Let’s get this out of the way: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is not going to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday. How can we be so sure? Well, for one thing, no player who exclusively played defense has ever won it. Back in 1997, Michigan’s Charles Woodson beat out Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning for the award. Woodson primarily played cornerback for the Wolverines, but was showcased throughout the season as a return man and receiver. So maybe Te’o becomes the first defensive player to win it, right? No. Odds released by Bovada Sports Book are astronomically in favor of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. At 1/15 odds in favor of Manziel, a gambler would need to wager $150 just to win ten bucks. Perhaps odds makers were swayed by heismanpundit.com, a website that has accurately predicted the last five Heisman winners with its straw poll. If this year’s poll is any indication, not only win Manziel win, he’ll walk away with the award. So, history will be made. Not because a defensive player has won, but because Johnny Football will become the first freshman winner in history. Strong indicators aside, some folks still think Te’o will win. On Thursday’s episode of PTI for example, co-host Michael Wilbon called for a Golden Domer sweep of the Heisman and the BCS National Championship. So there are people out there who think it might happen, and that it definitely should happen. Supposing Te’o does buck the odds and the polls and all of college football history, why should he be the first? In fact, why is he even one of the three finalists?…
Many believe strongly that Te’o should win because of his role on a title contender. Presumably this is partially based on his 100+ tackles and eye-popping seven interceptions. For all of his tackles, only five and a half happened behind the line of scrimmage. He didn’t even crack the top 100 players in that category. In fact, Te’o didn’t even crack the top 50 in tackles per game. The seven picks tied for second in the country, but Te’o managed just a sack and a half, didn’t force a single fumble, and never once found the end zone. In comparison, in ’97 Woodson intercepted eight passes, but scored four touchdowns. Even with the scores he still probably shouldn’t have beaten Manning. Te’o is a very good player on an excellent defense. But teammate Stephon Tuitt had a terrific season too. Even scored a touchdown. But his name was never connected to the Heisman. What is being measured to determine Te’o’s Heisman candidacy? Leadership? This isn’t the NFL Draft, where college stats are a poor indicator of future success. This is a college football award, and in Heisman history, stats and excitement matter. Like it or not, that’s the reality.
Some people support Te’o by saying he’s “the best player on the best team.” Ok, he may be. But that isn’t the intent of the award either. The award is for the nation’s most outstanding football player, so garments are rended annually over the fact that defensive players and offensive linemen are roundly ignored by voters. But where is the outcry over eliminating players whose teams perform poorly? Nothing in the award qualifications specifies that a Heisman winner has to play for a good team or a title contender. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller led his bowl-banned team to a 12-0 record, and was often the Buckeyes’ lone offensive threat. Yet his performance didn’t even merit an invite to New York for the awards presentation. West Virgina QB Geno Smith lit up the opposition early in the season, but he was eliminated from contention as soon as his team dropped a couple of games. Smith’s teammate, wide receiver Stedman Bailey, caught 106 passes for 1501 yards and 23 touchdowns and was never mentioned as a candidate. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball followed a junior campaign in which he was a Heisman finalist with a 1700 yard, 21 touchdown senior season, but was eliminated early in the season when he got off to a slow start. Kenjon Barner piled up 1856 yards from scrimmage, scored 22 touchdowns, and averaged seven yards per play for an Oregon team that lost one game, by three points, to a Rose Bowl bound Stanford team. But Barner won’t even sniff the award. Kansas State’s Collin Klein became the frontrunner after Smith tapered off, and had one bad game for a one-loss team. He’s the only player who will join Te’o and Manziel in New York Saturday, but Klein will finish a distant third. In fact, Te’o may not have even been the most outstanding defensive player in the nation. Jarvis Jones, of two-loss Georgia logged 12.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and forced seven fumbles. Jones dominated in a win over a one-loss Florida team, and was a major factor early on in the Bulldogs’ narrow defeat to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Plenty of outstanding players from good and mediocre teams alike were never taken seriously.
With all of that being said, the biggest reason Te’o will not, and should not win, is the favorite himself. Manziel’s redshirt freshman season has been outstanding. While he took advantage of a number of soft defenses on the schedule, he compiled an astonishing 4600 yards of total offense and played a role in 43 total touchdowns. The numbers are there. The young Mr. Football won 10 games as a rookie, losing just two. The team record is there. Did Te’o top Manziel in the incalculable “leadership” category? Not likely. Manziel helped make the Aggies’ transition to a new coach and a new conference seem as smooth as possible, and saved his best performance for their shocking upset on the road at Alabama. Manziel handed the Tide their only loss of the season, and had his “Heisman moment.” What other candidate had one of those this year?
Manti Te’o is a terrific college football player, and he’ll likely be a good pro. He’ll be drafted higher than Ball, Barner, Bailey, Klein and a couple hundred others. Te’o will play for ten years and make millions of dollars. His intangibles and defensive quarterbacking might be even more valuable at the next level than they were this year. But as much as people want to celebrate Notre Dame’s resurrection, and see history get made for the defenders of the college football world, Te’o’s candidacy has gone further than it probably ever should have. Johnny Manziel deserves this Heisman, and other players deserved more consideration. Te’o is not going to win on Saturday. But we can still congratulate him on his trip to New York.