MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The stars have been as bright. The stakes have been as big.
In the first College Football Playoff semifinal, Heisman winners Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota squared off, months before they became the top two picks in the NFL draft. Before that, Heisman winners Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford went head to head for the national title, as did Heisman winners Jason White and Matt Leinart, as well as Heisman winner Chris Weinke and runner-up Josh Heupel.
The headlines were similar. The hype was familiar.
But the potential was never as powerful as it will be when Heisman winner Kyler Murray and runner-up Tua Tagovailoa step into Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday night in the Orange Bowl, battling for a spot in the national championship game.
“I think it’s going to be exciting,” Tagovailoa said. “I think it’s going to be really fun.”
It is the only route imaginable.
Murray led No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) to a nation-best 49.5 points per game. Tagovailoa led top-ranked Alabama (13-0) to the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, averaging 47.5 points per game.
In addition to the Heisman, Murray claimed the AP Player of the Year and Davey O’Brien Award (best quarterback). Tagovailoa, the season-long Heisman front-runner, earned the Maxwell Award (best player) and was named the Walter Camp Player of the Year.
“He’s a competitor and I’m a competitor,” Murray said. “To be able to go up against the best, that’s what you want to do.”
In last season’s semifinals, neither player took a snap. Murray was an athletic unknown behind Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. Tagovailoa sat in the shadows of two-year starter Jalen Hurts.
Then, Tagovailoa, a freshman from Hawaii, introduced himself to the nation with a remarkable title-winning performance, erasing his thoughts of transferring and becoming the Heisman favorite before ever starting a game.
Tagovailoa somehow surpassed expectations and elevated Alabama’s dynasty to new heights, throwing 37 touchdowns and four interceptions — and just eight fourth-quarter passes, while leading the Crimson Tide to a series of blowout wins — while completing 68 percent of his passes.
“Incredible arm, incredible poise in the pocket, great overall player,” Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray said of Tagovailoa. “I really respect his game.”
Tagovailoa, who expects to be near fully recovered from his left ankle sprain by kickoff, ranked second in the nation in quarterback rating (202.3) and passing yards per attempt (11.4). Only Murray was better. Near-perfection was the only way Oklahoma could travel back to the playoff.
The 5-foot-10 dual-threat transfer from Texas A&M produced 40 touchdowns through the air and another 11 on the ground, while throwing just seven interceptions and completing nearly 71 percent of his passes. Murray compiled 4,053 yards passing and 892 yards rushing, leading four second-half comebacks and giving one of the sport’s most dreadful defenses an opportunity to win the school’s first national championship in 19 years.
“When I watched him on film, it’s crazy because he looked like Mike Vick out there running from sideline to sideline, making explosive plays,” Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses said. “He just looks amazing on film.
“He can really hide behind linemen and extend plays because you can’t really see him.”
And you may never see him on a football field again.
While Tagovailoa will be next year’s Heisman favorite, and the potential No. 1 overall pick in 2020, Murray — a first-round pick of the Oakland A’s — may never take another snap after this season, despite being pegged as a potential first-round NFL draft choice.
“I try not to think about that. I feel like if I thought about that a lot it would take energy away from what I’m trying to do on the field,” Murray said. “You never know when your last time is gonna be, whether you are continuing to play football or not. It can happen at any moment.”
It could be a moment for all time.