If the current trend holds, the College Football Playoff debate will end Saturday with only a sliver of the controversy that had defined much of the postseason format's first six seasons of existence.
No. 1 Alabama will meet No. 11 Florida (8 p.m. ET, CBS) for the SEC championship. No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson will have a rematch (4 p.m. ET, ABC) to settle the ACC, with the possibility that both teams reach the national semifinals regardless of the result. No. 4 Ohio State will face off with No. 14 Northwestern (noon ET, Fox) in the Big Ten championship.
Should the playoff race unfold as predicted, leaving the same top four in place, or even take a slight detour and allow Texas A&M or another team a path into the semifinals, the only potential quarrel may arise from Ohio State's candidacy despite playing only six games.
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The 2020 season has seen an equally unique shift in the race for the Heisman Trophy, which in contrast to the playoff is more undefined and uncertain heading into the conclusion of the regular season than at any point in recent history.
With four players at the front of a jumbled pack of contenders — and with all four in action Saturday, including in a head-to-head matchup — the weekend's largest source of drama stems from the pursuit of college football's most prized individual award.
Who will win the Heisman?
Two of the favorites come from the same team, Alabama. A largely unknown commodity heading into the season, quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for 27 touchdowns and leads the Bowl Subdivision in yards per attempt (11.2) and efficiency rating (203.9) while starting for the unquestioned favorite for the national championship.
His teammate, wide receiver DeVonta Smith, has gathered steam as a Heisman contender by pulling in 83 receptions for 1,327 yards and 17 total touchdowns. Smith has been at his best against Alabama's biggest rivals, with a combined 26 catches for 569 yards and seven scores in wins against Georgia, Auburn and LSU.
Not since 1991 and only three times since 1950 has a player primarily used as wide receiver won the Heisman, and only three non-quarterbacks have done so since 2000.
There have been seven instances of teammates being selected as Heisman finalists in the same year, including as recently as last season, when quarterback Justin Fields and defensive end Chase Young of Ohio State finished in the top four.
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask's candidacy was dinged by the Gators' unexpected loss last weekend to LSU. Still, the senior leads the FBS by a wide margin with 40 touchdown passes and has matched the statistical pace set last season by former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman by the largest margin in history.
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask hopes to lead his team to an upset of the undefeated Crimson Tide on Saturday. (Photo: Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports)
"I think he's had a great year, and I know that certainly it excites Florida fans," said Florida coach Dan Mullen. "I know they've enjoyed the points that we've put up this year."
Jones and Trask share similar paths to Heisman contention: Both players were either overlooked or outright ignored as recruits — Jones was part of the same signing class as former Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa while Florida was Trask's only scholarship offer — and spent several years in backup roles before taking over last season in the wake of injuries to an established starter.
"We've had to overcome some obstacles throughout our careers," Trask said. "We both came to big-time football schools. Now we're having the opportunity to play against each other, which is really cool."
The consensus favorite from the end of last season until missing two games after contracting COVID-19, including the overtime loss to Notre Dame, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has the opportunity to surge back to frontrunner status by leading the Tigers past the Fighting Irish and back into the playoff for the sixth consecutive year.
“I'd say he’s your Heisman Trophy guy,” said Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers lost 52-17 to Clemson on Nov. 28, with Lawrence throwing for 403 yards and two touchdowns in his first game in more than a month.
"We’re in a pandemic and he shouldn’t lose any votes for Heisman because he didn’t play in a couple games because of COVID. It wasn’t like he made a bad decision and got whacked in the backfield and went down and threw a pick at the same time. His play on the field speaks for itself.”
Winning the Heisman is "really not the biggest deal to me," Lawrence said.
“I’ve never been one to really care that much about awards. It would be an honor to be in the running for the Heisman, but honestly, if I don’t win it, the world’s not going to stop.”
According to the most recent USA TODAY Network survey of 22 Heisman voters, Jones leads with 15 first-place votes and 52 overall points. Smith went from fourth in the previous survey to second, with five first-place votes and 27 points, while Trask dropped from first to third, with just a single first-place vote. Lawrence is in fourth with 13 points.
The voting deadline for this year's Heisman was moved to Dec. 21 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The trophy will be awarded in a virtual ceremony on Jan. 5, with the finalists appearing via satellite. (The number of finalists typically ranges from three to as many as five and is determined by the final vote totals.)
It's not uncommon to have two players go down to the wire in the Heisman race. The competition in 2018 between Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Tagovailoa wasn't settled until championship weekend, when Murray pulled ahead. Baylor's Robert Griffin III and Stanford's Andrew Luck were separated by just 280 points in 2011, and roughly 300 points separated Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M from Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o the following season.
Three contenders split the vote in 2008 and 2004. Nebraska's Eric Crouch's 62-point advantage on Florida's Rex Grossman in 2001 is the fifth-closest Heisman; even his 132-point edge over Miami (Fla.) quarterback Ken Dorsey in third is smaller than any margin of victory in the past decade.
To have four neck-and-neck contenders this late in the regular season is mirrored by the 2009 race, which resulted in the closest voting in Heisman history — Alabama's Mark Ingram (1,304 points) narrowly edged out Stanford's Toby Gerhart (1,276), Texas's Colt McCoy (1,145) and Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh (815).
The 2009 voting was heavily influenced by conference championships. Stanford missed out on the Pac-10 championship game after losing to rival California. Suh's dominant performance in a narrow loss to Texas in the Big 12 championship boosted his case at McCoy's expense. Ingram ran for 113 yards and three touchdowns in leading Alabama past Florida for the SEC championship to become the first Heisman winner in program history.
As in 2009, this weekend should determine the Heisman winner. Regardless of his own performance, a Florida loss to Alabama would drop Trask from contention. On the other hand, an upset could move Trask back into the lead and eliminate Jones, who would then become the second choice among SEC quarterbacks.
And while Lawrence's quiet Heisman campaign has rested on the perception that he's simply the best player in the country — and perhaps the most anticipated quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning — that could change against Notre Dame, should Lawrence mean the difference in the Tigers' reversal of last month's overtime loss.
"I don’t really care what anybody says, and there’s a lot of great players out there, but the best player in the country is Trevor Lawrence. That’s just the way it is,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "He doesn’t need to win the Heisman for that to be the case. Most logical people out there know that. That’s why he’ll be the first pick in the draft, and it won’t be close.”
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