- The first walk-on to win the Heisman, Baker Mayfield drew plenty of attention for things beyond his stats, but it never obscured his impeccable senior season as a quarterback.
NEW YORK — About three hours before he’d be named this college football season’s most outstanding player, Baker Mayfield acted like he didn’t know what was coming. Dressed in a navy suit with a striped red tie and seated to the left of Stanford running back Bryce Love and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson—the two other finalists for the honor—during a news conference inside a spacious sixth-floor ballroom at the Marriott Marquis hotel here, Mayfield was asked about his anticipation heading into the Heisman Trophy ceremony on Saturday night. He responded with what sounded like a pre-recorded sequence of platitudes.
“I’m really happy to be here,” Mayfield said. “It’s an honor to be here. It’s an honor to be around these guys, be around past winners.” A few minutes later, at a question-and-answer session with reporters, Mayfield rejected an opportunity to acknowledge the obvious. “You can’t listen to it,” he said when queried on the media coverage anointing him the overwhelming Heisman frontrunner, before pivoting to a comparison with his preferred team-wide approach to the weekly College Football Playoff rankings. “You can’t listen to the outside noise,” Mayfield added.
The noise was deafening, though. Mayfield is the 83rd winner of the Heisman, and as much as he tried in the hours before the announcement to maintain the pretense that the outcome of the race was in doubt—including by revealing that he’d waited until Saturday to put together his acceptance speech—pretty much everyone knew he’d finish on top long before it became official. “This is unbelievable for me,” Mayfield said after taking the stage at the PlayStation Theater to greet past victors, reel off a list of shoutouts and clutch the bronze trophy.
This was one of the most anticlimactic Heisman chases in recent memory. Mayfield had been viewed as the favorite since early in the final month of the regular season, after he lit up Oklahoma State’s defense in a 10-point win at Oklahoma State on Nov. 4. From there, Mayfield guided Oklahoma to four consecutive wins, a Big 12 championship and a berth in the playoff as the No. 2 seed. (The Sooners will take on No. 3 seed Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.) His edge over the rest of the field was so convincing that by the time the voting closed, the biggest knock on Mayfield’s candidacy was his sideline comportment during a blowout victory over a conference doormat.
The most notable aspect of Mayfield’s run to claim college sports’s most prestigious individual honor was his passing precision. Blend a gifted thrower at the top of his game, an uptempo scheme geared to make the most of his ability to rifle balls in tight windows, a head coach (Lincoln Riley) who’d spent the two previous years sharpening that thrower’s skill set, a deep cast of skill-position playmakers and this is what you get: Mayfield completing a nation-high 71% of his passes, placing second in the country with 41 touchdown passes, breaking his own single-season record for passer rating (203.8) and setting a single-season high for passing yards per attempt (11.8).
Mayfield, who walked on at Texas Tech and played eight games for the Red Raiders as a freshman in 2013 before transferring to Oklahoma and walking on again, is the first walk-on to win the Heisman. He’s also the first senior (fifth-year) since Ohio State quarterback Troy Brown in 2006. Mayfield garnered 732 first-place votes, the fifth-most ever, and he received the third-highest percent of total possible points, with 2,398 (86%). The four players who’ve drawn more first-place votes are USC’s O.J. Simpson (855, 1968), Smith (801, 2006), Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (788, 2014) and Florida State’s Charlie Ward (740, 1993), and the two players who’ve registered higher points percentages are Smith (91.63%) and Mariota (90.92%).
The second-place finisher this season, Stanford’s Love, amassed 75 first-place votes and 1,300 points, while the third-place finisher, Louisville’s Jackson, totaled 47 first-place votes and 793 points. Love’s runner-up placement must have evoked a familiar feeling in Cardinal fans. Stanford now has produced six second-place finishes in the Heisman voting, more than any other program.
Like Stanford, Oklahoma had five runners-up before Saturday. Unlike Stanford, it also had five winners. Mayfield joins these Sooners: quarterback Sam Bradford (2008), quarterback Jason White (2003), running back Billy Sims (1978), running back Steve Owens (1969) and running back Billy Vessels (1952). Mayfield’s victory also jibes with the Heisman’s recent positional history: He’s the second straight quarterback to take home the award, and the 15th signal-caller since 2000. (The only two non-QBs this century were Alabama running backs, Derrick Henry in 2015 and Mark Ingram in 2009.)
This is not a career achievement award for Mayfield, although there is some surface-level evidence to back up that notion. As pointed out by Heisman historian Chris Huston in an interview, Mayfield is one of only seven players to finish in the top five of the voting three times, climbing from fourth in 2015 to third in 2016 to first in 2017. He began his college career before the advent of the playoff, and he’s since led Oklahoma to it twice, in non-successive years. There’s a persistence to Mayfield’s star power that’s uncommon at a time in which the number of NFL draft early entrants has spiked.
