their sights set higher than that, and he should have a chance to put up big numbers against an Alabama secondary that has not been challenged much this year.

The best Power Five passing offense the Tide have faced is Texas A&M at No. 39 in the country (263.6 ypg). LSU puts up 377.6 yards per game through the air.

(Last week: 1)

2. Chase Young, DE, Ohio State

Young burst into the Heisman conversation two weeks ago when he dominated Wisconsin to the tune of six tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks in a 38-7 Ohio State victory. If Young put up those numbers against a Wisconsin line full of future NFL players, imagine what he can do coming off a bye week against lowly Maryland.

The Terps are in the midst of a horrific stretch, losing six of their last seven games. In Maryland’s five Big Ten losses, it has been outscored 223-59 and the only win came against Rutgers. Maryland’s offensive line has allowed 21 sacks this year at an average of 2.33 per game. Young may surpass that average himself to add to his nation-leading total of 13.5.

Like all defensive players, Young still has an uphill climb to win the Heisman, but if he keeps disrupting games on a weekly basis he’ll be on a fast track to New York.

(Last week: 2)

3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma

Jalen Hurts was a bright spot in Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas State two weeks ago, and he can remain firmly in the Heisman race if he helps the Sooners climb back into the College Football Playoff race. We’ll see just how much that loss affected Oklahoma when the first CFP rankings are unveiled Tuesday night, but if any QB can put a team on his back, it’s Hurts.

The Alabama transfer has dazzled since making the move to Norman. Hurts has thrown for 2,469 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 73.9 percent of his passes. He has also put up 801 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground — both figures are the second-most among quarterbacks behind only Navy’s Malcolm Perry (Navy runs an option offense).

Coming off a bye week, Oklahoma hosts Iowa State this week before traveling to play undefeated Big 12-leading Baylor next weekend. That game will be a pivotal opportunity for the Sooners — and Hurts’ Heisman hopes.

(Last week: 3)

4. J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State

Dobbins may have been overshadowed by Young during the Wisconsin game, but his 163 yards and two touchdowns played a huge role in the victory. Dobbins has established himself as the best back in the Big Ten and arguably the best in the country.

In eight games, Dobbins has rushed for 1,110 yards and nine touchdowns on 154 carries — a 7.2-yard average. Dobbins trails only Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard and Boston College’s A.J. Dillon in yardage, but they have put up their totals in nine games and far more carries: 236 for Hubbard and 232 for Dillon.

Dobbins has rushed for at least 120 yards in four straight games and has six efforts of 100-plus yards. With Maryland visiting Columbus, Dobbins is in for another huge game.

(Last week: 4)

5. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

We’re operating under the assumption that Tagovailoa will be on the field on Saturday afternoon. It’s his opportunity to make a massive leap in the Heisman race on the biggest stage. Even after missing the Arkansas game — a great chance to pad his stats — Tagovailoa is still third in the nation with 27 touchdown passes. His completion percentage, 74.7, ranks second behind only Burrow. His passing yards per game, 309.4, is seventh nationally.

Will voters have the presence of mind to remember that Tagovailoa’s stats reflect one game fewer than his Heisman competitors? As we noted a few weeks ago, a Heisman Trophy winner has not missed a game since Florida State’s Charlie Ward in 1993. Bobby Bowden opted to sit an injured Ward 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. Perhaps Tagovailoa could follow a similar path.

(Last week: 5)

Will Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa become the first Heisman winner since 1993 to miss a game due to injury? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Will Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa become the first Heisman winner since 1993 to miss a game due to injury? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Also considered

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Oklahoma State: Because Oklahoma State is not going to contend for the Big 12 title, Hubbard may end up on the outside in terms of Heisman finalists, but he deserves enormous credit for the load he has been carrying for the Cowboys. That point is only magnified with star wideout Tylan Wallace sidelined. In OSU’s first game without Wallace, Hubbard rushed for 223 yards and two TDs on 20 carries in a win over TCU. Now with 1,604 yards, Hubbard has a commanding lead for the season rushing title.

A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College: With QB Anthony Brown out for the year, Boston College has gone to a run-heavy offense in recent weeks. On Saturday, the Eagles compiled a whopping 496 rushing yards in a win over Syracuse. Dillon led the way with 242 yards and three TDs, bringing his totals to 1,286 yards and 13 TDs on the year. Dillon trails only Hubbard in yards.

Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson: Clemson has won four straight games in convincing fashion since its near-loss to North Carolina. In that span, Etienne has rushed for 640 yards on 56 carries. That’s 11.43 yards per carry. For the year, Etienne is at 1,102 yards and 11 TDs on 9.0 yards per carry.

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