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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The Heisman Race Heats Up

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College football’s most prized award may no longer be Lamar Jackson’s to lose.

Oklahoma v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

After electrifying the nation through the first two months of the season, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson’s recent stumbles against Houston and Kentucky have suddenly opened up this season’s Heisman race for other candidates, including OU’s Baker Mayfield and possibly Dede Westbrook, to steal away the prize. Even though Jackson has put up eye-popping stats all season and will likely head to New York on December 10 still the front-runner for the college game’s most prestigious honor, his and the Cardinals’ performances over the last few weeks have cast some doubt on his seeming invincibility and have made things interesting before conference-championship Saturday arrives next week.

Jackson followed up the Houston game that knocked Louisville out of playoff contention with a perplexing 41-38 home loss against Mark Stoops and in-state rival Kentucky, a game in which the quarterback was responsible for four turnovers including a late fumble that led to the game-winning field goal for the Wildcats. To be fair, though one of Jackson’s three interceptions was his fault on an under-thrown deep pass the other two (tipped ball, end-of-game Hail Mary) could be forgiven.

The fumble in the red zone was much more costly and though Kentucky shredded Louisville’s defense, Jackson took the blame for this loss as a Heisman Trophy that was his to lose for nearly three months might now be in possible jeopardy. Despite passing for 281 yards and two touchdowns and rushing 25 times for 171 yards and two more scores against Kentucky, the dynamic sophomore for the second week in a row had as many turnovers as touchdowns — this time against a dismal Wildcats defense — and has failed to carry his team through the most crucial stretch of the season. Since Heisman trophies aren’t won in September and October, a few other candidates now have the stage set to not just compete for second through fifth place as it appeared to be just a week ago, but to perhaps actually sneak away with the award next month.

Entering Week 13:

Jackson, who finished the season with 3,390 yards and 30 passing touchdowns and 1,538 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns, was way out in front of the field last week (Vegas even took the Heisman race off the board since Jackson was so far ahead). But the other contenders now suddenly have newfound hope. Though J.T. Barrett led his Buckeyes to hard-fought victory over No. 3 Michigan in Columbus on Saturday, he failed to impress on numerous throws and doesn’t quite have the numbers through the entire season to stack up against fellow quarterbacks Mayfield or Washington’s Jake Browning, who had another solid outing in the Apple Cup (21-of-29 for 292 yards and 3 touchdowns).

Michigan’s do-everything sensation Jabrill Peppers had another solid game against the rival Buckeyes but is still a long shot to win as a defensive player, especially with numerous standout skill players putting up explosive numbers and still in contention for a New Year’s Six Bowl game. The Heisman race always comes down who had the biggest moment on the big stage and at the right time of the season. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson will have that stage next weekend in the ACC Championship, but he and his Tigers team haven’t looked nearly as impressive as they did last season when the dual-threat quarterback made the trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. A big performance against Virginia Tech in Orlando could hoist him right back near the top of the field, as Watson did play well and won against Lamar Jackson’s Cardinals in October.

But Mayfield, Westbrook and the Sooners have been on a roll, and their leadership and productivity have been even more paramount in a season full of such epic defensive struggles. As the 2016 Sooners have once again leaned heavily on the run, Mayfield has been on an absolute tear through OU’s last eight games and could finally earn the Heisman invite many felt he deserved last season with a big showing at home against rival Oklahoma State.

We all know the Heisman Trophy is a quarterback or running back’s award and Westbrook, though a prolific game breaker, is an outside shot as a wide receiver but could still continue to earn votes and be in the conversation as he looks to seal up the Biletnikoff. It could also be argued that voters may wish to avoid having teammates competing for the award and point to Mayfield as the bigger reason for OU’s resurgence and still being in contention for a conference title and possible playoff berth.

As the Louisville signal caller still sits atop the Heisman leaderboard for now, a race that seemed all but decided just days ago has now become much more intriguing than Lamar Jackson would’ve ever liked or imagined.