Bleacher Report College Football Awards for the 2019 Season
The two-week gap between college football's conference championship week and the beginning of bowl games is unofficially "trophy season," and Bleacher Report's experts voted on several awards, ranging from Best Play to Top Assistant Coach, Comeback Player of the Year, Biggest Upset and everything in between.
Five members of Bleacher Report's college football staff—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—voted on the 14 awards. The voters identified the best individuals, games and moments of the year.
Awards are presented in no particular order, though we're pretty much obligated to get things started with the man who is going to win the Heisman.
Spoiler alert: Get ready for much singing of LSU's praises.
Offensive Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, LSU
It was another sensational year for college football quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts and Justin Fields put up Heisman-worthy numbers. Tua Tagovailoa was in that club, too, prior to suffering multiple injuries. And after a bit of a slow start, Trevor Lawrence had himself one hell of a sophomore season.
But how could we go with anyone other than Joe Burrow in this spot?
The runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy for more than a month now, Burrow did not have a single disappointing performance en route to 4,715 passing yards and 48 touchdowns. He completed at least 71 percent of his pass attempts in all 13 games and will enter the College Football Playoff with a TD-INT ratio of 8.0.
The closest thing he had to a dud came against a good Auburn defense, when he merely went 32-of-42 for 321 yards with both a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown.
Not only was Burrow a statistical wunderkind, but he did it against a mighty fine schedule, torching Florida, Alabama and Georgia for a combined total of 10 touchdowns with no picks. And during the less cumbersome portions of LSU's slate, he just obliterated hapless foes like Vanderbilt, Utah State, Georgia Southern and Ole Miss.
And with any luck, his remarkable run will have a storybook ending with a national championship against Ohio State, where he spent three seasons with a team that never deemed him good enough for a starting job.
Defensive Player of the Year: Chase Young, Ohio State
For the second consecutive year, Ohio State entered the season with an edge-rusher listed as the top defensive player on all mock draft boards. But while Nick Bosa lasted just three games before suffering a season-ending injury in 2018, Chase Young looked like a grown man tossing around boys while leading the nation in sacks—despite serving a two-game suspension.
Young was good all year, averaging 1.4 sacks through his first seven games. But it was game No. 8—a 38-7 win over Wisconsin—during which the entire world jumped on the "Chase Young is the best player in the country and should be the No. 1 pick" bandwagon.
And with good reason. The Badgers did everything in their power to slow him down, but to no avail. He had four sacks and forced two fumbles while flustering Jack Coan and limiting Jonathan Taylor to a career-worst 2.6 yards per carry.
The aforementioned suspension came after that game, but he simply used that time off to recharge, coming back with nine tackles, three sacks and two more forced fumbles in a big win over Penn State.
All told, Young racked up 16.5 sacks in 11 games (1.5 per game), becoming the first player to average at least 1.5 sacks per game in more than a decade. Only six other players averaged at least 1.0 this season, none of which did better than 1.17 (14 in 12 games).
Quarterbacks have gone No. 1 in the eight of the past 11 NFL drafts, but Young could follow in the footsteps of Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett by bucking that trend.
Head Coach of the Year: Matt Rhule, Baylor
Per usual, there is no shortage of deserving candidates for head coach of the year. Ryan Day (Ohio State) went undefeated in his first season. P.J. Fleck had us obsessing about Minnesota and boats into late November. And Jim McElwain (Central Michigan) took a team that went 1-11 in 2018 and brought it within a batted-down Hail Mary pass of winning the MAC Championship Game.
But what Matt Rhule has done at Baylor—reviving a program that was deader than dead and mired in scandal just a couple years ago—is impossible to ignore.
In Rhule's first season (2017), the Bears were a 1-11 train wreck. Their only win came against a Kansas team that was winless against FBS competition.
They improved to seven wins last year, but the defense was still a mess, giving up 58 points to West Virginia and 66 to Oklahoma. Getting to (and winning) a bowl game was big, but it seemed there was a lot of work left to do.
