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Tua, Joe, & The Heisman

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Aside from all the conference and playoff implications, the Heisman Trophy winner will be decided this weekend.

Now into November, the final leg of the 2019 season is underway.

Whatever transpires over the next month and change will shape both the College Football Playoff picture and the Heisman trophy race.

All five of the top contenders for college football’s most prestigious individual award were off last week -- LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and a pair of Ohio State Buckeyes, Justin Fields and Chase Young.

In that order, according to OddsShark.com, are the frontrunners for the trophy.

With each players respective school also in the thick of the race to see “Who’s In”, those four quarterbacks, probably more so than anyone else in the country, will determine the lasting impressions of, and pervading storylines about, this season.

So, let’s breakdown each of those signal callers’ respective cases, both as it stands, and how it potentially could stand when the winner is announced on December 14th, with the help from my OAYP advanced metric.

For the uninitiated, OAYP stands for opponent adjusted yards and points. There’s a team aspect and an individual aspect. For individuals, the formula, drawing inspiration from adjusted yards per attempt, basically boils the efficiency of a player’s production in any given game to a single game score, and also includes a value component, similar to Approximate Value, that rewards players that are more integral to their team’s success.

The formula does that for every position on the field, but today we’ll obviously only be looking at the scores for those four quarterbacks. So, whereas the scores are usually presented marginally (in comparison to the positional mean, kind of like WAR in baseball), there’s really no point in doing that here, since we’re not comparing these four superstars to the average quarterback, simply to one another.

So, we have the individual game scores for every FBS game these players have participated in (OAYP does not take FCS games into account), which are then adjusted for that specific opponent. The average of these individual game scores is one’s ‘Adjusted OAYP’. This is the best representation of what a player has done so far.

Perhaps the coolest part of OAYP, though, is using it to predict what they will do.

This is where average deviation comes into play. That’s simply how far from each player’s adjusted mean their game scores are. Lower average deviations mean the player is more consistent while higher deviations point to more volatility. By subtracting each guy’s average deviation from their adjusted score, we get a more clear picture of how we can expect them to perform in their remaining games. This is presented as ‘Consistency Adjusted OAYP’.

For what it’s worth, the average game score for quarterbacks in Southern Pigskin’s FBS coverage area -- the SEC, ACC, and Sun Belt -- is between five and six. None of these guys have had even a single game below 7.0.

However, while both Hurts and Tagovailoa have each had one performance in the 7.0-8.0 range, neither Justin Fields nor Joe Burrow have dropped below eight for even a week.

With a 0.51 average deviation, Fields has quite clearly been the most consistent of the bunch so far. That’s why, despite clearly being a notch below the others as a passer, and a notch below in adjusted OAYP, his consistency adjusted OAYP has him right in the thick of things.

Plus, he’s also faced a more challenging schedule than any of the other contenders, according to OAYP. While Alabama’s strength of schedule to date ranks 87th, per the metric’s team rankings, Oklahoma’s ranks 60th, and LSU’s ranks 35th, Ohio State’s is 22nd.

He’s also the quarterback of the best team in the country, by far. LSU is just shy of two standard deviations above the mean FBS team, Alabama and Oklahoma are between two and three standard deviations, and Ohio State is the only team in the nation more than three standard deviations from the average program.

The voters have gotten away from just giving it to the QB of the #1 team in recent years, but legitimate or not, there will always be a case for that guy.

Tua probably should have won the award last season. However, as we see time and time again, even though the games in September in October should count the same as the ones in November, they don’t. The voters are human and humans like momentum. Recency bias, even subconsciously, is real.

The stage is set for the game of the year in Tuscaloosa this week, with LSU coming to town, so, coupled with a trip to Auburn in the regular season finale and a potential matchup with Georgia, in Atlanta, there is ample opportunity for Tagovailoa to sear more than a few indelible memories into the minds of the voters over these next four or five games.

Currently second in yards per attempt and passer rating against FBS teams, and third in touchdowns, with one fewer pick than the only contender ahead of him (Burrow), he’s somehow arguably having an even better year than he did in 2018.

Unfortunately, injury issues have arisen at the most inopportune time, once more. This time a season ago, under similar circumstances, he looked human for the first time in his career against LSU, Mississippi State, and Georgia.

As indicated by his Tennessee game score, that was the case against the Vols, too. Granted, had he not gotten hurt, there’s a better than decent chance he would have remedied that number if could have finished the game. That said, I’m not sure how much voters care about “if’s”.

After a ridiculous start to the season, Joe Burrow is trending in the wrong direction. He lit up a playmaking Florida defense a few weeks ago, albeit a playmaking Florida defense that was bitten pretty hard by the injury bug, and looked awesome in the second half against a really bad Mississippi State defense.

However, Mississippi State DC Bob Shoop did some cool stuff to attack Burrow in that game. Auburn’s Kevin Steelse clearly watched that tape, and with more talented personnel on OAYP’s #4 defense, was better equipped to deploy some of those ideas. His Tigers held the Bayou Bengals’ star passer to a season low 7.6 yards per attempt with a pick and just one touchdown.

It feels like a safe wager that Nick Saban has spent a lot of time with that film. Now this isn’t necessarily a vintage Alabama defense, currently 14th in OAYP, but that has more to do with the inexperienced front seven. Led by an uber-gifted secondary, that pass defense is scary -- 5th in yards per attempt allowed to FBS teams, and with as many interceptions as touchdowns they’ve given up.

In concert with Joe Brady, Burrow and this LSU offense have finally figured out how to properly utilize all that skill talent that has been there for years. There’s no blueprint for stopping… that’s impossible.

