NEW YORK — Every year at this time, I write a column explaining my vote for the Heisman Trophy.
This Heisman season is special for me. I like round numbers and anniversaries, and this is my 20th year to cast a Heisman ballot.
But it’s also special in that I’ve covered this year’s winner — Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield — for the last three seasons.
And not once has it ever been dull.
From his Houdini act in Knoxville to his 80-yard sprints in the Cotton Bowl to his “one giant leap for Sooner Nation” flag plant in Columbus, covering Mayfield has been a thrill a minute.
Sometimes it’s more than we signed up for.
But that’s the thing with covering Mayfield. He’s as polarizing a figure as college football has had in the last five years. With Mayfield, you simply take the good with the bad.
You cover the offseason arrest in Fayetteville, and you cover his unbreakable will in road games. You cover his flap with the Big 12 Conference to get his fifth year of eligibility restored, and you cover his last-minute heroics against league foes Texas and Baylor and Kansas State and Oklahoma State and TCU.
You cover his transfer to OU from Texas Tech and you cover his Heisman coronation.
In probably the easiest choice of the 20 Heisman ballots I’ve submitted, I voted Mayfield first.
Stanford running back Bryce Love got my second-place vote, and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson got my third-place vote.
Many times, I write this column to explain why I didn’t consider one candidate or another. Many times, as good as the others are, there are several worthy candidates.
This year, I write this column to explain why I did consider one candidate, and only one. This year, as good as the others are, there are no other worthy candidates.
Mayfield stands apart.
It’s become one of the best stories in the history of the sport, an unwanted walk-on from a Texas high school powerhouse whose fire is always smoldering, whose resolve comes at you like the relentless ocean, who was spurned and spurned again, who stood up to his coach and followed his dreams and played intramural softball and danced his way into the hearts and minds of his teammates and displaced an incumbent bowl hero — all long before becoming college football’s most outstanding player.
Twenty years as a Heisman voter — and the last six as Oklahoma’s state Heisman representative — has allowed me to forge my own definition of “most outstanding.” The award itself is as subjective as it gets, and I have my own standards: how did you play in big games, how did you play in close games, how did you play against top opponents, did you lead your team to a championship, did you put up historic numbers, and did you do so consistently?
Mayfield checks every one of those boxes, over and over and over.
But while on-field performance is where I always start, I’ll also grade down my Heisman candidates for bad behavior off the field. Call me old fashioned, call me a Boy Scout, whatever, but I think integrity stands for something. Hey, it’s my ballot, not yours.
Some will hold the character and integrity factor against Mayfield. For the most part, I won’t.
For example, I don’t have a problem with Mayfield planting an OU flag on Ohio Stadium’s midfield logo. Given the opportunity, I’d have done the exact same thing. Nor did I have a problem with Mayfield reminding trash-talking Baylor in pregame who their daddy was and that he would need to spank them. I was known to talk a little pregame trash in high school.
I didn’t even have a problem with Mayfield bouncing a football off Niko Small’s helmet as Small and his TCU teammates purposely invaded OU’s pregame warmups in Norman. In 14 years of covering OU football, home or away, I’ve never seen another other team run through the Sooners’ drills. It was a tactic intended to disrupt OU’s pregame routine and maybe even intimidate the Sooners on their own home field, and Mayfield retaliated accordingly — at least, he retaliated exactly as I would have.
I also did not have a problem with Mayfield shouting obscenities and making lewd gestures at players and/or coaches on the Kansas sideline. I did much worse when I played, so I would not presume to judge Mayfield on his boorish behavior (although a little self-awareness as the Oklahoma QB and the Heisman front-runner would have served him well).
I was, however, disappointed with Mayfield’s drunken follies on Dickson Street. A two-time captain and the face of OU football should not be bar hopping on another college campus. Want to have fun and blow off some steam? Fine, find a private party and have a good time. Someone of Mayfield’s stature needs to know they’re a prime target for exactly what happened: he was goaded into an argument, then a fight, then a brawl, then found himself standing in front of and running from Fayetteville PD.
That was a bad look. But it isn’t enough to keep Mayfield off my Heisman ballot.
Some years I have to explain why I didn’t vote for the People’s Choice.
I knew Ohio State’s Troy Smith would win the Heisman in 2006, but I decided he wouldn’t have a place on my ballot because early in his career, he received cash from a booster. That’s pretty much rule No. 1 right there in college athletics. The Heisman’s voting requirements are a “bonafide student athlete” who is eligible. Smith later became eligible and was a great player, easily winning that year’s Heisman with the highest percentage of votes (91.6) in Heisman history. But that didn’t mean I had to put him on my ballot.
I knew Auburn’s Cam Newton would win the Heisman in 2010, but I left him off my ballot because, after he had been kicked off the team at Florida for stealing a laptop, he was at the center of an investigation into whether his father shopped him to the highest bidder out of junior college. Nothing was ever proven, but you should hear the stories OU coaches told that year about Newton and his dad as they tried to recruit him to Norman.
And I knew Florida State’s Jamies Winston would win in 2013, but he wasn’t on my ballot because of a rape allegation that emerged late in the 2013 season. He was never charged, but both Winston and FSU settled separate lawsuits with the alleged victim; FSU’s settlement was nearly a million dollars, Winston’s was undisclosed.
Getting drunk on Dickson Street and trying to run from the cops isn’t even in the same galaxy as those, and Mayfield’s behavior wasn’t nearly enough to bring him back to the rest of this year’s Heisman pack.
The national media September hype train put Penn State running back Saquon Barkley in the PlayStation Theater holding the stiff-arm trophy tonight, but that was obviously two months premature. Barkley may well be college football’s most outstanding player, but he didn’t stand out nearly enough. Thus Barkley’s absence in Times Square this weekend.