Rhule has Baylor firmly back on the national map now, though. The Bears went 11-2 with each of those losses decided by one possession against Oklahoma. They led the Sooners 28-3 in the first game before letting it slip away. They took Oklahoma to overtime in the Big 12 championship but ultimately fell short with their third-string quarterback.
That's how close Rhule came to going 13-0 with a Power Five program that hasn't signed a top-200 recruit since 2015 and which didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll.
Assistant Coach of the Year: Joe Brady, LSU
Is Joe Burrow the reason Joe Brady looks like a genius as LSU's passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, or is Brady the cause of Burrow's success?
Why can't it be both?
Brady spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints, and it sure does seem like he learned a thing or two while working with the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards, Drew Brees.
As you may recall, LSU used to be a run-first team. Just last season, the Tigers averaged 43.3 rushing attempts per game compared to 29.8 passing attempts—and that was a more aerially oriented offense than usual. In 2014, the ratio was 47.8 to 21.2. When they almost won the national championship in 2011, it was 42.2 rushes against 19.9 passes.
But Brady introduced the spread offense to the bayou, resulting in more than 36 pass attempts per game and turning LSU into a team that averaged 47.8 points.
In addition to Burrow's development, Terrace Marshall Jr. (545 yards and 10 touchdowns) took a big step toward fulfilling his 5-star potential and Ja'Marr Chase more than quadrupled his freshman-year numbers in the process of leading the nation in both receiving yards (1,498) and touchdowns (18).
And, wouldn't you know it, the running game improved, too. The Tigers didn't run as often, but it was more effective when they did, improving from 4.01 yards per carry in 2018 to 4.85 this year.
Burrow will be off to the NFL, but both Chase and Marshall need to return for at least one more season. Justin Jefferson (1,207 yards and 14 touchdowns) still has a year of eligibility remaining, too, though we'll see what he decides about the draft. Either way, LSU's passing attack should be special once again with Brady calling the shots.
Senior of the Year and Most Exciting Player of the Year: Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
Yes, both of these awards should probably go to Joe Burrow. However, we wanted to spread the love around. That's also why Hurts ended up not winning our Transfer of the Year award, even though he was an obvious top candidate for it.
The Alabama-turned-Oklahoma quarterback could not have been a more perfect fit for Lincoln Riley's offense, and he proved it early and often. In the season-opening rout of Houston, Hurts threw for three touchdowns, rushed for three touchdowns and had a combined total of 508 yards.
He scored at least three touchdowns in every regular-season game, including throwing one, rushing one and catching one in the Bedlam win over Oklahoma State.
Hurts enters bowl season with a 71.8 completion percentage, 4,914 combined passing, rushing and receiving yards, 51 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Last year's Heisman winner, Kyler Murray, entered the College Football Playoff sitting at 70.9, 4,945, 51 and seven, respectively.
It's like looking into a mirror, no? If not for Burrow, Hurts would be this year's near-unanimous Heisman winner.
Impressive stuff from a young man who bounced back from being forced out of his job by a generational talent. And while his former team watches from home, Hurts will get to play quarterback in the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year.
Freshman of the Year: Derek Stingley Jr., LSU
With an honorable mention to USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and Louisville running back Javian Hawkins, the best, most impactful freshman in college football this year was LSU's cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.
As a whole, the Tigers secondary wasn't anywhere near as good as expected. It wasn't bad, mind you. But in the preseason, I had ranked the LSU secondary as the third-best positional unit in the entire country, behind only Alabama's wide receivers and Clemson's backfield.
Suffice it to say, the Tigers weren't that good, considering both Texas and Alabama threw for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns against them.
Stingley was great, though, and he demonstrated with a pair of interceptions in the SEC Championship Game just how much of a game-changer he can be.
On the first one, he ran stride for stride up the sideline with Tyler Simmons before turning back at the perfect moment to locate the ball for the pick. On the second one, he simply anticipated the out-route pass to D'Andre Swift and jumped it perfectly, almost breaking loose for a touchdown.
