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Winning Heisman has a downside

The Oklahoma football history is filled with celebratory moments and historic accomplishments. That includes the second most Heisman Trophy recipients.

For the third consecutive year, a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners will be in New York City this week as a finalist at the annual Heisman presentation ceremony. Three OU quarterbacks have been awarded the Heisman in the last 14 years, and Sooner fans are hoping that Kyler Murray will become the fourth this century and the school’s seventh overall, tying Oklahoma with Ohio State and Notre Dame for the most Heisman winners.

As gratifying and incredibly special it is to be voted into the select club of Heisman winners, it does come with an apparent downside. At least that has been the experience of the last three Sooner quarterbacks to be so honored.

Jason White won the Heisman Trophy in 2003, Oklahoma’s first Heisman winner since 1978, when Billy Sims became the third player in OU football history to win the prestigious award. White led the top-ranked Sooners to a 12-0 regular-season record before losing to Kansas State by a decisive 28-point margin in the Big 12 Championship game.

Despite the loss to K-State in the conference championship game, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) formula for determining the two teams that would play for the national championship dropped the Sooners just one spot, from No. 1 to No. 2 in the rankings, thus sending OU to the BCS Championship that season to face No. 1 LSU. That decision fueled a giant controversy, one that exists still today, about teams that don’t win their conference championship playing for the national championship.

The 2003 Heisman winner did not have a good outing in OU’s BCS National Championship game against LSU. Playing in front of what was largely an LSU home crowd in the Sugar Bowl, in chat is now named the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, White completed just 13 of 37 passes for a mere 102 yards and two interceptions. The Sooners lost 21-14. An Oklahoma player won the Heisman that year, but the Sooners came up short in their bid for the national championship.

In 2008, it was deja vul all over again, as the legendary baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra would say. Sam Bradford led OU to a 12-1 record that season, the lone loss coming, ironically, in the Sooners’ midseason rivalry game with Texas.

Sounding much like the explosive 2018 Oklahoma offense, Bradford’s Sooners set a new NCAA record in 2008 for points scored and Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency and touchdowns, was third nationally in passing yards and set numerous school passing records.

Bradford won the Heisman in 2008 in a close three-way battle with Colt McCoy of Texas and reigning Heisman winner Tim Tebow of Florida. The Oklahoma All-American quarterback and 2008 Associated Press Player of the Year would come face-to-face with Tebow one more time that season, in the BCS National Championship game in the Orange Bowl, where the second-ranked Sooners were matched up against Tebow and top-ranked Florida.

Bradford passed for 256 yards and two touchdown, but he also was intercepted twice as Tebow and the Gators broke a 7-7 halftime tie, outscoring OU 17-7 in the second half and foiling the Sooners’ bid for an eighth national title.

A Heisman-winning Oklahoma quarterback suffered a similar fate last season. Baker Mayfield was a landslide winner of college football’s top award one year ago, and the Sooners were the No. 2 seed in the 2017 College Football Playoff.

Mayfield had the high-scoring OU offense rolling in the opening half of the Sooners’ national semifinal contest against No. 3 Georgia. Oklahoma led 31-17 at the half, but Georgia got its footing, both literally and figuratively, in the second half, eventually forging a tie in regulation and winning 54-48 in double overtime. One more time, an Oklahoma quarterback had captured the Heisman, only to lose in a championship setting in the very next game after receiving the award.

The so-called Heisman curse did work in Oklahoma’s favor, though, in its 2000 national championship season. Josh Heupel, the OU starting quarterback in 2000, was the runner-up in the Heisman voting that season, losing out to Florida State quarterback Chris Wenke.

As fate would have it, Florida State was top-ranked Oklahoma’s opponent in that season’s BCS national championship and a chance for Heupel to avenge his Heisman setback by leading the Sooners to a national title and their first undefeated season since 1974.

The Sooners were undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country, but the Las Vegas sports books had ten as underdogs to No. 3 Florida State.

Heupel outdueled his Florida State counterpart, and a smothering Sooner defense forced Wenke into numerous mistakes, including two pass interceptions, as Oklahoma made 13 points stand up for a low-scoring 13-2 victory over the favored Seminoles.

This brings us around to this year’s Heisman award coming up on Saturday. Whichever way it goes, we are virtually assured of having the winner and the first runner-up face each other when Oklahoma and Alabama square off in the second game of the national semifinal Playoff doubleheader on Dec. 29.

After last weekend’s conference championship games, a number of media reports around the country had Murray gaining favor in the Heisman voting, and some mock polls had him taking the lead over Alabama’s Tagovailoa. Whether that is a good or a bad thing as far as the Sooners chances against top-seeded Alabama in the Playoff matchup is something we’ll have to wait to find out.

Something tells me, though, that winning the Heisman would only be another box checked off on Murray’s bucket list in returning for one final season of college football after signing a $4.7 million professional baseball contract with the Oakland A’s last spring. In Murray’s mind, the list would not be complete unless Oklahoma wins the national championship.

To be brutally candid, the chances that Murray will win the Heisman are considerably higher than Oklahoma’s chances of running the table in this year’s College Football Playoff. Tell you what, let’s win the former, and then we can turn our collective attention to the latter.

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