As Barkley’s star began to fall, Stanford running back Bryce Love’s rose. A 263-yard rushing game, followed by a 301-yard game and a ridiculous 11-yards-per-carry average stood out on his way to 11 100-yard games. But Love’s Cardinal lost four games this season. A sprained ankle set him back, but Stanford actually won the only game he missed. As the Cardinal fell behind USC twice this year, Love was almost a non-factor, catching not one pass in two games against the Trojans. He only caught six passes all season. Playing the second half of the season on that badly sprained ankle did give him toughness points on my ballot.
After Love’s injury slowed his record pace, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson — last year’s Heisman winner — exploded. Jackson is as dynamic a player as the college game has ever seen, and his combined rushing and passing statistics are mind-blowing (he leads the nation in total offense by 30 yards per game over his nearest competitor). After Jackson failed to reach 100 rushing yards three times in a four-game midseason span, he rushed for at least 111 yards in UL’s last six games (147 or more in five of those). Ultimately, Louisville also lost four games this season. Lay that on the Cardinals’ defense, of course, (they allowed 47, 39, 45 and 42 points in those losses), but Jackson threw an interception in all four of those losses, two of which came late and cost his team a chance at victory. Four of Jackson’s five lowest single-game QBR ratings this season came in Louisville losses.
Mayfield’s strength this season was his spectacular consistency, and it was that combination — the penchant for game-changing big plays and the startling lack of mistakes — that gave him and the Sooners their third consecutive Big 12 Championship. Mayfield threw at least two touchdown passes in every game so far this year. His worst single-game completion percentage was .630. His lowest yardage output, in the Big 12 title game, was 243. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was a nation-leading 41-5. He also leads the nation in completion percentage (.710) and his passer efficiency rating — a formula weighted to reward deep throws rather than dink-and-dunks — is 203.8, a number that will shatter the single-season mark of 196.4 that he set last season. The Sooners could set an NCAA record for most yards per play this season, and it’s because of Mayfield’s uncanny accuracy on deep throws that opens up the field for everyone else.
Incredibly, Mayfield became the first player in FBS history to throw for 14,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a career.
Mayfield wasn’t just the easy choice for the 83rd Heisman Trophy. He was the only choice.
My Heisman worksheet this year was shorter than usual. Last year, for instance, I went into the final week of the season with 19 players to examine. That’s on the high side. I quickly pared that down to eight or nine, then deliberated a long time to come up with my top three and my 2016 winner: Lamar Jackson.
This year’s worksheet never exceeded 12 names for my top three. Those I studied — Mayfield, Love, Jackson, Barkley, Notre Dame RB Josh Adams, Ohio State QB J.T. Barnett, USC RB Ronald Jones, San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny, Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph, Arizona QB Kahlil Tate, Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor and Oklahoma State WR James Washington — were all deserving of Heisman consideration.
All but one of my candidates, however, experienced both highs and lows this season. Only Mayfield performed with a consistent excellence that was unparalleled.
In a sport with only 12 days of competition guaranteed each year, Mayfield was the only Heisman contender who never had a bad game. He was never “off,” never not motivated to perform his best.
He wouldn’t allow it.
Good opponent? How about 24-of-36 for 598 yards and five touchdowns? Bad opponent? How about 19-of-20 for 329 yards and three touchdowns?
Here’s a guy with a strong arm and quick feet and a sharp mind, and he got himself mentally prepared to play his best 13 out of 13 times this year — a feat we consistently hear is somehow so very hard to do.
Don’t believe it.
In getting himself psyched up, Mayfield also pushed his teammates to reach levels they probably never knew they could.
One thing about Mayfield, whether he’s dancing in a circle of teammates or showing you how many Big 12 trophies he’s won, the guy is never dull.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma
- 269-of-355, 68.1 completion percentage
- 3,700 passing yards
- 4 yards per attempt
- 141 rushes for 405 yards, 7 touchdowns
- 36 passing touchdowns
- 7 interceptions
- 3 Passer Efficiency Rating
- Sporting News Player of the Year
- Brandon Burlsworth Trophy winner
- Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year
- First Team All-Big 12
- Second-team AP All-America
- 254-of-358, 70.9 completion percentage (1st in FBS)
- 3,965 passing yards
- 1 per attempt (1st in FBS)
- 78 rushes for 177 yards, 6 touchdowns
- 40 passing touchdowns
- 8 interceptions
- 4 Passer Efficiency Rating (NCAA Record)
- Heisman Trophy finalist
- Robert Maxwell Award finalist
- Davey O’Brien Award finalist
- Brandon Burlsworth Trophy winner
- All-Big 12 First Team
- 262-of-369, completion percentage (1st in FBS)
- 4,340 passing yards (2nd in FBS)
- 8 yards per attempt (1st in FBS)
- 83 rushes for 305 yards, 5 touchdowns
- 41 passing TDs (2nd in passing FBS)
- 5 interceptions
- 8 Passing Efficiency Rating (1st FBS)
- 278 points responsible for (1st in FBS)
- Heisman Trophy winner
- Davey O’Brien winner
- Walter Camp Award winner
- Robert Maxwell Award winner
- AP National Player of the Year
- Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist
- Brandon Burlsworth Trophy finalist
- Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year
- First Team All-Big 12
- 785-of-1122, 70.0 completion percentage
- 12,005 passing yards
- 7 yards per attempt
- 304 rushes for 892 yards, 18 touchdowns
- 117 passing touchdowns
- 20 interceptions
- 7 passing efficiency rating
Data compiled by Kegan Reneau