He has high-level awareness and ball skills on par with what Minkah Fitzpatrick did for Alabama a few years ago.
With those two interceptions and another pass broken up, Stingley now has 21 passes defended, tied for the second-highest total in the nation. He is already the only freshman with 19 or more passes defended in the past eight years, and by the end of the College Football Playoff, he may become just the third player in the past decade with at least 25.
Best of luck to the rest of the SEC in trying to figure out how to deal with this guy for the next two seasons. You have to believe he'd be a first-round draft pick this year if he was eligible to declare.
Comeback Player of the Year: Shane Buechele, SMU
What a strange fall from grace it was for Shane Buechele at Texas.
In his first game as a true freshman, Buechele threw for 280 yards and accounted for three touchdowns in an overtime upset of No. 10 Notre Dame. The following week, he tossed four touchdowns in a blowout of UTEP. But the Longhorns fell apart from there, fired their head coach and brought in Tom Herman, who wasted little time in promoting his guy (Sam Ehlinger) to the starting job.
Buechele stuck around through his junior year but only saw action in two games. He then transferred down the road to SMU to revitalize both his career and the entire Mustangs football program.
The redshirt junior had a tough, touchdown-less debut against Arkansas State, but he threw for multiple scores in every other game, leading SMU to 10 wins for the first time since 1984.
Of particular note was Buechele's performance against TCU.
In two starts against the Horned Frogs while with Texas, he struggled mightily, completing less than 50 percent of his passes in each contest with just one touchdown between the two games. Texas was held to single digits in both ugly losses. But with the Mustangs, Buechele had a 67.6 completion percentage with three touchdowns in a 41-38 road victory over the No. 25 team in the AP poll.
SMU's first three wins were nice, but that was the moment when we all realized the Mustangs needed to be taken seriously. With the 8-0 start, they climbed all the way to No. 15 in the AP poll before losing to Memphis in a wild 54-48 battle.
Buechele paced the Mustangs to 43.0 points per game, good for sixth in the nation, trailing only Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Clemson and Oklahoma. Perhaps you've heard of those teams. If SMU's defense had been just a little better, Buechele would be playing in the Cotton Bowl.
Transfer of the Year: Justin Fields, Ohio State
Justin Fields' numbers weren't as gaudy as what Jalen Hurts, Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa did. Ohio State's quarterback never threw for more than 305 yards or four touchdowns in a game. While Burrow racked up more than 4,700 passing yards, Fields didn't even eclipse 3,000.
But the Buckeyes sophomore threw for 40 touchdowns, ran for 10 more and only had one interception.
What's more, he was unflappable after his decision to transfer to Columbus left the Ohio State QB depth chart in shambles.
Tate Martell entered the transfer portal less than a week after news broke of Fields choosing the Buckeyes. Matthew Baldwin also left Ohio State after the spring game, leaving the Buckeyes with Fields and scarcely used transfers Chris Chugunov (West Virginia) and Gunnar Hoak (Kentucky).
If Hurts had struggled or suffered an injury at Oklahoma, at least the Sooners had options. Backup sophomore Tanner Mordecai was a 4-star, top-250 overall recruit in 2018. Third-stringer Spencer Rattler was the highest-rated QB in the entire 2019 class. There was pressure on Hurts to play at his best, of course, but Oklahoma would have at least been competitive without him.
If Fields had been a bust, Ohio State was screwed.
Instead, he had one of the most efficient seasons of all time.
Fields became one of just five quarterbacks in the past two decades to throw for at least 30 touchdowns with three or fewer interceptions, and he had more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than each of the other four.
His passer efficiency rating (190.3) isn't quite as ludicrous as some that we've seen in the past two seasons, but that's just because of a slightly-lower-but-still-impressive completion percentage and yards per attempt. For the numbers that matter most, though, it was a campaign for the record books.
Group of Five Player of the Year: Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Is it any wonder that Florida State hired Mike Norvell away from Memphis, given the incredible job he has done with running backs? First it was Patrick Taylor Jr. and Darrell Henderson. This year, it was Kenneth Gainwell. If Norvell can get the 'Noles running like the Tigers did, look out, ACC.
