ARLINGTON, Texas >> Baker Mayfield was the first true freshman walk-on quarterback to start a season opener for an FBS team when he took his first snap in 2013. That same season, Kenny Hill began his college career behind a Heisman Trophy winner.
Four years later, both quarterbacks have a title shot at different Power Five schools. Mayfield is a Heisman front-runner for No. 2 Oklahoma, which faces Hill and No. 10 TCU in the Big 12 championship game.
“This final stretch of my college career is coming down to the wire. I try to enjoy every moment,” Mayfield said. “But winning makes it a lot more fun and that has to be the focus.”
The Sooners (11-1, 8-1 Big 12, No. 3 CFP) go into Saturday’s game, a week before the Heisman winner is named, in position to make the four-team College Football Playoff for the second time in Mayfield’s three seasons if they beat TCU (9-2, 7-2, No. 11 CFP) for the second time in four weeks.
Mayfield has played his college career entirely in the Big 12 from his unprecedented debut and only season at Texas Tech to his standout tenure at Oklahoma. But had league officials not made a rule change in 2016, restoring a year of lost eligibility after his in-league transfer with no written scholarship offer from the Red Raiders, he would have been done after last year.
After four games as a freshman, Hill threw for 511 yards in Texas A&M’s 2014 opener that was his first start succeeding Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. The Aggies started 5-0, but then lost three in a row while Hill struggled on the field in what would be his last games for them. He was suspended for violating team rules, his second suspension from the team in less than a year.
Hill went to TCU, after being encouraged by Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson to first spend some time at a junior college out of the spotlight.
“It all sunk in when I was out there on the field with my family,” Hill said after his four touchdowns in TCU’s senior day victory over Baylor last week. “After everything that had happened, and to be at this point, I told Coach P, just thank you for just bringing me here and letting me have this opportunity. It’s awesome.”
Both quarterbacks had embarrassing off-field incidents, though Hill’s came before he got to TCU.
Mayfield was arrested in February for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, fleeing and resisting arrest after an incident outside an Arkansas bar. Oklahoma ordered him to complete 35 hours of community service and an alcohol education program.
He didn’t start on Oklahoma’s senior day last week following his lewd crotch-grabbing gesture and constant words toward the Kansas sideline the previous week.
Mayfield also nailed TCU safety Niko Small with a pass during pregame before the teams played three weeks ago in Norman. And Mayfield also planted an Oklahoma flag at midfield after winning at Ohio State in September, and there was the smack talk directed at Baylor players on the field before that game.
As for Hill, the spring before becoming A&M’s starter as a sophomore he was arrested in College Station and charged with public intoxication and giving police a fake name. He was reinstated before training camp and allowed to compete for the starting job.
Both are now in a huge game with championship ramifications.
“In big games, you’ve got to relax and do your job,” Mayfield said about the Big 12 title game. “In big games, you’ve got to keep your poise. In chippy, physical battles, you’ve got to do the same.”
After finishing top four in Heisman voting each of the past two years, Mayfield has thrown for 4,097 yards and accounted for 42 touchdowns this season, including a Big 12-best 37 TD passes with only five interceptions.
Minutes after the Frogs clinched their Big 12 title game spot with a 45-22 win over Baylor, Patterson suddenly said, “Let me just set the record straight. Baker Mayfield is a really good player and has an opportunity to win a Heisman.” Patterson also said the quarterback had a lot of good players around him.
There is that lingering story, one Mayfield wasn’t really interested in rehashing this week, when he said two years ago at the Orange Bowl that TCU “kind of drug it out” and never offered a scholarship while he turned down other offers. His parents later criticized Patterson in an ESPN The Magazine article for how their son was treated during the recruiting process.
“That’s in the past,” Mayfield said, adding he has always respected Patterson as one of the nation’s top coaches. “They’re happy where they’re at and I’m happy where I’m at.”
Now Mayfield just wants to beat the Frogs one more time.