We’re over a third of the way through the college football season, at least in regards to when the 2019 Heisman Trophy is awarded. At most, Heisman contenders will have nine more games to impress the voting populace and many will only get seven more chances to take the field and add to their season statistics.
Through Week 5, the competition for the Heisman Trophy appears to be a four-horse race between Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — in no particular order.
Ranking those quarterbacks in some order, one through four, might be disingenuous given that those four players and their respective teams have arguably combined to play in just one (1) big game this season: LSU’s 45-38 win at Texas in which Burrow completed 31-of-39 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns.
So we’re going to go with tiers rather than rankings to define the current Heisman Trophy race.
Highlighting LSU-Texas and ignoring the rest of the games that Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State have played isn’t meant to disrespect the undefeated records of those schools, or the impressive play of their quarterbacks, but let’s give the 2019 college football season some room to breathe in regards to handicapping the Heisman favorites.
There is a reason the College Football Playoff selection committee doesn’t debut its rankings until after Week 10.
Let’s see how Burrow and LSU handle a trip to play Alabama and Tagovailoa, how Hurts matches up against Texas in the Red River Showdown and how Fields fares against the top two defenses in the country in Wisconsin and Michigan State (according to SP+).
Without further ado, here are our Heisman Trophy tiers after Week 5.
Tier 1: Heisman frontrunners
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa: 76.4%, 1,718 yards, 23 TD, 0 INT
LSU QB Joe Burrow: 80.6%, 1,520 yards, 17 TD, 2 INT
Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts: 77.6%, 1,295 yards, 12 TD, 1 INT; 443 rushing yards, 5 TD
Ohio State QB Justin Fields: 69.8%, 1,092 yards, 16 TD, 0 INT; 222 rushing yards, 7 TD
Tagovailoa is actually playing deep into the second halves of games, sometimes even in the fourth quarter (*gasp*), which means he’s on track to surpass his already impressive sophomore year numbers.
Against Ole Miss, he helped the Crimson Tide’s third or fourth-best receiver produce the single-best game by a wide receiver in the history of Alabama football.
Burrow’s 471 passing yards against Texas were the second-most by an LSU quarterback this century.
Oklahoma’s offense with Hurts is more explosive than it was with Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray.
Ohio State is scoring touchdowns at a higher clip with Fields than it did with Dwayne Haskins or J.T. Barrett.
Prior to Week 5, the Westgate SuperBook said the order of these four quarterbacks, in terms of their Heisman odds, was Tagovailoa, Burrow, Hurts and Fields, but the gap doesn’t feel too significant.
Tier 2: The running back tier
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor: 559 rushing yards, 8 TD; 85 receiving yards, 3 TD
Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard: 938 rushing yards, 10 TD
Since the 2000 season, only three running backs have won the Heisman and the most recent two running backs to win the award — Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram — were both the most productive offensive player on a 14-win Alabama team that won the national championship.
That last sentence, regardless of what absurd statistics Jonathan Taylor and Chuba Hubbard compile, is probably enough to cast off their candidacy for the 2019 Heisman.
It would take Wisconsin running the table, winning at Ohio State, then winning the Big Ten Championship, while Taylor rushes for more than 2,000 yards and somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 touchdowns, for him to make a serious run at the award.
He has 559 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns in four games, plus the best receiving numbers of his career, but he only has one game with more than 140 rushing yards and playing at a position that’s already at a disadvantage, he needs as many eye-popping performances as possible.
Chuba Hubbard leads the nation in running through Week 5, but Oklahoma State might barely crack the AP Top 25 by the end of the season as one of the teams in the Big 12’s competitive middle tier.
He’s on pace for more than 2,000 rushing yards and more than 20 rushing touchdowns, which could warrant a top-10 finish in the Heisman voting, but the question is how much would the Cowboys’ record and the (perhaps incorrect) perception that the Big 12 doesn’t play great defense hold him back?
Tier 3: Big names who have significant work to do
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence: 61.8%, 1,131 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT; 100 rushing yards, 4 TD
Texas QB Sam Ehlinger: 72.9%, 1,237 yards, 15 TD, 1 INT
Oregon QB Justin Herbert: 74.4%, 1,127 yards, 14 TD, 0 INT
Georgia QB Jake Fromm: 75.6%, 788 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT
Lawrence hasn’t performed like one of the top two preseason Heisman favorites, with a completion percentage barely north of 60 percent and an 8-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It doesn’t help that he had a quiet performance, at least by his standards, in Clemson’s biggest game of the regular season — 24-of-35 passing for 268 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 24-10 win over Texas A&M in Week 2.
Now, the only currently ranked opponent on the Tigers’ upcoming schedule is No. 22 Wake Forest (!) and even if Lawrence threw for 500 yards and seven touchdowns against the Demon Deacons, would that register nationally as Lawrence’s “Heisman moment”? Right or wrong, I’d argue no.
He has as many multiple-interception games (two) as he does multiple-touchdown games.
Lawrence has proven he’s among the top quarterbacks in the country when he’s at his best, and he’s surrounded by talented skill position players, so he can still finish the season with impressive statistics, but they might feel somewhat empty to Heisman voters.
While Fromm is in the same tier as Lawrence, his Heisman hopes are in a bit of a different place. His numbers are more efficient, but he has thrown for almost 100 fewer yards per game than Lawrence. That’s largely due to Georgia’s run-heavy gameplan rather than physical limitations that Fromm has, but he does have the benefit of playing for the country’s No. 3 team with three regular season games against currently ranked teams, as well as a potential SEC Championship matchup with No. 1 Alabama.
That arguably gives him more room to climb than Lawrence.
Ehlinger is on pace for the best passing numbers of his career — a 72.9 completion percentage, 8.8 yards per attempt and a 15-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio through four games — but for a Texas team that’s ranked outside the top 10, he would probably need the Longhorns to win out and start scoring more touchdowns with his legs.
While his yards per carry is at a career-best 4.5, Ehlinger has just one rushing touchdown this season after running for 16 scores last season.
Ehlinger’s best Heisman case is probably one where, aside from Texas’ team success, he throws for 30-plus touchdowns and runs for at least 10, benefitting from a level of dual-threat production that some other top quarterbacks can’t match.
Herbert got a lot of attention for his decision to return to Eugene rather than declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft, and he has responded with the best completion percentage of his career, and he’s on pace for the best touchdown total he’s had at Oregon.
But through Week 5, Ehlinger and Herbert are lacking what the other QBs have — an inside track at making the playoff.
If their passing numbers are similar, or worse, than those quarterbacks and they’re playing for a team that’s believed to be worse, what’s their case for the Heisman?
Tier 4: The (other) running back tier
Ohio State RB J.K. Dobbins: 654 rushing yards, 5 TD
Clemson RB Travis Etienne: 462 rushing yards, 5 TD
Georgia RB D’Andre Swift: 388 rushing yards, 3 TD
Last year, three running backs finished in the top 10 — 7th, 9th and 10th — of the Heisman Trophy voting.
In 2018, five of the top 10 vote-getters were running backs, including second-place finisher Bryce Love.
Running backs claimed spots No. 8 through No. 10 in 2017.
The point being that there will probably be multiple running backs that finish in the top 10 this season, but there’s not necessarily a formula for predicting how high they’ll finish. This year feels like a quarterback-heavy Heisman race, which has become the norm over the last two decades, but there are enough really good running backs on really good teams that deserve some mention in this year’s Heisman conversation.
Even if Chuba Hubbard’s rushing numbers exceed those of J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift and Travis Etienne, those players might get the nod on more Heisman ballots because they play for playoff contenders.