Our MNC Wednesday miniseries has been scrutinizing Heisman Trophy history, and in 63 seasons overall, we have confirmed just 19 vote winners. We are actually on a roll right now with two confirmed votes in a row, and we already critiqued the 2019 Heisman vote in real time over three years ago. So, it’s time to revisit it now and see if our analysis/perspective remains the same after all this time. This could be a true test of objectivity here, for obvious reasons.
2019 Heisman Trophy winner: Joe Burrow, QB, LSU (original); Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma (revised)
The LSU Tigers lost 3 times in conference play the prior season, but somehow, the team improved so dramatically in 2019 that it went 13-0 to win the SEC and qualify for the CFP. Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman vote with some video-game statistics (6,055 total yards with 65 total touchdowns and 6 interceptions), playing against the No. 6 SOS in the country. We think it’s very fishy how much he improved from 2018 to 2019, but we’ll discuss this below (again).
Of course, we have learned through strange days and ways that there are always other high-quality candidates to consider. This is our final list of firmly vetted Heisman candidates, and it is … complicated—and stacked with amazing QBs:
- Jalen Hurts, QB, Oklahoma: 5,174 total yards with 53 total TDs and 8 INTs (No. 23 SOS)
- Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State: 3,757 total yards with 51 total TDs 3 and 3 INTs (No. 5 SOS)
- Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: 4,228 total yards with 45 total TDs and 8 INTs (No. 41 SOS)
- Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: 2,857 total yards with 35 total TDs and 3 INTs (No. 39 SOS)
Hurts, after playing at Alabama from 2016-2018, transferred to Oklahoma and had a stellar season, leading the Sooners to the Big XII title and a CFP berth. Fields, who played at Georgia in 2018, transferred to Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to the B1G title and a CFP berth. Ironically? Burrow had played at Ohio State in 2015-2017 before transferring to LSU and being merely average in 2018. What a circle jerk of sorts!
To complete this quintet of amazing QBs, we add Lawrence—who led the Tigers to the MNC in 2018 as a freshman and then followed it up this year with an undefeated season, the ACC title, and another CFP invite—and Tagovailoa, who only played in 9 games for the Tide as he was injured but still led the nation in passing efficiency (206.9). Alabama lost twice, however, in SEC play and had to settle for an Orange Bowl bid without their starting QB.
Tagovailoa, Burrow, Hurts, and Fields finished 1-2-3-4 in QB rating, so that’s amusingly quirky. Generally, we think the SOS marks for Tagovailoa and Lawrence remove them from consideration, as the numbers are so far below the other three. So, going into a final analysis, we see the order as Fields, Burrow, and Hurts—in that order. Now, we have to do the examination of supporting casts and other contextual data:
- Ohio State: 1 RB over 2,000 yards and no receivers over 840 yards with the No. 4 defense in support
- LSU: 1 RB over 1,400 yards and 2 receivers over 1,500 yards with the No. 32 defense in support
- Oklahoma: 1 RB over 1,000 yards and 1 receiver over 1,300 yards with the No. 64 defense in support
Fields had the best defense behind him (by far) with the “least” support around him; Burrow had the best support around him (by far) with a solid defense behind him; Hurts had good support around him with the worst defense behind him (by far). Hurts also served as another RB for his team, as he gained 1,298 rushing yards himself, albeit against the weakest SOS of the bunch. Yet playing a Top-25 schedule is hardly a weakness, even in this comparison.
Hurts had to do more than the other QBs to get his team to the CFP: he had to run more, and he had to overcome a seriously mediocre defense, too. Also, with LSU (as we have seen with previous vote winners and their teams), there was a lot of running up the score: the Tigers had a 26.5-ppg scoring margin, so why did Burrow’s backup throw just 40 passes on the year? That’s ridiculous when you’re winning games by an average score of 48-22. This was stat packing at its worst.
Forget the fishy improvement in Burrow’s completion percentage from 57.8 in 2018 to to 76.3 in 2019. Forget his 68.8-point improvement in QB rating, too, with basically the same supporting cast around him (and a better defense). Hurts was the guy in Oklahoma, and this ends up rivaling what USC was doing with RBs in the 1970s and early 1980s. Is it the system the Sooners were running? Maybe. But as we saw with Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray, the QB still has to do it.
We thought Fields deserved this award in real time, but this is a great example of what hindsight does for an analysis: is this why so many Heisman votes have seemed “off” to us through the years? In the moment, without finalized hard data, perhaps it is tougher to make the right call. Yet this is why we do a lot of sports history: to make sure the historical record is set straight, in time, with context, data, hindsight, and perspective. Amen.
Congratulations to Jalen Hurts, the real Heisman Trophy winner for 2019.