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Will the Timing of Tua Tagovailoa's First Bad Game Cost Him the Heisman?

Tua Tagovailoa at one point seemed like he had this year's Heisman Trophy locked up. But after championship Saturday, the tide may have turned.

When Jalen Hurts saved Alabama’s season by coming off the bench in the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game, Tua Tagovailoa’s Heisman Trophy candidacy took a big ol’ hit.

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Tagovailoa injured his right ankle with 11:15 remaining and the Crimson Tide trailing by seven. Hurts, who was replaced by Tagovailoa in somewhat similar fashion in the national championship against the same team (Georgia) in the same stadium (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) less than a year ago, came in as if nothing had changed and led Alabama to the ultimate comeback victory. The Tide won 35–28 to earn their sixth SEC title of the Nick Saban era, and would later clinch their fifth College Football Playoff spot in five years.

Even before his injury, Tagovailoa looked the most human he had all season. He completed just 10 of 25 passes for 164 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions, doubling his total from the regular season. He’d experienced knee injuries earlier this season, but this time it was a high ankle sprain that forced him to leave the game early. Hurts may have been prepared all along, he may have been 26–2 as a starter, but the fact remains that Alabama overcame its toughest test of the year without Tagovailoa.

Ever since, Vegas odds to win the Heisman immediately shifted in favor of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, and various media straw polls did too.

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That’s probably because while drama was going down in Atlanta, Murray had just finished celebrating with his teammates in rainbow confetti. He’d led the Sooners to their fourth consecutive Big 12 championship, completing 25 of 34 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Oklahoma avenged its only loss of the season by beating rival Texas, 39–27, and with that had also beaten every team in the Big 12.

This season, Murray set the school’s single-season record for total offense and led the country in yards per pass attempt. He also racked up 892 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns and plans to join the Oakland Athletics organization next year.

Oklahoma arguably would not be 12–1 or playing in its second consecutive playoff without him. Defensive deficiencies forced the Sooners to rely on Murray to win close games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, all of which were decided by five points or less.

Both quarterbacks are having historic, video game-like seasons that have nearly mirrored each other. Murray is averaging 11.9 yards per pass attempt and has 40 passing touchdowns to seven interceptions; Tagovailoa is averaging 11.4 ypp with 37 touchdowns to four interceptions. Their pass efficiency ratings are the top two in the country and lead the nation’s top two most explosive offenses that will face off in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 29.

But Tagovailoa has been the clear frontrunner for the Heisman all season. He revolutionized Alabama’s offense, scoring touchdowns at a frightening clip. What college football’s most prestigious award might come down to though is this: Tagovailoa had one below-average game—on a very big stage—and left early with an injury. His team still won without him. Murray’s team might not be able to win like that without him.

Timing is everything and now, Murray could take home the award instead of Tagovailoa.