By BRETT MARTEL
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Another high stakes tilt between LSU and Alabama could once again prove pivotal in Heisman Trophy voting.
While the winner of the game will have an inside track to the College Football Playoff, the matchup also features top Heisman hopefuls at the same position for the second time in five seasons.
In 2015, the focus was on star tailbacks Derrick Henry for Alabama and LSU’s Leonard Fournette. Now it’ll be on the quarterbacks — the Tide’s Tua Tagovailoa and Tigers’ Joe Burrow.
“The one that plays the best and wins the game should have a shot to win it,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said.
Henry knows how much the game can impact the Heisman. LSU arrived in Tuscaloosa unbeaten and ranked fourth in 2015, while one-loss Alabama was No. 7.
“That game I wasn’t really focused on the Heisman,” said Henry, who ultimately won it. “They were undefeated. We had one loss. They were coming in with all the momentum, so I really wanted to just go out there and play a good game and let it be a turning point in our season.”
Henry carried 38 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-16 triumph that helped propel the Crimson Tide to a national title. Fournette was limited to 31 yards and one TD on 19 carries.
Heisman voter Rece Davis, the host of ESPN’s College GameDay, remembers how that matchup swayed him.
“It had a big impact because Leonard was, if not the favorite, certainly one of them,” Davis said. “There were a couple things that went into Derrick Henry’s candidacy that year. One was certainly that game and how dominant he was.”
Davis said it would be appropriate for Heisman voters to attach extra emphasis to Saturday’s clash in Tuscaloosa if the winning quarterback plays well.
While the Heisman is awarded to college football’s “most outstanding player,” Davis said, “most outstanding players should shine on brightest stage, right? That’s sort of the history of the award.”
Doug Flutie’s game-ending scramble and 48-yard touchdown heave that lifted Boston College over Miami in 1984, and Desmond Howard’s 93-yard punt return for Michigan against Ohio State in 1991, after which Howard struck the Heisman pose in the end zone, are “just moments you associated with Heisman winners,” Davis said.
Orgeron has been an assistant coach on four teams that have produced Heisman winners, and he has touted Burrow’s candidacy much of this season.
The LSU coach has seen how big games carry weight with Heisman voters.
“I remember (USC QB) Carson Palmer beat Notre Dame in a big game in the end and won the Heisman,” Orgeron said. “It puts you on a national stage and I think it helps you.”
Burrow has completed 205 of 260 passes (78.9 this season for 2,805 yards (350.6 yards per game) and an LSU single-season record 30 touchdowns. Tagovailoa, who has played about a game-and-a-half less than Burrow because of an ankle injury, is 145 for 194 (74.7%) for 2,166 yards (309.43 per game), and 27 TDs. Burrow has been intercepted four times and Tagovailoa twice.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has yet to officially list Tagovailoa as ready to return from his injury, but said he has practiced this week and is doing well. When Orgeron was asked if he expects Tagovailoa to play, he smiled and said, “Sure!”
Burrow said he hears the Heisman hype he’s generated and cares about the award, but won’t sacrifice team goals for it.
“It was a goal when I was little. Not so much a goal now. I’d rather have a big fat ring on my hand. But, I mean, it does cross your mind,” Burrow said earlier this season, adding that winning big games “are the kind of games you need to get there and get to where we want to get to as a team.”
Davis said Burrow enters Saturday as the top Heisman candidate, but only by a slight margin over Tagovailoa and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young (13 ½ sacks, five forced fumbles). Also in the mix is Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins (1,110 yards and nine TDs rushing, 132 yards and two TDs receiving).
Davis said Burrow is benefiting from how well he has run LSU’s new spread offense.
Orgeron asserted Burrow “has all the makings of an outstanding pro,” adding, “I do believe he’s as good for sure, or better, than the quarterback we’re playing. But the only way to answer that is on the field.”
On the flip side, Davis said, Tagovailoa could be a victim of his own success.
“People started complaining about him throwing slants all the time. It’s ridiculous,” Davis said. “So, a guy that’s been in the forefront like that, every little issue, even if it’s not a real issue, gets magnified.”
LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who’s from Baton Rouge, remembers how the 2015 game hindered Fournette’s Heisman candidacy. He has mixed feelings on how much influence one game should really have.
“If Joe goes out there and plays a good game, you can’t just say, ‘Well, if it didn’t swing our way, he shouldn’t win the Heisman,’” Edwards-Helaire said. “Right now, he’s playing like the best player in college football. I don’t think it should be dictated by a game.”
Even if one game doesn’t determine the Heisman, Saturday’s showdown is bound to have a huge impact.
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.