Deciding between Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith for the Heisman Trophy was a tough debate.
Determining “most outstanding” took on an entirely new dynamic in a season where unbalanced schedules, a lack of non-conference games and disruptions were the norm.
How do you judge, for example, a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite in Ohio State’s Justin Fields, whose conference’s stop/start/abbreviated schedule had him playing nearly half the number of games of those from the ACC and SEC? Missing multiple games had basically been a death knell, but amid a global pandemic, was it time to overlook that given how dominant Clemson was when Trevor Lawrence was at the controls? What of Florida’s Kyle Trask, whose numbers dwarfed the rest of the nation’s quarterbacks, but who came up short when it mattered most?
And then there’s the debate that shaped one of the toughest decisions in my 13 years as a Heisman voter: weighing who to get behind when the two best candidates are a quarterback and a wide receiver playing for the same team.
It all added up to a strange, unprecedented and difficult vote. Here’s how I filled out my ballot for the 86th Heisman Trophy.
1. Mac Jones, Alabama, QB
In a decade-plus of voting, I’ve turned in one ballot in which the eventual winner wasn’t my pick. That came in 2008, when I had Tim Tebow at No. 1, only to see the Florida quarterback finish third despite earning the most first-place votes of any player that year, and the most for any player who didn’t go on to claim the award.
The momentum building around Mac Jones’ top target, DeVonta Smith, was making a repeat of that ’08 ballot inevitable, even if history had taught us otherwise. No pass-catcher had ever beaten out a viable contender at quarterback – Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell finished ahead of receiver Michael Crabtree in ’08 and in 2016, Dede Westbrook was fourth to Baker Mayfield’s third – and Jones had become the Las Vegas favorite after Lawrence sat out two games. Smith was spectacular — which we’ll get into — but Jones picked up the mantle from Tua Tagovailoa and was better than his predecessor.
Say he’s a byproduct of the endless weapons around him, but in Jones’ first full year as the starter, he’s in line to set the single-season pass efficiency record (203.9) held by Tagovailoa (199.4) in 2018 and reset by Joe Burrow (202) last season and averaged 423.3 passing yards vs. Top 25 opponents, 43 more than anyone who played multiple games against ranked teams.
2. DeVonta Smith, Alabama, receiver
Smith’s jaw-dropping, one-handed grab against LSU stood as his Heisman moment and underscored an insane level of production for the senior wide receiver after the Crimson Tide lost Jaylen Waddle to an ankle injury on the opening kickoff against Tennessee on Oct. 24.
Averaging 120.8 yards per game before Waddle went down, Smith improved to 157.5 ypg in November and 145.7 in December en route to leading the nation with 98 catches and 1,511 yards and ranking second with 17 scores. He’s been responsible for 40.4 percent of Jones’ total production through the air, with the brunt of that coming with teams able to provide extra defensive attention without Waddle in the fold, which can be the foundation of an argument for Smith, not against him.
But Jones had seven different receivers with at least 23 catches, more than any other quarterback in the top 10 in this year’s voting. While Smith was dynamic and explosive and deserving of the Heisman, Jones made the nation’s best offense go, giving him the nod in my eyes over Smith.
3. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson, quarterback
Maybe the toughest spot on the ballot to fill out, this would have been very different had the decision came after the College Football Playoff semifinals. But with the Heisman Trust holding firm to not allowing anything past the regular season to influence votes, Field was coming off so-so performances vs. Indiana and Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. Alabama’s Najee Harris — with a five-touchdown day vs. Florida — delivered a statement of a final salvo before ballots were due, and Trask built on his monster numbers with 408 yards and three touchdowns vs. the Crimson Tide, but Lawrence was my pick here.
Lawrence lit up Notre Dame with 412 yards and three touchdowns to avenge the Tigers’ lone loss that came while he was out with COVID-19 and put them back in the playoff. Against Power 5 opponents, Lawrence averaged more yards (349.3) than Jones or Fields and while those two missed games hurt, he didn’t have a setback game as Trask did against a horrible LSU defense that cost the Gators a shot at the College Football Playoff.