2018 Heisman Trophy race: A refreshingly difficult decision in an era of runaway candidates

Monday afternoon, many former players, analysts and reporters -- myself included -- stared at computer screens like they were menus at a fine steakhouse. The deadline for submitting three votes for the Heisman Trophy was 5 p.m. ET, and choosing who to put in the No. 1 spot was like choosing which $50 steak you want. There is no wrong answer.

Saturday night in New York City, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray or Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins will hoist the most prestigious individual award in American sports. This year's winner isn't a foregone conclusion, which is a rare occurrence these days.

The gap between first and second place contenders has been below 300 total points just twice this decade -- 2011 when Robert Griffin III topped Andrew Luck 1,687-1,407, and 2015 when Derrick Henry edged Christian McCaffrey 1,832-1,539.

All three finalists this year produced historic seasons.

Tagovailoa revolutionized Alabama's offense to a point where the first-teamers could take seats on the bench by the fourth quarter and gave way to backups that undoubtedly benefitted from real game experience. Running back Damien Harris said this week that the goal coming into the season was to make the Crimson Tide offense as feared as their defense. Tagovailoa completed that mission. The Tide offense is averaging 527.6 yards per game -- 43.1 yards per game more than the most productive offensive season in Alabama history (2014). Tagovailoa has a passer rating of 202.3, and is on pace to break former Oklahoma quarterback and 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield's all-time single-season efficiency record (198.92).

The problem is that Murray is too. With a rating of 205.72 heading into the College Football Playoff, his season is unquestionably more valuable to his team considering the lack of depth the Sooners have at quarterback compared to Alabama, and the pressure Murray faces to score on every drive due to the putrid Sooner defense. Throw in the added pressure of Murray's future as a member of the Oakland A's organization, and it's reasonable to say that he has had one of the most remarkable seasons in college football history.

Then there's Haskins. He didn't draw the same spotlight that the other two finalists dealt with all season, but he's the primary reason the Buckeyes navigated through a tumultuous season, won the Big Ten and nearly earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. He finished the regular season as the nation's top passer with 4,580 yards, 47 touchdown passes and 51 total touchdowns -- all single-season Big Ten records. 

As the deadline approached, I was conflicted. It took me all of one minute to submit my ballot in previous years. But looking at the seasons of the top contenders this year made it difficult to press "send." Every time I typed in a name for my first place vote, it felt like the ghosts of the other two players hovered over my shoulders and said "don't do it." So I'd delete it, start over again and feel the same apprehension the next time I thought I had made my decision. I imagine other voters feel the same way.

When the Heisman Trust announces its winner on Saturday night, he will join an elite fraternity of some of the best players in college football history. The other two won't go through that initiation process, but will forever be recognized for the title they did earn in 2018.


College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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