However, there may now be one to containing it. If anyone can do that to the extent that it can be done, it’s Trevon Diggs, Patrick Surtain, Xavier McKinney, and the greatest coach of all time.

Joe Burrow is the frontrunner right now, according to Odds Shark, at -110. Hurts is at +250, while Tagovailoa and Fields are at +375 and +750, respectively.

Yet, according to OAYP, Hurts is the best bet, from a sheer statistical perspective.

On the one hand, he has been the most volatile from an average deviation standpoint, looking at his weekly game scores. The thing is, when he has a couple of games in the 7.0-9.0 range, the formulas is going to look at that as a wide disparity when three of his other five games have been in the 13.0-15.0 range, even though >7.5 is still really good.

Between the four candidates, aven adjusted for strength of opposing defense, Hurts’ performances against Houston, Texas Tech, and West Virginia are the three best games that any of them have played, per the formula.

Against FBS teams, his 221 passer rating is 9 points higher than Tagovailoa’s, 20 points higher than Burrow’s, and more than 35 points higher than Fields’. That constitutes the entire national top four, so there’s no one else even close. Oh, and that would also set a new single season record… by a lot.

He’s also first in yards per attempt by a pretty wide berth -- 2.4 yards past Tagovailoa, 3.3 over Burrow, and almost 5 beyond Fields. Plus, while Fields’ rushing production closes the gap some between he and the other two, Hurts has been an even more efficient and productive ball carrier.

For Burrow, the Vegas frontrunner, it feels like his Heisman chances all come down to this weekend. If he gets LSU over the hump against ‘Bama, he’ll decimate Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, and roll into the SEC Championship against Georgia with a full head of steam.

Georgia, probably the best pass defense he’ll face if given the opportunity, will present some unique challenges, and he’ll need to shine there as well, especially since it'll be his last chance to impress the voters, but a good showing in that game would seal the deal for him.

But, if he loses to Alabama, he won’t get a shot at Georgia, and even if he lights up those other three teams, no one will care. Again, momentum matters. Fail to get by the Tide, and that’ll be the lasting memory when he heads to New York.

Tagovailoa, on the other hand, will have another chance even if he loses that game, with Auburn on rivalry week. It’s also worth noting that, just like this isn’t a vintage Alabama defense, LSU’s defense isn’t what it has been in years past either, currently 17th in OAYP.

He also has the injury excuse in his back pocket, if voters are splitting hairs. If he does get by LSU, his last two times out will be against two of OAYP’s top seven defenses, counting Georgia in the SEC Championship. That will be nigh on impossible to ignore.

Then again, Justin Fields is in a similar spot. With Penn State and Michigan to close out the season, he’ll face OAYP’s #5 and #8 defenses, and, as previously mentioned, he’s been the most consistent so far. So, it’s easy to assume he’ll maintain his current level of play in those contests. That could also set up a monumental showdown with Minnesota in the Big Ten title game. I’m not convinced that Minnesota can get through the remainder of their schedule unscathed (or even with just one loss), but if he were to beat another undefeated team with a CFP spot on the line, the sheer power of the storyline would almost be unovercomable for any of the other contenders.

Plus, if current trends hold, he’ll also have that whole QB on the best team thing going for him. Although, he could end up splitting votes with his teammate Chase Young, the actual best player in the country, regardless of position.

Curiously, that leaves Hurts, the statistical best of the bunch, with the most challenging route to hoisting the trophy. The loss to Kansas State really put a damper on things for him, and while undefeated Baylor will be a marquee matchup, it’s a catch-22.

The best case scenario for him, had they beaten K-State, honestly may have been losing to Baylor in week 12, and then avenging it with the eyes of the nation upon him in the conference championship. That way, he would still have CFP in front of him, he would’ve beaten the only team he had lost to, and he would have the most impressive numbers.

Now, if he loses to Baylor, Oklahoma is out of the playoff, so that’s a no-go, but if he beats them in week 12, no one cares about Baylor anymore (who look a little fraudulent anyways, dropping to #17 in OAYP after last week), making the rematch far less consequential. Everything is also contingent upon Baylor not getting upset by TCU this week, which would not exactly be stunning.

His best bet is to just be so numerically dominant that the voters can’t see anything else, but that might not be possible. Fair or not, the Heisman winner needs big moments in big games in November and December. I’m not sure that Hurts will even have enough of those opportunities.

All things considered, Tagovailoa and Burrow are probably the best bets. Hurts is in an almost untenable situation, not to mention the unlikelihood of three consecutive winners coming from the same school.

Fields, meanwhile, just isn’t quite in the same statistical class, even factoring in rushing, as the other three. That, along with the fact that Chase Young is sure to siphon some of the juice out of his campaign, will keep him from the podium.

That means the Heisman race could very well be decided this weekend.

That, more so than the divisional implications, or even the CFP race, will be the prevailing legacy of this game. Either one of these teams could lose and still make the playoff. Frankly, the loser may be in an even better spot to get selected than the team that comes out on top.

The opposite is true, though, when it comes to earning that hallowed trophy.

The winner will be announced at the annual ceremony on December 14th. The deadline for the voters is the Monday prior, the 9th. You want to be playing on December 7th. This race will come down to the wire, and everyone’s going to need to make their case in the final proverbial debate.

Hurts will be there, but it may be too late. Field will too, but his constituency may be cut in half. But, unfortunately, only one of Tagovailoa and Burrow will share that stage, .

Come Saturday night, we’ll know which one.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP