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Johnny Manziel vs. Manti Te’o: Settling the Heisman Argument

Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE

I feel like the president of the Johnny Manziel fan club at this point, but here I am, again, coming to the defense of the young redshirt freshman’s Heisman campaign.

After both Kansas State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday, the two frontrunners for the award took a tumble. Leading candidate Collin Klein had a bad game, and Stanford stymied Oregon’s supposedly unstoppable offense, moving Kenjon Barner down the list as well.

With Manziel having taken down the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide and their unstoppable defense, he moved to the forefront of the Heisman discussion, with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o moving up right along with him to No. 2. This according to most respectable Heisman Watch polls out there. Whether you believe these hold water is a different story, but, in one order or another, most agree Te’o and Manziel are the leading candidates.

After Te’o’s Irish finished off an incredible undefeated season, I can see why one would vote for him. He’s arguably the best player on the best team in the land. Sometimes the award has gone to a player with those credentials, a la Jason White of Oklahoma in 2003. Notre Dame ranks sixth in yards allowed per game and second in points allowed per game and is the only remaining undefeated team (well, other than Ohio State who is under sanctions right now).

Most Heisman candidates have a “Heisman moment,” or a moment that typifies their season. Notre Dame played three top 50 offensive teams, so those are the games you want Te’o to show up most in. Against Miami (37th in offense), Te’o had 10 tackles. Against USC (30th in offense), Te’o had five tackles and an interception. Against Oklahoma (9th in offense) Te’o had arguably his best game of the season, with 11 tackles, a sack and an interception.

You could make the case that Te’o’s Heisman moment is the Oklahoma game, or the goal line stand in the USC game that preserved the victory and the undefeated season.

The problem with Te’o is that he’s working against history. No pure defender has ever won the Heisman. Charles Woodson won it in 1997, but he played on offense and returned kicks. He was an outstanding all-around player. For Te’o to win the Heisman, he needed to have mind-blowing stats in my opinion. He does not. The only number that stands out are his seven interceptions, which is among the leaders in college football.

They also really, truly only played one elite offense. However, they slowed down the Sooners so you have to give him and the Irish credit for that. But Manziel playing Bama, LSU and Florida is like Notre Dame Playing Oklahoma and adding Texas A&M and Oregon to the schedule. Would Te’o and the Irish have slowed them down? Probably, but would they have won all three games? The best case you can make for Te’o is that he’s the best player on one of the best defenses in the country for an undefeated team, but it doesn’t look great when you only had two tests from good offenses all year.

He is also working against recent trends. 10 of the last 12 Heisman winners have been quarterbacks. Tyrann Mathieu was an elite defensive player on an undefeated team last year, but given all the talent that surrounded him, voters did not see fit to hand him the award. You could make the case Mathieu was a much more exciting player than Te’o, as he scored points with his amazing punt return skills and interception returns, and just as dominant defensively.

Looking for Manziel’s “Heisman moment,” you need to look no further than the Alabama game. Against the nation’s top defense in both yards and points allowed, Manziel had 345 yards and two touchdowns. He was electrifying in that game as the Aggies took down the previously No. 1 team in the country.

He also played two other top 10 teams (and defenses), and had a poor game against LSU. The fact that he has two losses could end up costing him the award. Against Florida (fifth in defense), Manziel had 233 total yards and one touchdown. Against LSU (ninth in defense), he had 303 total yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions (he had one touchdown called back on a bogus holding call, but that’s neither here no there). The LSU game was his only bad showing of the season, and it came against an elite defense.

However, if recent history tells us anything, Manziel should still win it. Though he is also working against history in that a freshman has never won, Manziel set the single-season SEC record with 4,600 total yards, surpassing both Cam Newton and Tim Tebow‘s Heisman campaigns. He also accounted for 43 touchdowns. Texas A&M‘s offense ranked third in the country in yards gained and fourth in points per game.

It is easy to point to the two losses and the poor outing against LSU and say he shouldn’t win over Te’o due to the Irish’s undefeated record. That being said, it is easy to point out bad games by offensive players like Manziel because he has the ball in his hand the entire game and affects the offense to such a higher degree. If Te’o has a bad game, he has an elite defense that can mask that. Not to mention, Manziel’s bad game came against one of the few elite defenses in the country.

With regards to the two losses, Tebow’s Florida team had three losses the year he won and Robert Griffin III had three losses last year as well, so that argument essentially should be thrown out the window.

If I haven’t done enough to convince you why Manziel is the front runner, than our philosophies differ. The award is typically given to the nation’s most outstanding player, which is without question Manziel. It is not an MVP trophy, which would likely go to Te’o if that were the case. Recent history indicates Manziel is the favorite.

I’ll throw one more statistic at you. In games against five ranked opponents, Manziel averaged 380 total yards per game with 11 touchdowns, four interceptions and the offense averaged 32.4 points per game. In games against four ranked opponents, Te’o had 43 tackles, one sack, three interceptions and the defense allowed 8.75 points per game. Both had one sub-par performance by their standards (Manziel-LSU, Te’o-USC).

Is the recent trend of play-making athletic quarterbacks winning the award going to come to fruition, or are the Heisman voters going to go against the norm and make Te’o the first ever pure defender to win?

I’ll choose the former.

Jeff is an NFL Featured Columnist for Like Jeff’s Facebook Page here. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Shull