The leading candidate to win the 2020 Heisman Trophy is Oklahoma’s Jake Bentley.
It’s true that Bentley doesn’t play for Oklahoma or play for anyone at this point because of an injured foot. But based on what happened last Saturday in college football, there is almost no doubt that Bentley is going to be the most accomplished quarterback available as a graduate transfer next off-season. That means he’s the leading candidate to follow in the continuing line of stars in Norman, Okla.
First, let’s deal with Bentley. There’s no question he’s had a good career at South Carolina after graduating early from Opelika High School. There’s also no doubting that the future of the position for the Gamecocks is Ryan Hilinski.
The freshman completed 36 of 57 passes for 324 yards against Alabama Saturday, including a perfectly thrown touchdown pass that split two Tide defenders in the end zone. He also delivered a touchdown pass on the last play of the game that was meaningless unless you happened to care whether the Tide won by more than 23.5 points (many people did).
With Hilinski now entrenched as the starter at South Carolina, here’s how the SEC quarterback lineup breaks down: There are six transfers (Missouri, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State), six veteran starters who signed with their school out of high school (Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee) and two true freshmen (South Carolina and Auburn).
Hilinski and Auburn’s Bo Nix may soon be joined by freshman Garrett Shrader of Mississippi State, who had the most memorable play of the season when he helicoptered just short of the first down in the Bulldogs’ loss to Kansas State. But for now, Shrader is expected to return to the bench behind Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens.
Hilinski has shown incredible poise in two starts since Bentley was injured. Against Alabama he executed the game plan almost perfectly by getting the ball out of his hands quickly and before the pass rush could get to him.
South Carolina simply isn’t talented enough to beat Alabama, but it wasn’t because Hilinski didn’t do his part.
Bentley is expected to be cleared to play again by December, but his days as the South Carolina starter are over. No matter, there is a place for Bentley as a starter in college football.
Many teams in Power Five conferences would kill for a quarterback as good as Bentley. But doesn’t it just make sense that the place he would land is Oklahoma?
College football has never seen anything like what coach Lincoln Riley is producing for the Sooners. Two years ago, Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield led the Sooners to the playoffs, won the Heisman Trophy and then went No. 1 in the NFL Draft. Last year, Kyler Murray, a Texas A&M transfer, led the Sooners back to the playoffs, won the Heisman and went No. 1 in the NFL Draft.
Next in line, it appears, is Jalen Hurts. After starring at Alabama for three seasons, Hurts is now the leading candidate to win the Heisman at Oklahoma.
Hurts has been flawless so far for the Sooners, and not just as a runner. Yes, he ran for 99 yards on the opening drive against UCLA last week. But he’s also averaging 14.4 yards per pass attempt. That would be the highest average in college football history by a wide margin. The record, not surprisingly, was set by Murray, when he averaged 11.6 yards per pass attempt last season.
For a comparison, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is averaging 11.1 yards per pass attempt this season, although if the 75-yard touchdown by Henry Ruggs on the first play against New Mexico State had been ruled a pass instead of a long lateral then his average would be 11.8 yards.
It’s fascinating to watch Hurts and Tagovailoa dominate on the same day for different teams. The countdown to the highest-rated college football game of all time has begun. There is no storyline that matters this season other than Hurts vs. Tagovailoa in the College Football Playoff.
Tagovailoa is certainly doing his part to set up the showdown.
So far this season, Tagovailoa has competed 70 of 91 passes for 1,007 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions. Against South Carolina, he became the first Alabama quarterback to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns in the same game, although he’s still gunning for Scott Hunter’s record for most passing yards in a game, which has stood since 1969.
Tagovailoa is the best quarterback in the country, but Hurts is the best story. This game needs to happen.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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