Dillon Gabriel’s path to Heisman glory: more big stats, more OU wins

Dillon Gabriel’s path to Heisman glory: more big stats, more OU wins

Jenni Carlson: Dillon Gabriel has charged into the Heisman race, but does OU's quarterback have a shot after not being a candidate to start the season?

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Oct 19, 2023, 3:00pm CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Oct 19, 2023, 3:00pm CDT

NORMAN — Dillon Gabriel is different from the past few Sooners in the Heisman Trophy race.

The seasons in which Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts became Heisman finalists, they started the year as contenders. Everyone knew they’d be in the running. Winning? That wasn’t a for sure, but each of those three OU quarterbacks was in the field from the jump.

Not Gabriel.

Oh, I suspect you could’ve gone to Vegas before the season and put down money on Gabriel winning the Heisman, but realistically, he was way down on the list of possibilities. 

Not anymore.

The Sooner quarterback has vaulted toward the front of the pack. Check any Heisman straw poll, and you’ll see Gabriel in everyone’s top five if not top three. It’s because of how he and the Sooners have played. They’ve been superb, and with a remaining regular-season schedule that is short on top-10 (or even top-25) opponents, starting with UCF on Saturday, Gabriel has a great opportunity to add to his Heisman case.

What might it take for him to win the hardware?

Let’s break it down by category.

Stellar stats: Gabriel’s numbers are among the best in the country. He’s thrown for 1,878 yards, 16 touchdowns and two interceptions in six games. Plus, he’s rushed for another 208 yards and five touchdowns.

All of that’s on par with the other Heisman frontrunners.

  • Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.: 2,301 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, three interceptions in six games.
  • Florida State’s Jordan Travis: 1,482 passing yards, 13 TDs, one INT in six games plus 114 rushing yards and four TDs.
  • LSU’s Jayden Daniels: 2,294 passing yards, 22 TDs, three INTs in seven games plus 515 rushing yards and four TDs.
  • Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy: 1,512 passing yards, 14 TDs, three INTs in seven games plus 160 rushing yards and three TDs.
  • North Carolina’s Drake Maye: 1,902 passing yards, 12 TDs, four INTs in six games plus 184 rushing yards and four TDs.
  • Oregon’s Bo Nix: 1,796 passing yards, 17 TDs, two INTs in six games.
  • Southern Cal’s Caleb Williams: 2,021 passing yards, 23 TDs, four INTs in seven games plus 116 rushing yards and six TDs.

Gabriel doesn’t need to finish with the most passing yards or the best touchdown-to-interception ratio to win the Heisman, but considering the teams left on the Sooners’ schedule — none of the final six are currently ranked in the top 25 — he would do well to beef up those already big numbers. 

Speaking of that remaining schedule … 

Team success: Because the Heisman tilts heavily toward quarterbacks — all but four winners since the turn of the century have been signal callers — how their team fares is important. 

We saw evidence of that a week ago when Williams and the Trojans got beat down by Notre Dame. Sure, Williams had arguably his worst day as a college quarterback, throwing three interceptions and for only 199 yards. But he did little to help his team’s cause, throwing those picks in the first half and helping the Fighting Irish get out to a 24-6 halftime lead in an eventual 48-20 blowout.

Williams’ Heisman chances may already be toast, but if the Trojans keep losing, he’s surely cooked.

Gabriel has no such problem. And considering the remainder of the regular-season schedule for the Sooners, going undefeated is not only likely but also a possible must for Gabriel to win the Heisman. Even if a potential loss could be pinned squarely elsewhere, a regular-season blemish to an unranked team is probably fatal to his Heisman hopes.

Now, Heisman ballots are due this year on Dec. 4, the Monday after conference championship games. If OU goes undefeated, makes the Big 12 title game and wins it, that would certainly boost Gabriel’s chances even more.

(In the title game, if OU were to beat Texas again, all the better for Gabriel.)

But his performance in a potential Big 12 title game appearance wouldn’t be a be-all, end-all. That’s because some Heisman voters send ballots at the end of the regular season, not after the conference title games. The thinking is that some candidates won’t play in a title game, so measure all the candidates on regular-season performance alone.

Good for Gabriel: He’s got a chance to make an extremely strong case in the regular season.

Heisman moment: Check. Gabriel already took care of this one against Texas. Leading the Sooners on a game-winning drive in the final 1:17 of the game and throwing the game-winning touchdown with only 15 seconds remaining is the stuff of legend.

That he did it with no timeouts?

Even more impressive.

Penix already has his Heisman moment, too. He led Washington on a game-winning drive late in the game against Oregon this past weekend, getting the ball near midfield with 2:11 left and no timeouts. He threw the game-winning 18-yard touchdown with 1:38 left.

Great backstory: Gabriel’s got one. And it has nothing to do with the Group of Five quarterback transferring to a Power Five program. Frankly, all but a couple of the Heisman front-runners are transfers, so that is routine.

Gabriel, though, overcame a season-ending broken clavicle two years ago. He suffered the injury on the final play of the third game of the season. 

Remember, he was at UCF then, nearly 5,000 miles from his home in Hawaii.

That’s some tough stuff. Overcoming that level of adversity, not to mention a concussion and a 6-7 record a year ago at OU, isn’t the thing that wins a Heisman, but it adds layers to Gabriel’s journey. 

Outside help: This is the one area where Gabriel not being much of a candidate to start the season might hurt him. He’s having to come from behind, and that means he’s got lots of ground to make up on some of these guys.

If a couple of them lost games or threw three picks in a game, it wouldn’t hurt his chances.

Then again, coming from behind to win the Heisman isn’t unprecedented. Not only has it been done; it’s been done by an OU quarterback.

Jason White was off the Heisman radar when the 2003 season began. Returning from a second torn knee, whether he’d make it through the season was the biggest story swirling around him.

But when OU went to Alabama in the second week of the season and White had a couple of cross-country touchdown passes in a 20-13 victory, he popped onto a few straw polls. More wins, big numbers and big plays followed.

Three months later, White beat out Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning to win the Heisman.

Still, coming from nowhere to become a Heisman finalist, much less a Heisman winner, is difficult. You must get yourself in the race, make up serious ground, then keep pace with everyone else.

What Dillon Gabriel needs to do is difficult.

It’s not impossible.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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