Who leaves New York as latest Heisman Trophy winner? It’s complicated

In the playoff era, the average Heisman margin of victory has been 823 points, but a vote led by Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa is likely to change that.

When Alabama finally claimed its first Heisman Trophy in 2009, the debate entering the vote centered around a complicated question in terms of what makes a contender “outstanding.” Is it value to their team or the crowning of a team itself?

Mark Ingram, the best offensive player on that season’s best team (and eventual national champion) won out of Stanford running back Toby Gerhart and his gaudy stat line in the closest vote in history, a mere 298 points.

The debate over who will leave New York with the 84th Heisman could be boiled down to the same question between the Crimson Tide‘s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, who will be joined at the ceremony by Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins.

Murray has the stats as the better statistical resume, as the nation’s leader in pass efficiency (205.7), tied for first in points responsible for (306), ranking second in total offense (380.4 yards per game) and points responsible for and third in passing yards (4,053).

Against Top 25 teams, he averaged 390.6 yards of total offense per game (third second in Power 5) and led the nation with a whopping 10.67 yards per play. Without Murray, there’s little chance the Sooners are winning the Big 12 title, let alone earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Can the same be said about Tagovailoa and Alabama?

He fits the criteria as the poster boy of what’s considered the best team in the land in the form of unbeaten Alabama. Tagovailoa is third in the nation with 37 touchdown passes and fourth in points responsible for (252), but has thrown for 700 fewer yards than Murray, a byproduct of the Crimson Tide’s dominance.

Alabama has run 350 plays against ranked opponents, seventh-most in FBS, and in winning the three before the SEC title game by an average of 25 points, Tagovailoa didn’t register enough plays to rank in the top 100 of QBs in Top 25 tilts.

He spearheaded the best offense in Nick Saban’s run in Tuscaloosa, ranking second behind Oklahoma at 47.9 points per game, while racking up 527.6 yards per (seventh) — but in crunch time in the biggest game of the season against No. 4 Georgia, it was Jalen Hurts that punched Alabama’s ticket to the playoff, not Tagovailoa.

To be fair, he was out in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury that would require surgery and has been dealing with a knee sprain for months. But Tagovailoa was already in the midst of his worst game of the season, with his 164 yards the fewest of any game in which he attempted more than eight passes all season, and he threw as many interceptions (two) as he had in the 12 games leading up to the SEC title game, combined.

Backed by his legend-making performance in the national championship game against Georgia last season, Tagovailoa helped write the narrative of Alabama’s offensive eruption. If “transcendent” is akin to “Heisman,” he delivered.

But the case could be made that Alabama would have been in the same position it was — also posting a top-10 defense — without Tagovailoa. Meanwhile, Murray helped set up a clash with the Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl semifinal in spite of a 108th-ranked defense.

Ten percent of votes (roughly 100) were cast before last weekend’s title game, which given the Alabama quarterback’s front-runner status, could be a swing of up to 100 points, which the first player on a ballot receiving three points (two go go second and one to third). In what figures to be a narrow finish, that may be a substantial head start, and early voting could loom large.

We voters aren’t allowed to reveal our ballots before the announcement, but the expectation is despite the run Murray made, Tagovailoa still leaves with the trophy in hand. His perceived lead was too great, and being the face of Alabama, which came out of the toughest conference in the nation unscathed, will win out.

Whether that plays itself out or Murray leaves with the Sooners’ second straight Heisman in hand, we’ve frankly not been gifted a race quite like this in the playoff era.

The past 83 votes have been decided by an average of 665.4, but in the four seasons of the CFP that figure sits at 823. A runaway isn’t likely in the cards, and the debate over who should have been the latest member of the Heisman fraternity isn’t likely to end after Saturday night.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.