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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Mac Jones has been one of college football's most impressive players on one of its best teams.

Gameday VII: Dueling SEC candidates lead tight race

As part of Gameday VII, The Daily Cardinal's Seamus Rohrer takes a look at college football's Heisman Trophy candidates as championship weekend approaches. A couple of Alabama prospects lead the way. 

Mac Jones, Quarterback –– Alabama

Last Game: 24/29 passing, 208 yards, 143.0 rating

Alabama’s season-long dominance has put junior gunslinger Mac Jones at the forefront of the Heisman race. Jones played well last season filling in for the injured Tua Tagovailoa, but has really made an individual name for himself this year. Alabama’s offense has exploded, with Jones distributing the ball to the best group of offensive weapons in the country.  Wide receiver Devonta Smith —also a candidate for the award — and running back Najee Harris have wreaked havoc on SEC defenses all season. The Crimson Tide have obliterated every team in their path, including Texas A&M and Georgia, both of whom are currently ranked in the top 10 (No. 5 and No. 8, respectively). 

Jones plays with an aggressive downfield mentality, displaying zero hesitation to take the top of the defense at any time. He has a big arm and great touch, which, combined with Alabama’s speed at receiver, makes the deep passing game fire on all cylinders on a consistent basis.  Jones has also been incredibly efficient, completing 76.4% of his passes. He’ll underthrow a few balls here and there but the talent of his pass catchers usually makes up for it.

Set to play Florida for the SEC title on saturday, Jones and the Crimson Tide will battle fellow Heisman candidate Kyle Trask. Both quarterbacks have been dazzling and this showdown could put one of the two ahead in the race for good. This game has “Heisman moment” written all over it.

Kyle Trask, Quarterback –– Florida

Last Game: 29/47 passing, 474 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 2 rushing touchdowns, 1 fumble

The Gators quarterback boasts the most impressive stats in the Heisman race with 3,717 yards and 41 total touchdowns, while still completing over 70 percent of his passes. His team, however, has been less dominant than that of other players in the race. Florida lost to Texas A&M by 3 points, and also fell 37-34 to a hapless LSU team that looks nothing like the group that swept college football last year. Georgia is the only currently ranked team the Gators have beaten. Regardless, they’ll play Alabama on saturday for their toughest test of the season with the chance to make a statement.

A 22-year-old senior, Trask displays several mature traits that are undoubtedly garnering the interest of several NFL organizations. He makes great throws with pressure in his face, and does a great job putting balls where only his receivers can make a play on them. His talented weapons with great hands, namely Kyle Pitts and Kadarious Toney, allow him to play with more confidence.

Trask may not make it look as easy as Mac Jones, but he has stayed in the race with impressive numbers and a contending team. He’s slightly cooled off since his furious start to the season during which he had six straight games with at least four touchdown passes.  However, an upset over Alabama in the SEC title game would reignite Trask’s campaign for the hardware.

Devonta Smith, Wide Receiver –– Alabama

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Last Game: 3 catches, 22 yards, 84-yard punt return touchdown

Devonta Smith has had a monster season with 1,327 yards and 17 total scrimmage touchdowns. His punt return against Arkansas showed how versatile he is and put his name squarely in the middle of the Heisman conversation. Here’s the catch –– almost all of Smith’s production is also his quarterback Mac Jones’ production. The two have been the most unstoppable combination in the country this year, but their shared stats will hinder Smith’s path to the award.

Smith amazingly became the all-time SEC and Alabama leader in touchdown receptions this year, passing former Crimson Tide wideout Amari Cooper. When you watch him play, though, it’s not hard to tell why. His amazing athleticism has NFL scouts gawking at the next pass catcher from Tuscaloosa to roll off the assembly line. Particularly, his electrifying speed and ridiculous body control on contested catches stand out on the field.

While Smith’s path to the Heisman is more unconventional than others a wide receiver hasn’t won the award since 1991 — he has had several monster games, and his ability to take over a game gives him a shot to stand out even more than his quarterback. Smith went for 203 yards and four touchdowns against Mississippi State and 231 yards for three scores against LSU. If Smith turns in a huge game when the lights are brightest, like the SEC championship or the College Football Playoff, he’ll get serious consideration for the Heisman.

Ian Book, Quarterback –– Notre Dame

Last Game: 24/37 passing, 285 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception, 53 rush yards with 2 touchdowns

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure has been successful and productive overall. But the 2020 Fighting Irish look like a much higher caliber team, the likes of which South Bend hasn’t boasted in a while. Ian Book, the senior quarterback, has a lot to do with it. Notre Dame has rolled through the ACC, and their record remains flawless on the season. While Book’s numbers don’t exactly jump off the page (2,381 yards, 15 touchdowns, 63.3 completion percentage), he’s been exactly what the Irish need to win games this year.

Ian Book’s playstyle is daring and at times, reckless. Regardless, he still only has two interceptions on the year, and had an eight-game stretch without throwing one. Book is skilled at keeping plays alive, rolling out and finding open receivers downfield. He also picks up scrappy rushing yards and scores, more so than the other Heisman candidates. Book won’t wow you with his arm talent or measurables, but his leadership and his team’s impressive record can’t be ignored.

On Nov. 7, Notre Dame handed Clemson their first regular season loss in 37 games. Granted, Clemson was missing several key players, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The two squads will meet again on saturday for the ACC title, this time with Clemson at full strength. This game carries massive playoff implications, and puts Book and Lawrence in a huge spotlight. For these quarterbacks to stay in the Heisman race, this game is win or go home.

Trevor Lawrence, Quarterback –– Clemson

Last Game: 12/22 passing, 195 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 41 rush yards with 2 touchdowns

Lawrence has essentially been a Heisman candidate ever since he won the National Championship as a true freshman two seasons ago. He hasn’t been able to put together a Heisman season, despite the fact that he’s been the top quarterback prospect in college football for the last three years. With Lawrence likely entering the 2021 NFL draft, he’s almost out of time to add college football’s most prestigious honor to his resume. He’s got a shot, though, and it starts with helping his team get revenge on Notre Dame in the ACC championship game.

The biggest roadblock for Lawrence in the Heisman race is that he missed a significant amount of time in the middle of the season. That hasn’t stopped him from posting impressive numbers, mainly a 20:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio at almost 70 percent passing. If Lawrence is going to take home the trophy in January, he needs to elevate his game to an even higher level on the national stage. While this is something Lawrence definitely seems capable of, his team is so well rounded and talented at every level that he probably won’t need to transform his game in such a way.

Trevor Lawrence has been the top quarterback prospect for three years because of his undeniable talent and maturity. He delivers strikes to all parts of the field with his fluid throwing motion, and plays with great toughness and physicality for a quarterback. A longshot to win the Heisman in what is likely his sendoff college football season, Lawrence is more focused on taking his Tigers to glory one last time.

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