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Eyes on the Nation: Heisman contenders and their chances to shine

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In what’s become an annual award to quarterbacks, three stand out among the early Heisman contenders. There’s a running back lurking, however.

Indiana v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Since Charles Woodson became the first — and still only — defensive player to take home the Heisman Trophy in 1997, the award has been decidedly quarterback heavy.

Over the last two decades, 15 winners have been throwers, while just five have been running backs. For the backs, the last three have either won or made the national title game (Derrick Henry in 2015, Mark Ingram in 2009 and Reggie Bush in 2005).

With no ball-carriers putting up gaudy stats for a title contender, the favorites at the moment mostly line up under center. The stats have gotten them to this point, but what chances do they have in the season’s second half to achieve their Heisman moment?

TUA TAGOVAILOA, SOPHOMORE, QB, ALABAMA

LAST WEEK: 12-of-22 for 265 yards and three touchdowns in 39-10 victory over Missouri

SEASON STATS: 1,760 passing yards, 21 touchdowns to zero interceptions

You read that correctly. Tagovailoa has yet to throw a pick in 2018.

His legend grew after leading the Tide to a comeback over Georgia in last year’s College Football Playoff Final. He’s only taken off from there, leading the nation’s No. 2 S&P offense.

Remarkably, he’s only played significant minutes in the second half twice (Texas A&M and Missouri). In fact, he has yet to attempt a pass in the fourth quarter this year.

Knee problems are starting to mount, so durability over an entire game is something to be questioned. On the road against LSU, that right knee will be tested for 60 minutes (or more).

If he puts up similar numbers in Baton Rouge, he might wrap up the discussion before the end of November.

Heisman opportunities: Nov. 3 at No. 5 LSU, Nov. 24 against Auburn, SEC Championship Game Dec. 1

DWAYNE HASKINS, SOPHOMORE, QB, OHIO STATE

LAST WEEK: 33-of-44, 412 yards, three touchdowns in 30-14 victory over Minnesota

SEASON STATS: 2,331 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, four interceptions

The Buckeye has tossed consecutive 400-yard games, a first in Ohio State history.

Ohio State has struggled to put away two inferior teams the last two weeks in Indiana and the Golden Gophers. Haskins doesn’t have the same run game as Tagovailoa does in Tuscaloosa, as he lifts up the offense entirely with his right arm.

In some ways, this makes him more valuable, as another quarterback probably loses to Penn State (and maybe TCU, as well). Since the Heisman’s definition is actually “most outstanding” instead of “most valuable,” this likely doesn’t play a factor in voting.

Another element that hurts Haskins’ campaign is a lack of quality opponents down the stretch. Purdue and Nebraska aren’t moving the needle, nor is Michigan State if they’re unranked by Nov. 10.

If The Game on Nov. 24 is a de facto playoff matchup, there’s your red letter opportunity.

Heisman Opportunity: Nov. 24 against No. 6 Michigan

KYLER MURRAY, JUNIOR, QB, OKLAHOMA

LAST WEEK: Bye (Lost to No. 7 Texas 48-45 two weeks ago)

SEASON STATS: 1,764 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, three interceptions

He almost already has his defining moment, as he charged the Sooners back from 21 points down to tie late in the Red River Rivalry. A late field goal overwhelmed the accomplishment.

One thing he has over the top two candidates is explosive legs. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder has racked up 377 yards on the ground with five touchdowns.

He dual-threat nature has been the spark plug for the nation’s No. 1 S&P offense. However, the recent loss was partially due to his two turnovers. He needs the other two to falter for him to catch up.

Much like Haskins, few teams left on the schedule turn heads. TCU this weekend is not the same team that pushed Ohio State in Dallas in mid-September. Texas Tech boasts an improved defense, but remains unranked.

If Murray wants to make a scene, he better root for West Virginia to close the season strong before a Friday night showdown in Morgantown on the final weekend. If he leads the Sooners to a victory, potentially in the snowy Monongahela forest, he also likely clinches them a Big 12 title game berth.

Heisman Opportunities: Nov. 23 at No. 13 West Virginia, Big 12 Championship Game Dec. 1

JONATHAN TAYLOR, SOPHOMORE, RB, WISCONSIN

LAST WEEK: 17 carries, 101 yards in 38-13 loss to No. 6 Michigan

SEASON STATS: 143 attempts, 950 yards (6.6 YPC), eight touchdowns

The Wolverines possess the nation’s No. 14 rush defense per S&P. It was in the top-5 before Taylor came to Ann Arbor.

He currently has seven straight 100-yard games dating back to last year’s Orange Bowl. He trails only Memphis’ Darrell Henderson for the NCAA lead in rushing yardage.

Moreover, he created many of the yards himself, dragging several defenders on a elite defense. There’s no arguing his ability. The problem is the team surrounding him.

Wisconsin now ranks just No. 23, making them the least relevant team on this list. The last back to win the award on a non-conference champion team was Texas’ Ricky Williams in 1998.

Furthermore, there’s no jazz in the rest of the schedule. Illinois, Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue and Minnesota surround a Nov. 10 showdown versus No. 18 Penn State in Madison. There’s a chance even the Nittany Lions aren’t ranked, as they face surging Michigan the week before in Ann Arbor.

He’ll be invited to New York on his numbers alone. The only way he sniffs the Heisman is with a masterful performance in Indianapolis for the the Big Ten Championship.

Heisman Opportunity: Big Ten Championship Game Dec. 1

MICHIGAN ROOTING INTEREST, WEEK 8

  • TCU (3-3, 1-2) against No. 9 Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1) (noon, ABC)

Whoever wins the Big Ten wants carnage in the Big 12. A second loss for the Sooners would do the trick.

  • NO. 16 NC STATE (5-0, 2-0) at No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 3-0) (3:30 p.m., ESPN)

Michigan would pass the Tigers, and the ACC would almost assuredly lose a playoff bid due to Clemson’s weak schedule.

  • NO. 22 MISSISSIPPI STATE (4-2, 1-2) at No. 5 LSU (6-1, 3-1) (7 p.m., ESPN)

Another team passed.

  • PURDUE (3-3, 2-1) against No. 2 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0) (7:30 p.m., ABC)

First off, it would make Wolverine partisans giggle. Second, their team would pass the Buckeyes.

As an aside, Purdue has a weirdly good record against Ohio State, winning two of the last five meetings (three if you count the vacated one in 2010). They nearly spoiled Urban Meyer’s perfect debut in 2012, and took two of the last three in Ross-Ade Stadium.

I said it in Conference Corner, but Jeff Brohm will have his team within a score in the fourth quarter.