Heisman Trophy Race 2019: What’s the Worst Game a Heisman Campaign Can Withstand?

Alabama and Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the favorite to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, were off in Week 6, which meant the other three quarterbacks who entered the weekend in the top tier of Heisman contenders had a chance to steal the show.

LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields each had a productive Saturday, but all three quarterbacks recorded their lowest passing efficiency rating in a game this season.

Of course, that’s all relative, especially considering Ohio State hosted Michigan State, which boasts the No. 6 defense nationally according to SP+, and Hurts played his first conference road game of the season.

Here’s how each player performed in Week 6:

  • Joe Burrow, QB, LSU: 27-of-38, 71.1%, 344 passing yards, 5 TD, 1 INT; 10 att., 42 rushing yards, 1 TD
  • Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma: 16-of-24, 66.7%, 228 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 10 att., 56 rushing yards, 2 TD
  • Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: 17-of-25, 68.0%, 206 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 11 att., 61 rushing yards, 1 TD


The contrast of a productive stat line in a winning effort with a quarterback’s lowest efficiency rating of the season raises intriguing questions about what’s the worst a Heisman Trophy winner can perform in a Heisman-winning season, and does it matter who those performances are against or when they happen during a season? And really, how bad is a “bad” game for an eventual Heisman Trophy winner?

We went through the last nine Heisman Trophy winners during this decade and identified their worst performance of the Heisman-winning season (excluding bowl games or College Football Playoff games that happened after they won the award).

For quarterbacks, we selected the game in which they had their lowest passing efficiency rating of the season and for the lone running back, we selected his game with the fewest rushing yards.

Of course, this is an inexact science. For example — when grading a dual-threat quarterback, how do you balance a mediocre day through the air with a really productive afternoon on the ground?

We found that eight of the last nine Heisman winners had their worst games, as defined above, in the second half of the regular season, including six in Game 7, 8 or 9. Two performed the worst in Game 11.

Six of the nine players’ teams still won the game in which the Heisman Trophy winner performed at a less productive level than they typically did during their Heisman-winning season.

Here’s what we found.

2018: Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma, Game 11 vs. Kansas

21-of-32, 65.6%, 272 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 8 att., 99 rushing yards, 3 TD

2017: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma, Game 8 vs. Texas Tech

22-of-34, 64.7%, 281 passing yards, 4 TD, 1 INT; 6 att., 20 rushing yards, 1 TD

2016: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville, Game 11 at Houston (loss)

20-of-43, 46.5%, 211 passing yards, 1 TD; 25 att., 33 rushing yards

2015: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, Game 4 vs. UL Monroe

13 att., 52 rushing yards, 4.0 yards per carry, 1 TD

2014: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Game 9 vs. Stanford

19-of-30, 63.3%, 258 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 9 att., 85 rushing yards, 2 TD

2013: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, Game 9 at Wake Forest

17-of-28, 60.7%, 159 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT; 3 att., 4 rushing yards

2012: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, Game 7 vs. LSU (loss)

29-of-56, 51.8%, 276 passing yards, 0 TD, 3 INT; 17 att., 27 rushing yards

2011: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor, Game 7 at Oklahoma State (loss)

33-of-50, 66.0%, 425 passing yards, 1 TD, 2 INT; 16 att., 27 rushing yards, 1 TD

2010: Cam Newton, QB, Auburn, Game 8 vs. LSU

10-of-16, 62.5%, 86 passing yards, 0 TD, 0 INT; 28 att., 217 rushing yards, 2 TD

What do these historical, single-game dips tell us?

The worst is likely still ahead for Tagovailoa, Burrow, Hurts and Fields, and we might witness those season-worst performances soon given that we’re in Week 7 of the college football season.

On Saturday, Oklahoma faces No. 11 Texas in the Red River Showdown — a game the Sooners lost last year.

Alabama travels to No. 24 Texas A&M and LSU hosts No. 7 Florida.

We’ll also say this, if a 300-plus-yard passing performance by Burrow in which he completes more than 70 percent of his passes and throws for five touchdowns, and runs for another, is his least efficient game of the season, the Heisman Trophy Trust oughta just send the award to Baton Rouge right now.

And if Week 6 is the worst it gets for Hurts and Fields, who put up very similar numbers on Saturday, then they can go ahead and book their tickets to New York now for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

If you’re curious what Tagovailoa’s least efficient game was in the first six weeks this season, it came in a Week 2 win against New Mexico State, when he completed 16-of-24 passes for 227 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, along with a rushing touchdown.

What a disappointing game.

Tagovailoa’s passing efficiency rating that game was only 187.4, slightly impacting his season rating of 225.1, which currently ranks as the second-best all-time in Sports Reference’s database, behind Hurts’ 231.3 rating this season.

Chances are that each of those four Heisman contenders will have a worse Saturday in the next two months, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t take home the trophy in early December.

Just look at Johnny Manziel’s three-interception, 27-rushing-yard day against LSU in 2012.

Three weeks later he led a road win at Alabama, which allows everyone to forget about a home dud against the Tigers.

The Week 6 performances of Burrow, Hurts and Fields, combined with Tagovailoa’s bye week, mean that the top contenders in the 2019 Heisman Trophy race should be handicapped in the following order:

  1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
  2. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
  3. Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma
  4. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State


Once again, the gaps from No. 1 to No. 2, No. 2 to No. 3 and No. 3 to No. 4 aren’t significant. A truly terrible performance — not one of Week 6’s “bad games” listed above — could change that order, or even endanger one of those quarterbacks from falling out of the top group of contenders altogether.

Or a strong performance in a big game, like LSU handing undefeated Florida its first loss, Alabama blowing out Texas A&M on the road or Oklahoma running wild against Texas, could further solidify a player’s Heisman case or even allow him to leapfrog a fellow contender.

Based on the recent trend of Heisman Trophy winners having a down week in October, there’s a good chance that in December we’ll be able to look back at Week 7 and see how it shaped the 2019 Heisman Trophy race.

MORE: Brett McMurphy’s Latest College Football Bowl Projections After Week 6