The eighth-year-senior vibe Mayfield gives off does not owe exclusively to his ability to throw a football with remarkable accuracy over the course of several seasons. He’s become college football’s main magnet for controversy. There was the offseason arrest over an incident in Fayetteville, Ark., in which released footage showed police tackling a drunken Mayfield into a wall, the midfield flag wave-and-spear into the Ohio State logo after a 31–16 win over the Buckeyes in September, the Big 12 walk-on transfer eligibility rule reversal and, of course, the triple F--- you! and crotch grab during a game at Kansas last month.
None of it obscured a peerless on-field track record that includes 14,320 passing yards, 129 passing touchdowns, three All-Big 12 First Team nominations, two conference offensive player of the year awards and culminated with a resplendent 2017 season. Mayfield’s challenge as a Heisman contender entering this fall was straightforward but immense. With his top receiver, Dede Westbrook, off to the NFL, Mayfield needed to be better than the player who shattered the record for passing efficiency and checked in behind only Louisville’s Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson on the ballot a year ago.
That said, the Heisman electorate’s familiarity with Mayfield probably helped him more than it hurt him in the end. “There’s a large body of evidence for certain players who have had good seasons over the course of their career,” Huston says of voters. “And so, whereas the player who comes out of nowhere and has a big year—there might be a little bit of thinking that, ‘Is this a one-time thing? Is this a fluke?’ Having those multiple years definitely establishes the person as a quality player. And so, they don’t really have to deal with that apprehension if someone comes out of nowhere.”
The first big sign that Mayfield would end up back in New York in 2017 came during Oklahoma’s 15-point victory over Ohio State in September. A year after being whipped, 45–24, in Norman by the Buckeyes, the Sooners went into the Horseshoe and notched one of the best nonconference Ws of the season. Mayfield buried the Buckeyes with 386 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions on 27-of-25 passing while upstaging then-Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett, who finished 19-of-35 with 183 yards and a pick. Oklahoma may not have needed the Ohio State win to make the playoff, but at the time it resonated as a towering triumph.
The reputationally defense-averse Big 12 didn’t have many more answers for Mayfield than Ohio State did. Against conference competition, he topped all Big 12 quarterbacks by connecting on 69.3% of his throws; his yards per attempt mark, 11.5, was more than two YPA higher than the Big 12 quarterback who placed second in that category (Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph); he tossed a league-high 31 touchdowns against only five interceptions despite ranking sixth among Big 12 signal-callers in attempts per game; and he powered the Sooners to a league-high 44.1 points per contest.
Not even TCU, the Big 12’s only top-15 Football Bowl Subdivision defense, according to Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings, stood much of a chance trying to bottle up Mayfield. Three weeks after carving up the Horned Frogs’ D’ to the tune of 333 passing yards and three touchdowns at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 11, he tore it asunder on a neutral field, hitting on 15 of his 23 throws for 243 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 41–17 Big 12 championship game victory at AT&T Stadium to seal Oklahoma’s second berth into the final four in three years.
Mayfield didn’t deliver quite as many signature moments as many recent winners, but one tilt seemed to turn the race in his favor. In a Bedlam matchup billed as the Big 12’s game of the year, Mayfield unloaded on in-state rival Oklahoma State in a scoreboard-shaking thrill ride, passing for a school-record 598 yards and five touchdowns and rushing for one score to push Oklahoma past the Cowboys, 62–52, in Stillwater. Mayfield probably didn’t recognize it in the moment, but during that game he offered a photo-worthy Heisman pose while clutching the ball with his right arm and extending his left for a stiff arm.
The only significant on-field blemish on Mayfield’s Heisman CV was a seven-point home loss to Iowa State in early October that had faded into the rearview once it came time for voters to submit their ballots. The defeat aged well, too, with the Cyclones rounding into a more formidable outfit than they seemed at the time. The Kansas-game outburst undoubtedly rubbed a lot of media members the wrong way, but realistically, given the lead Mayfield had already opened up by that point, it was never going to cost him enough votes to jeopardize his position at the front of the pack.
When Mayfield surged toward the end of the season, no one from the rest of the Heisman field mounted a serious challenge. USC’s Sam Darnold fizzed out early. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley put on his superman cape in a win at Iowa in late September, only to be leapfrogged later on by other backs. Love didn’t receive the attention he likely would have with fewer late-night kick offs. Arizona’s Khalil Tate couldn’t sustain his torrid October pace. Jackson’s repeat bid fell way short. Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson was low on preseason hype and couldn’t make up for it with a second-half push.
That is an incomplete list of candidacies that just didn’t have enough juice to create any uncertainty in the lead-up to the unveil on Saturday, but Mayfield did sound relieved to put the formality behind him. “It’s a dream right now,” Mayfield said. “And I’m just trying to enjoy it.” This was a predictable coronation of a player who’d clearly separated himself from every other contender, who’d not only distinguished himself as this season’s premier performer but one of the greatest ever at his position, regardless of how his college career ends. The absence of serious competitors for the award should not diminish what Mayfield did to earn it. Mayfield did not back into a Heisman win. He was so good that no one else managed to keep up.