Gainwell (1,425 rushing yards, 6.4 YPC, 1,957 yards from scrimmage, 15 touchdowns) wasn't quite the unstoppable force of nature that Henderson was last year (1,909 rushing yards, 8.9 YPC, 2,204 yards from scrimmage, 25 touchdowns), but we would be remiss if we didn't point out that Gainwell is merely a redshirt freshman who could be even better in years to come.
He had at least 100 total yards in all 12 of Memphis' regular-season games and fell just shy of that plateau with 84 yards in the AAC title game against Cincinnati.
In the October win over Tulane, Gainwell became the first player in at least 20 years to have at least 100 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards in a single game. That performance came in the middle of a six-game stretch in which he rushed for 100 yards and had at least one touchdown in each game.
Heading into bowl season, Gainwell ranks fourth in the nation in total yards from scrimmage, trailing only Chuba Hubbard (2,119), Jonathan Taylor (2,118) and J.K. Dobbins (2,029). Louisville's Javian Hawkins (1,478) is the only other freshman with at least 1,200 yards.
Per CFB Stats, the only other freshmen in the past decade with at least 1,800 yards from scrimmage were Oklahoma's Samaje Perine (1,821 yards in 2014) and Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor (2,072 in 2017). If he can accumulate 116 yards in the Cotton Bowl, he would bypass the Badgers phenom who has more than 6,000 rushing yards in just three seasons.
Needless to say, you'll want to keep an eye out for this stud in 2020.
Best Single-Game Performance of the Year: Anthony Gordon vs. UCLA
There wasn't much #Pac12AfterDark this season, but perhaps that's because we burned through most of our yearly supply in one UCLA-Washington State barnburner in September.
UCLA returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the second quarter, took a punt 69 yards to the house in the fourth, benefited from six Washington State turnovers and had a 94-yard pass that accounted for one of Dorian Thompson-Robinson's seven touchdowns.
But through all the special teams gaffes, defensive letdowns and offensive miscues, Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon just kept slinging it.
By halftime, Gordon had already thrown for 306 yards and five touchdowns. In the entire 2019 season, there were only 32 cases of a quarterback finishing a game with at least 300 yards and five touchdowns.
And, again, it was only halftime.
Two Wazzu possessions into the third quarter and Gordon had his sixth and seventh touchdowns of the game and a 49-17 lead. Under normal circumstances, that would have been the end of his night in a game that—though quite impressive—we ultimately would have forgotten about when considering the best single-game performances of the season.
Instead, UCLA suddenly came to life, scoring four touchdowns in the span of less than five minutes. That made it a 49-46 game and forced Gordon to keep throwing.
He added an eighth touchdown on a 33-yard strike to Easop Winston Jr. early in the fourth quarter and got his ninth TD on a 65-yard pass to Max Borghi a few minutes later. At that point, Washington State led 63-60 and should have won the game when it took over with the same score and less than three minutes remaining. However, a Winston fumble on Gordon's final completion of the night gave the ball back to UCLA for the 67-63 win.
Despite the loss, Gordon joined Case Keenum (2011 with Houston) as the only players in the past two decades to throw for at least nine touchdowns in a single game.
Best Play of the Year: Zakoby McClain's Pick-Six in the Iron Bowl
The Iron Bowl fell just short of securing our "Best Game of the Year" award, in part because neither team even ended up qualifying for a New Year's Six bowl. But that thing was unadulterated chaos from start to finish, punctuated by the most ridiculous play of the season.
Leading 31-30 midway through the third quarter, Alabama had just marched down the field with plans of extending its lead over Auburn. It seemed Auburn was unraveling at the seams, committing not one, not two but three personal foul penalties during that drive, including roughing the passer on a 3rd-and-goal incompletion, followed by pass interference on 2nd-and-goal from the 4.
It all set up a first-down play from the Auburn 2.
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian drew up a play-action pass to Najee Harris in the flat, but Auburn's Big Kat Bryant wasn't fooled for a moment, jumping the snap count and getting into the backfield untouched.
