He's been away for a bit, but don't sleep on Mac Jones' clear Heisman Trophy path
It was the perfect storm for Kyle Trask to make a major Heisman Trophy push on Saturday night.
In a game in which he didn’t have the nation’s top tight end, Kyle Pitts, Trask exploded for 6 touchdown passes against a respected Arkansas defense. Even better for Trask’s Heisman campaign was the fact that front-runners Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Mac Jones were all idle.
Jones missed an opportunity to throw for a billion yards and a million touchdown passes against the hopeless LSU defense because of the Tigers dealing with a COVID issue. Without a clear makeup date in sight, there’s no guarantee that Jones will get the chance to sink his teeth into that tasty matchup (that’s also true for Trask).
But even with the LSU game up in the air, let’s not forget that Jones still has a clear path to the Heisman.
That’s coming from someone who repeatedly banged the drum for Trask heading into 2020, and is still of the opinion that he’s been the best quarterback in college football so far. Trask is on a pace that’s past what Joe Burrow did in his record-setting season, and if he keeps it up, the award likely won’t be a debate.
Having said that, what we’re not accounting for is the likely scenario in which Alabama and Florida face off in the SEC Championship, AKA Jones vs. Trask. That’s the last game before the Heisman votes are compiled, though there’s going to be a virtual ceremony on Jan. 5. It’ll be strange that the Heisman is handed out after the Playoff semifinal games. Well, at least after where they’re currently scheduled.
(It’s 2020. Let’s not assume anything is set in stone, even the football games that ESPN pays over $600 million to broadcast.)
Jones’ Heisman campaign has lost a bit of steam because it feels like he hasn’t played a game in a month. Rather, it was just consecutive off weeks because of a bye week and COVID cases within LSU. Trask also had 2 consecutive Saturdays off in a row earlier in the year. He then responded by ripping off the most impressive 3-game stretch of his career. In these last 3 games, Trask racked up 1,175 yards, 14 touchdown passes and his team averaged 49 points in 3 consecutive victories, including 1 against defending East champion Georgia.
How Jones comes out of his 2-week layoff will perhaps determine his Heisman candidacy. Put up numbers in the neighborhood of Trask heading into the SEC Championship and we’ll be talking more about Jones, who might be a conference title away from earning the award at that point. That’ll obviously be easier said than done.
That’s not to say Lawrence and Fields are out of it. But Lawrence missed 2 Clemson games after he tested positive for COVID and Fields just lost 1 of his 8 regular-season games because of an outbreak within Maryland’s program. It’s worth keeping in mind that missed games, while common in 2020, are also magnified with fewer games to begin with.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that only twice in the last 40 years did a player miss a regular-season game and win the Heisman. In fact, Charlie Ward in 1993 was the only Heisman winner during that stretch who missed a regular-season game against a Power conference foe. Fair or not, cumulative stats are often emphasized for Heisman voters.
There’s another thing worth keeping in mind. In the 21st century, here’s the list of Heisman winners who didn’t win a conference title:
- Lamar Jackson, 2016
- Johnny Manziel, 2012
- Robert Griffin III, 2011
- Jason White, 2003
- Eric Crouch, 2001
Jackson, Manziel and Griffin didn’t even play for a conference title. The last time that a Heisman winner lost in the conference title game was White 17 years ago. Neither White nor Crouch lost to a Heisman candidate quarterback in their conference championship losses, either.
Why is that significant?
If Florida and Alabama do play in the SEC Championship, it sets up perhaps the most “winner-take-all” game yet. Obviously an SEC Championship could be up for grabs, but a side-by-side look at Jones vs. Trask could sway voting in a major way even if the latter has better overall numbers. Of course, that’s assuming that both teams remain unbeaten and perhaps both get out of playing LSU on Dec. 12 with their respective divisions locked up. That’s by no means a forgone conclusion in this weird year.
Still, that scenario benefits Jones. He’s the one putting up big numbers for the unbeaten, No. 1 team in the country. Even though they aren’t quite as ridiculous as Trask’s, here’s the 11-game pace that Jones is on:
- 29 passing TDs, 4 INTs
- 4,026 passing yards
- 12.4 yards per attempt
- 78.5% accuracy
Don’t lose sight of that 12.4 yards per attempt. Kyler Murray set the single-season FBS record with 11.6 yards per attempt in his Heisman season in 2018.
If you recall, Murray’s conference title weekend was what allowed him to change the narrative and beat out Tua Tagovailoa for the award. Tagovailoa was ineffective and injured late in what turned out to be an Alabama win against Georgia in the SEC Championship. It wasn’t all about the team result in the all-important pre-Heisman game, though Tagovailoa’s weak closing argument undoubtedly hurt his chances.
Jones, if he can stay healthy, will get a chance to make a closing argument. Perhaps there’d be more national optimism about that if Jaylen Waddle didn’t get hurt, or if we didn’t watch Trask deliver 3 consecutive memorable performances during a time when Jones has been mostly idle.
The good news for Jones is that he still has arguably the best receiver in America in DeVonta Smith, he has one of the best play-callers in the sport in Steve Sarkisian and he’s protected one of the nation’s best offensive lines. Oh, and Jones still has 4 (maybe 5?) games left to make his Heisman case, and including Florida (potentially), only one of those defenses ranks among the top half in FBS against the pass.
That lone group is Kentucky, which Jones will face Saturday. Now would be a perfect time for Jones to get back to the place he was at a few weeks ago.
That is, leading another blowout victory and strengthening his surprising Heisman push.