Voters across the country are used to cutting through inequities when casting their ballot for the Heisman Trophy.
Some teams face tougher schedules each season, some catch lucky or unfortunate breaks with injuries, and so on. But Heisman voters are tasked with taking each standout player’s resume, grading it and making their choice for college football’s top on-field award.
The COVID-19 pandemic amplified these imbalances. Most players didn’t play the same number of games, only played within their conference or missed time due to the virus.
But Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith stood above the rest and claimed the Heisman on Tuesday, making him the first wide receiver to do so since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. He’s the third Alabama player under Nick Saban to win the award after running backs Mark Ingram (2009) and Derrick Henry (2015).
Smith has 105 catches for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns entering the College Football Playoff championship game. Smith had 98 receptions for 1,511 yards and 17 scores when Heisman voters had to submit their choices, but he affirmed the choices of those who voted for him with seven catches for 130 yards and three TDs against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.
Smith had three games without a receiving touchdown; he had seven with multiple receiving touchdowns.
The State Journal’s two Heisman voters — Jim Polzin and I — both voted for Smith.
Alabama’s offense had three players who finished in the top 10 of Heisman voting in Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris. Some voters might’ve held that collection of talent against those players, with the thought process being that having that many good players diminishes the individual accomplishments.
But in Smith was able to overcome that mindset with a stellar year-long performance.
Here’s my reasoning behind my ballot, and some thoughts on players who didn’t quite make my top three.
1. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Defenses could turn their focus to slowing down Smith when fellow Crimson Tide wide receiver Jaylen Waddle suffered a season-ending broken ankle Oct. 24. But that still didn’t work.
Smith had six of his multiple TD games after Waddle’s injury and surpassed 130 yards receiving in eight games this season.
With elite play-making skills and the ability to consistently beat defenders down the field, he made life easy for Jones and the Alabama offense. It takes a spectacular season from a position player to wrangle the Heisman from the quarterbacks, and Smith’s was just that.
2. Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
The Gators were the only team to keep a game within one score against Alabama when they fell 52-46 in the SEC title game. Trask had four touchdowns in that game to help Florida keep it close.
Trask led the nation in passing yards (4,283) and passing touchdowns (43) this season, and he once was considered a front-runner for the Heisman.
However, I felt Smith was more impactful and Trask’s performance against unranked LSU — 29 of 47 for 474 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in a 37-34 loss at home — essentially ended the debate in my mind.
3. Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Jones is the quarterback for the undisputed top-ranked team in the nation, which is typical a strong formula for Heisman consideration. Jones also has the stats to back up it. He finished in the top five of key passing statistics — efficiency (203.03, first), completion percentage (77%, first), yards (4,036, second) and touchdowns (36, second).
It honestly was coin flip to me between Jones and Trask for the No. 2 spot, and Trask only got the nod for the touchdowns. Jones probably could’ve surpassed Trask’s statistics if the Crimson Tide weren’t also feeding a stellar RB in Harris, so I’m probably wrong not making Jones my No. 2 pick.
He might not win the Heisman, but Jones and Alabama are 7-point favorites over Ohio State in the CFP title game, so he might end up with the hardware that really matters.
Almost made the ballot
4. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson
Lawrence wins by a landslide if the Heisman was just about being the consensus best pro prospect. Lawrence also wins if it was a college career achievement award.
But it’s a single-season award and it’s about who had the best season in college football. Lawrence was his usual, great self, but his season didn’t match that of Trask or Jones.
I say all of that knowing full well the Tigers could’ve padded his stats but chose not to.
5. Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris was the best running back I watched this season. Running behind multiple NFL-caliber offensive linemen definitely helps, but he plays off those blocks with hard running and excellent vision.
Harris is making my ballot most other years.
6. Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Fields didn’t play in enough games to register the statistics needed to be truly considered. But he was third on my ballot last season and one of my favorite players to watch in college football.
Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State: He led the nation in rushing yards (1,572) and had 21 TDs, but his campaign got doomed by the losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida: Pitts was unbelievable in the early portion of the season and finished with 12 TDs, but he missed too much time due to injury this season.
Zach Wilson, QB, BYU: He's absolutely electric to watch, with stats near the top of the FBS, but a weak schedule and loss at Coastal Carolina took him out of the running for me.