In this case of limited games, Lawrence’s season has two holes in it, the weeks of Oct. 31 and Nov. 7, when he sat out in coronavirus hiatus. The body of 2020 work does not quite match that of the other best player in college football, extraordinary Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith. (If this thing winds up improbably in Smith’s hands, then bravo for the depth of thinking, and rest assured Smith wouldn’t drop it even if they heaved it over his head and he had to lunge with one hand to receive it.)
It does not match Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, with his celestial 202.35 passer rating and his 32-4 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio. It does not match BYU quarterback Zach Wilson — 196.44, 33-3 — even as Wilson’s superbness could make you yearn to have seen him master BYU’s original schedule, which brimmed with Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford. And while we’re such a thoughtless people that we so often just go ahead and shovel these things to quarterbacks — Where are the defenders? Defense is important! — Lawrence’s season probably does not quite match that great story at Florida, quarterback Kyle Trask — 186.65, 43-5 — even given Florida’s coughed-up hairball on Dec. 12 against LSU. Trask is a Heisman finalist, along with Jones, Smith and Lawrence.
Lawrence has a 172.68 rating, 2,753 passing yards (beneath the gaudier numbers of the others), 22-4 on the touchdowns-to-interceptions measurement so crucial to life in American college towns. His rating ranks 11th (with Jones first and Wilson second). He seems unlikely to get the award, but giving him the award could rest upon three worthwhile factors.
In the alleged game of the year last Saturday against Notre Dame, Lawrence was enough of a marvel to seem transcendent, evolutionary, a force floating somewhere above this lone season to hover above a raft of seasons. From the throws to the reads to the runs, it looked like some of the highest college-quarterbacking art yet seen, a distinction the others don’t quite have. It was beautiful and breathtaking against a top-tier defense that, among other things, had throttled a great North Carolina offense to 298 yards. Lawrence accounted for 412 total yards.
Then, from within those 412, pick out the element that distinguishes Lawrence among the quarterbacks (with Wilson next-best): his rushing threat. “It’s the difference-maker,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. “His ability to run really stresses the coverage calls. It stresses a lot of things that you do in terms of your fits.”
Even given our long national crisis in which college football factors sacks into a quarterback’s rushing yardage — a crisis the nation somehow has survived — Lawrence has rushed 58 times this year for 211 yards. He ran 14 times for 90 against Notre Dame at the utmost stage of the year. He ran 16 times for 107 last December in the Fiesta Bowl national semifinal against Ohio State, including a 67-yard touchdown stomp still ricocheting through the brain because of its astonishing quality.
That run, of course, came two weeks after the 2019 Heisman Trophy went to Joe Burrow, and that’s where we get into the lifetime-achievement bit. Lifetime achievement had no place in 2019, with Burrow soaring over that season to such a degree that he got 841 first-place votes, 821 more than the next-highest total (which went to a defender who thus never would have won but would have been deserving in almost any year: Chase Young).
Here in 2020, we’re floating through the murkier. It’s time to remember that between 1959 and 1983, the Academy Awards nominated Newman for best actor six times — for masterstrokes such as “The Hustler,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Verdict” — before going ahead and blushing and choosing him in 1987 for “The Color Of Money.” Between 1972 and 1992, it nominated Pacino six times — two “Godfather” turns in there — before going wait a minute in 1993 for “Scent Of A Woman.” It did choose Streep twice early on, including in 1983 for one of the best performances in human history — “Sophie’s Choice” — but then waited 29 years through all manner of stunning quality to do it again for something merely dazzling in “The Iron Lady.” People don’t agree on anything, but absolutely everybody with any interest agrees those three performances don’t make those three actors’ top fives.
So Lawrence’s season isn’t the best of his three, but it’s an incomplete and misshapen national season. Tack it onto his two other years, and there’s a level of an excellence pretty close to spotless carried out through three seasons, a 34-1 record as a starter, a national championship, a national runner-up finish and three College Football Playoff berths.
Besides, there’s not quite a Burrow figure, no obvious and booming Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) to thwart Lawrence’s Glenn Close (“The Wife”). That references the 2019 Oscars and reminds that the hazy nature of awards might only deepen our obsession with them.