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 non-scholarship 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.
In an era of defense-first dynasties—Alabama and Clemson will play in the other semifinal matchup, meeting in the Playoff for the third straight year—Mayfield also serves his sport at large, as an infusion of much needed fun. The three other Playoff participants rank in the top six nationally in team defense, none allowing more than 13.2 points per game, but his Sooners prefer a more high-octane style. They give up, on average, 25 points a contest while tallying 45 of their own, almost all of that scoring dependent on Mayfield’s play-by-play genius. He is an offense unto himself, a strong-armed and smart-footed master of plays both scripted and improvised. He dodges blitzes and throws bombs; his standard mode is apparent recklessness that is redeemed, at the last second, by a startling accuracy. This season, he has thrown 41 touchdowns against just five interceptions and set all-time NCAA marks with a passer rating of 203.8 (beating his own record from last season) and 11.8 yards per pass attempt.
If Mayfield realizes the best version of an old college-football archetype—the headstrong gunslinger—he also prompts familiar handwringing in some quarters. After his flag-planting in Ohio caused an uproar among both Buckeye fans and the usual crop of sportsmanship watchdogs, Mayfield apologized. “I got caught up in an emotional win,” he said. “Yeah, it should’ve been something I did in the locker room. So I apologize for doing it in the middle of the field.” In November against Kansas, Mayfield threw for a tidy 257 yards and three touchdowns; but during the game, cameras found him grabbing his crotch on the sideline while screaming “Fuck you!” at the Jayhawks players who had refused to shake his hand during the pregame coin flip. “I am a competitive player, but what I did was unacceptable,” he said that evening, and this apology came with an extra punishment: Mayfield was benched for the start of the next game, his last at Oklahoma’s home stadium.
The two on-field incidents followed an off-the-field one that tipped past roguishness. In June, Mayfield pled guilty to public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and fleeing in Arkansas a few months earlier. His habit of courting controversy, combined with his inventive quarterbacking technique and Heisman credentials, has brought about inevitable comparisons to Johnny Manziel, the former college great whose erratic play and lifestyle led to his washing out of the NFL. And though Mayfield has already achieved greater team success than Manziel ever did—Texas A&M didn’t get a shot at a title in Manziel’s two collegiate seasons—the toughest job interviews in sports await. When NFL teams study Mayfield to decide whether they want to invest in him as a franchise quarterback, his tendency for trouble will be weighed alongside his stocky build and 40-yard-dash time.
Worrying over Mayfield’s NFL future, though, comes at the expense of appreciating the present. Watching the highest level of college football in recent years has taken on a feeling akin to tracking corporate takeovers, a drama of familiar participants and careful calculations. Mayfield promises gumption and surprise—a clear protagonist, however flawed. For any fans without a regional rooting interest, he provides the basic appeal of the scalawag.
Back in November, the 2017 installment of Oklahoma’s biggest rivalry—“Bedlam,” against Oklahoma State—proved one of the wildest in the series’ 113-year history, with the Sooners winning by a 62–52 score that only begins to indicate the manic pitch of the game. Mayfield threw five touchdowns (along with two interceptions) en route to a school-record 598 passing yards. He sent the ball to every corner of the field, through every combination of defenders. It was one of the best performances of the season by any player, rendered all the better for its imperfections. “He’s made for atmospheres like this,” Riley said of Mayfield after the game. “This is his favorite thing in the world.” It remains to be seen whether that bravado will bring Mayfield success this fall at the next level, but for one or two more nights, he gets the chance to prove that it makes him peerless on this one.