Baker Mayfield, the senior quarterback and driving force of the No. 2–ranked Oklahoma Sooners, is both the best and most captivating player in college football. A representative—but by no means singular—display of his flair came back in the second game of the season, when the Sooners traveled east to face an Ohio State Buckeyes team that had beaten them the year before. With his team trailing by three late in the third quarter, Mayfield faked a handoff to a running back, juked around a defensive lineman, quickly reset his feet, and arced a throw past the fingertips of a defensive back and into the hands of the receiver Mykel Jones for a 42-yard gain. One play later, he rifled a touchdown pass that gave the Sooners a lead they would not relinquish. Shortly after that, Mayfield was celebrating the win with characteristic machismo: by planting an Oklahoma flag into the Buckeyes’ logo in the center of the field.
On New Year’s Day, Mayfield will play either the penultimate or final game of his college career, leading OU against the Georgia Bulldogs in the semifinal round of the College Football Playoff. (Reports surfaced Friday that Mayfield had come down with an illness in the week leading up to the game, though he’s still expected to play.) The sport’s biggest stage makes for a fitting exit point for one of its remarkable recent stories. Mayfield began his career as a nonscholarship walk-on at Texas Tech and will end it as perhaps the most accomplished passer in the history of a blueblood Oklahoma program. In December, he became the first former walk-on in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy. And since transferring to Oklahoma, Mayfield has harnessed his purported deficiencies—of height (6-foot-1), of athleticism (middling, by standard measurements), and of temperament (fiery, bordering on crass)—to become a nearly faultless college player. “I don’t know that I’ll ever have a player that’s as special to me as he is,” says the Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley of his quarterback.