Sorry, Manti Te’o fans. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have had a spectacular run and I know this isn’t going to be easy to hear. Despite what Skip Bayless and others have been saying, the Heisman Trophy will not go to the Irish linebacker.
It’s easy to see why people would like him to win. He’s a former top recruit who chose to come to Notre Dame and has restored the shine to the golden domes of the Irish, one of college football’s most storied programs. He’s the vocal and emotional leader of the Irish defense, which has been one of the best units in the country this season.
Te’o has also overcome incredible personal tragedy to have the season he’s had. In one week, the senior linebacker lost his grandmother and girlfriend, but continued to play at a high level the rest of the way. He has been an inspiration to watch as he’s put aside his own personal grief to continue leading his football team.
But none of that means he should win the Heisman. The Heisman Trophy is meant to go to the best individual college football player. We can’t attribute the entire success of the Notre Dame defense to just Manti Te’o by ignoring the contributions of a strong defensive line and a much improved secondary. Te’o is in the middle of it all, yes, but he’s not the only reason for it.
Te’o has benefited so much from the great play of the defensive line in front of him. Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore, just to name a few, have to be accounted for by offensive lines. As they swallow up blockers, it funnels plays right into Te’o's lap, helping him get to his third straight 100-tackle season.
But even after achieving his third 100-tackles season in a row, Te’o has been statistically worse this year than the previous two. He recorded his fewest number of tackles, tackles for loss and sacks this season since his freshman year, when he wasn’t the focal point of this defense.
The one area he has picked up his game, however, has been in pass defense. He’s recorded seven interceptions this season after having none in his previous three. That points to being lucky rather than suddenly becoming a ball-hawk.
Te’o has found himself in the right place at the right time as the defensive line bats balls up in the air or forces errant throws with pressure. The seven picks are still impressive, but not enough to put Te’o over the top for the Heisman.
And let’s be frank: defensive players are at a huge handicap when it comes to the Heisman Trophy. While it officially is supposed to go to college football’s most outstanding player, which includes defensive standouts, voters are wowed by offensive stats and touchdowns much more than form tackles.
Charles Woodson remains the only defensive player to win the Heisman and that was because he built up the perception that he was a constant threat to score as a returner or when he lined up at receiver. He only actually scored three touchdowns the season he won the Heisman, but he cultivated the perception that he was an offensive threat.
Te’o doesn’t have that. He has no touchdowns, no return game and no offensive snaps. He’s purely a defensive player. While he’s a very good defensive player, he would have to be an unstoppable monster of a defensive player to have a real shot, which he is not.
The story of Manti Te’o is an incredible one that will be told by college football fans for years and years. However, it isn’t a story that will end with a Heisman Trophy. Defenses may win championships, as Te’o and the Irish will have the opportunity to do Jan. 8, but they do not win a Heisman.