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Alabama and Clemson, Clemson and Alabama, the college football world revolves around these two powerhouses.
Best team in the country? It is currently Clemson after beating Alabama in last year’s College Football Playoff championship game but recall the Crimson Tide have played in the last game of the season four years running. And the last three title games have been Clemson versus Alabama.
Best coach in the country? Nick Saban is still widely revered as the best coach in the land and making a run at replacing Paul “Bear” Bryant as the best to ever stalk the sidelines in Tuscaloosa and perhaps in college football history, but Dabo Swinney has built himself an empire in Death Valley with two national titles in the last three years over Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Best player in the country? Now that is where it gets interesting. Both players have elite quarterbacks who can take home college football’s biggest individual prize – the Heisman Trophy – as Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama counterpart Tua Tagovailoa have already created some early separation as favourites in what could become a crowded field as the season progresses.
Lawrence, who took over the Tigers offence full-time after four games and led Clemson to a perfect 15-0 record and College Football Playoff title, is the frontrunner at +200. He threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns against only four interceptions as a true freshman in 2018 and saved his best for last in the playoffs, throwing for 674 yards and six touchdowns without a pick in victories over Notre Dame and Alabama.
His top two receivers – Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross – both return after they combined for 1,936 yards and 21 receiving touchdowns. Add in dynamic running back Travis Etienne and the fact Lawrence will have significantly more snaps under centre than last year, and a season of 4,000 yards and 40 TD tosses is not out of the question.
Tagovailoa, the 2018 Heisman runner-up to Kyler Murray is a clear-cut second choice at +350 and helped the Crimson Tide reach the CFP title game for the fourth straight year. The junior is also the unquestioned No. 1 QB in Tuscaloosa after Jalen Hurts transferred to Oklahoma in the offseason.
Tagovailoa threw for 3,966 yards and 43 TDs with only six INTs last season and like Lawrence, will have the benefit of a powerful ground game paced by Najee Harris. What Tagovailoa has that Lawrence does not is a bona fide stud No. 1 receiver in Jerry Jeudy.
Alabama has produced three Pro Bowl quality wide receiver this decade in Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, and most recently, Calvin Ridley. While he technically will be in the pros next decade, Jeudy has shown the potential to match his predecessors after totaling 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 TDs.
The junior himself is a +3,000 pick for the Heisman, but the last player at that position to win the award was Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991.
Only three schools have had different Heisman Trophy winners in back-to-back years, and Oklahoma became the third last year when Kyler Murray followed 2017 winner Baker Mayfield. Hurts is hoping to make it an unprecedented three in a row for the Sooners following his arrival in Norman.
Hurts is in the back end of the second tier of Heisman hopefuls at +2,000, but he was a dual threat in his two seasons as a full-time starter with Alabama, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and rushing for over 800 in both 2016 and 2017. Those skill sets should translate well in Sooners coach Lincoln Riley’s up-tempo offence because Murray threw for 4,361 yards and rushed for 1,001 more while totalling 54 touchdowns before becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
Usually, the Downtown Athletic Club will invite five finalists to New York City for the trophy presentation, and while Lawrence and Tagovailoa may have already gotten their invites, there are others who could join them come December.
The most intriguing dark-horse could be Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields (+1,200), who inherits the starting spot after Dwayne Haskins was a first-round selection by the Washington Redskins. Fields transferred from Georgia after serving as a backup to Jake Fromm and completing 27 of 39 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns in mop-up duty.
Fields won a waiver to become eligible this season instead of sitting out a year per normal transfer rules, and his dual-threat capabilities – he has been clocked running the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds – mean first-year coach Ryan Day will be scheming ways to keep the ball in his hands as Ohio State looks to win a third straight Big Ten title.
An argument can be made Oregon’s Justin Herbert (+2,000) is one of the most pro-ready quarterbacks in college, especially after he turned down what was likely going to be first-round money in the draft this past April. Herbert threw for 3,151 yards and 29 TDs last year, and will lead the Ducks into what should be a wide-open Pac-12 race.
Etienne (+3,000) and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (+2,500) are the best bets to be the first running back to win the award since Alabama’s Derrick Henry took home the award in 2015, but each has a significant obstacle to the award. In the case of Etienne, who finished with 1,658 yards, 25 TDs and a gaudy 8.1 yards per carry, it is sharing the spotlight with Lawrence in an offence that can put up dizzying amounts of yards and points.
In the case of Taylor, who finished with 2,194 yards last year and has already cleared 4,000 in two seasons with the Badgers, it is lacking an elite quarterback as Wisconsin looks to largely untested junior John Coan to lead the offence. That could result in an over-reliance on Taylor, who must also run behind a revamped line that lost both starting guards to graduation.
A deep sleeper in this race could be Boston College running back AJ Dillon (+10,000), who has the benefit of playing a soft schedule early in the season – the Eagles play four of their first five at home, including FCS opponent Richmond and a pair of FBS lightweights in Rutgers and Kansas – to rack up plenty of yards. Dillon can do that in chunks – he had 1,108 in just 10 games last season due to injury and totalled 1,589 yards and 14 TDs as a freshman in 2017.
(Heisman Trophy photo courtesy Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)