The evening of Dec. 29, 2014 felt like rock bottom for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Behind unheralded backup quarterback Cole Stoudt, the Clemson Tigers had just torched the team in the Russell Athletic Bowl, 40-6. It made for a fitting end to a season in Norman that started with national championship hopes and quickly devolved into disaster.
Head coach Bob Stoops made some dramatic changes to the program in the following days, the kind that seemed like a last gasp by a legendary coach trying not to lose his grip on his job. They included hiring Lincoln Riley away from East Carolina to be his offensive coordinator. Stoops also opened up the quarterback position to a competition between incumbent Trevor Knight, returning backup Cody Thomas and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield.
At the time, nothing about Mayfield screamed “program savior.” Although he was recognized as the Big 12’s top freshman in 2013, losing his job with the Red Raiders prompted him to bolt for Norman. He was small and he played recklessly, both in terms of the punishment he took from opponents and in how often he turned the ball over. The fact that he won OU's quarterback derby didn’t inspire much confidence that the Sooners would find their way back to the upper echelon of college football.
It seems unfathomable now to think of Mayfield as anything other than college football’s resident rock star. Statistically speaking, he owns three of the best seasons by a quarterback in college football history. He piloted the Sooners to three straight conference championships. In January, OU will play in the College Football Playoff for the second time in the three years he has been a starter. Most importantly, he injected life into a team that was on the verge of cratering.
On Saturday night, he will be in New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy for the third year running. This time, Mayfield will get to take the trophy home with him.
Stoops and Riley will both be in attendance on Saturday night when Mayfield accepts college football’s most prestigious award. Each will certainly get a nod from the winner as he runs down the obligatory list of thank-yous in his speech. Truth be told, they should be thanking Mayfield. His brilliance helped Stoops leave OU on a high note, an increasingly rare final act for a Hall of Fame coach that once seemed highly unlikely for Stoops. Likewise, Mayfield’s otherworldly play this year paved the way for Riley to hit the ground running in his debut season as head coach of the Sooners, another uncommon feat for the guy who follows a legend.
Mayfield still has at least one game left to cement his legacy. He has already made a strong case that he’s the best to ever put on a helmet at one of college football’s most prestigious programs. When this season is over, we might be talking about where he ranks among the all-time greats in the entire sport.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.