Mac Jones tried to get the ball to Harris, but he never had a chance to set his feet and simply didn't get enough on the pass, hitting his intended target in the back.
Instead of a harmless incompletion, though, Harris tried to make an impossible one-handed, behind-the-back catch and deflected the ball right into the hands of Zakoby McClain. The sophomore linebacker alertly made the first interception of his career before taking it more than 100 yards in the opposite direction for a Tigers TD.
That 14-point swing was far more important than Auburn's last-second field goal at the end of the first half or the 12 men on the field penalty against Alabama that ended the game. And that 14-point swing is the reason Alabama was out of sight and out of mind on Selection Sunday for the first time in the playoff era.
Biggest Upset of the Year: South Carolina over Georgia
With all due respect to Illinois stunning Wisconsin and Kansas State toppling Oklahoma, bowl-bound teams winning home games doesn't even hold a candle to what South Carolina did to Georgia.
It was an atrocious year for the Gamecocks. They won fewer than five games for just the second time since 2000, and three of the four wins were at home against Charleston Southern, a dreadful Vanderbilt and Kentucky during that two-game stretch after losing Terry Wilson to injury when it insisted on giving Sawyer Smith a proper audition at quarterback before just letting Lynn Bowden Jr. run the Wildcat.
But on one magical afternoon in Athens, Georgia, South Carolina pulled off one of the biggest upsets since Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007.
The Gamecocks lost starting quarterback Jake Bentley in the first game of the season—which in part explains why this year went so poorly—but backup quarterback Ryan Hilinski was also knocked out of the game against Georgia, forcing them to turn to Dakereon Joyner for most of the second half.
No matter, because the defense had Georgia's number.
More specifically, Israel Mukuamu owned Jake Fromm's soul.
The sophomore defensive back only has two other interceptions in his career—both against FCS opponents—but he picked off Fromm three times. He returned the first one 53 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. On the second one, he was Johnny on the Spot, making an acrobatic catch on a pass that missed Matt Landers by a country mile. And the third one came in overtime on a pass that deflected off Tyler Simmons' chest and straight to the opportunistic Mukuamu again.
Georgia scored once on its final 11 possessions, and it needed a 96-yard drive and a bailout fourth-down penalty just to get those points. And because of that anemic performance, the Bulldogs had no hope of reaching the playoff after losing in the SEC Championship Game.
Best Game of the Year: LSU at Alabama
The most highly anticipated games often don't live up to the hype—see: SEC Championship Game—but No. 2 LSU winning 46-41 at No. 3 Alabama was fascinating theater.
With Tua Tagovailoa less than three weeks removed from ankle surgery, it took a while for Alabama's offense to get rolling. Excluding the punt that Jaylen Waddle returned for a touchdown, the Crimson Tide only scored on one of their first eight possessions. Coupled with a pair of back-breaking turnovers, they trailed the Tigers 33-13 at halftime.
We spent that intermission looking at Alabama's lamentable strength of schedule and concluding there was no way it could recover and make the playoff after getting embarrassed at home.
But then the Crimson Tide woke up and the final 23 minutes turned into two heavyweights exchanging haymakers. After a three-and-out to start the second half, Alabama put together four consecutive touchdown drives of at least 75 yards, including the 85-yard bomb from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith that kept hope alive in Tuscaloosa.
Joe Burrow and Clyde Edwards-Helaire were simply too good, though. The former threw for three first-half touchdowns. The latter scored four times, including salting the game away with a pair of fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns.
Four times Alabama cut LSU's lead to a one-possession margin, and the Tigers immediately responded each time with three touchdowns and a field goal. With the exception of a three-and-out late in the second quarter, the only time Alabama possessed the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead was in the first seven minutes of the game.
Yet, it perpetually felt like the Tide was just one small break away from winning the game. LSU just never allowed it to happen—a prime example of the "game control" that CFP selection committee chairman Rob Mullens kept referencing throughout the season.
Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite.
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.