Tomorrow night, one of three men will be awarded college football’s most prestigious honor, the Heisman Trophy. Only three were invited to the ceremony this season instead of the usual five, but in reality only two of them have a chance of winning the award and only one is actually deserving. But in the wacky landscape of college football in 2012, it’s likely that the most deserving player, the one who fits the definition defined by the Heisman Trust, won’t take it home.
But that shouldn’t surprise anyone that has followed college football, especially over the last decade or so when the Internet, social media, and more televised games have allowed everyone to be an expert. The award voting involves more politics than Washington and that’s why Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o will likely win it tomorrow.
Te’o is a great player. He’s a great person. He has had a great career and he’s a great story. But none of that makes him the most outstanding player in the country whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.
Forget the Heisman Trophy race for a minute; let’s take a look at Te’o compared to Michigan’s top linebacker, Jake Ryan. It’s a lot closer than you think.
Tackles for Loss
As you can see, Ryan’s numbers are very comparable to Te’o's and actually better in most categories, but no one is saying he’s deserving of Heisman consideration. And rightly so. In fact, Ryan was only named Second Team All-Big Ten by the media.
It can be argued that had Notre Dame been in the Big Ten, Te’o would have been the third or fourth best linebacker in the conference. Six Big Ten linebackers had more tackles, five had more solo, about a dozen had more tackles for loss, and several had more sacks.
Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier had 12 more total tackles than Te’o, 18 more solo tackles, 11.5 more tackles for loss, and 3.5 more sacks. The only thing he lacked were interceptions, though he did have one and forced three fumbles. Is the reason he’s not up for Heisman discussion simply because he has six fewer interceptions?
If Te’o wins the Heisman, then Ryan and Shazier better be invited to New York if they have similar seasons next year. They will, after all, be upperclassmen by then, which is apparently the main criteria used by many voters.
His 103 total tackles are tied with Wyoming’s Corey Jones, Western Michigan’s Johnnie Simon, and Florida Atlantic’s Bret Harstad. Are any of those guys considered for the Heisman? How about the 51 players who had more tackles than him? Or the 58 who averaged more tackles per game?
But it’s not solely based on tackles is it? How about solo tackles? You know, tackles made by yourself without the help of a teammate. Te’o's 52 are fewer than at least 87 others. His average of 4.3 solo stops per game don’t even rank in the top 94.
Ok, so maybe it’s not simply about tackles, so how about tackles that mean something – tackles in the backfield? Te’o had just five-and-a-half (yes, 5.5) tackles for loss. That puts him far outside the top 100. Four Michigan players had as many or more, led by Jake Ryan’s 14.5.
So Te’o hasn’t been dominant in tackles, solo tackles, or tackles for loss; how about sacks? Surely the likely Heisman winner has been lethal in the backfield, right? Wrong. His 1.5 sacks are fewer than five Michigan defenders – and Michigan ranked 85th nationally in sacks.
So he’s clearly not one of the top 100 defenders in the country when it comes to tackles for loss or sacks, and barely cracks the top 100 for solo tackles. Are we sure we’re looking at the right player’s stats? Yep. So what other defensive categories are there that have him as the likely Heisman winner?
How about turnovers forced? Ding ding ding ding! Te’o collected seven interceptions this season, which are second nationally to Fresno State defensive back Phillip Thomas. So there you have it: the Heisman trophy is now the award for the linebacker who makes the most interceptions.
Look, Te’o is a great linebacker and will probably have a long NFL career, which is why he won the Nagurski (best defensive player) and Lombardi (best lineman) awards. But even those are debatable, given the numbers listed above. Let’s be real here: he has benefited greatly from a productive career at Notre Dame and a defense stocked with NFL talent.
If the trophy is truly for the most outstanding player, as the Heisman Trust mission statement reads, then Johnny Manziel is the winner hands down. He ranks second nationally in total offense and points responsible for, 18th in scoring, 16th in passing yards, 33rd in rushing, and 17th in pass efficiency. Name another player in the country that has had that much of an impact in that many categories. Here’s another exercise: name another player on Texas A&M’s team. If you’re not an Aggie fan, you probably can’t. His offense isn’t chocked full of next level talent and he still led it to be the nation’s third-best scoring offense – as a freshman.
Aaahhh, so there’s the main reason he likely won’t win the award. Many Heisman voters won’t vote for him simply because he’s a freshman (a redshirt freshman that is). No freshman has ever won the award, and the snooty voters who are willing to deny the most outstanding player the award simply to preserve that record should be stripped of their ability to vote. Manziel should be rewarded because he’s a freshman – a freshman that led what was previously a 7-6 team to a 10-2 record and an upset of then-No. 1 Alabama in its first season in the nation’s best conference. He shouldn’t be penalized for it. It makes what he has done this season that much more – wait for it – outstanding.
Despite being a great player and a great person, Te'o (center) doesn't deserve the Heisman
If Te’o wins the Heisman, it should officially be re-named the Popularity Contest Trophy. Te’o will earn the sentimental vote because of his career body of work, because he came back for his senior year, because of the personal tragedy he suffered mid-season, and because his team is ranked No.1. But it will completely render the trophy, as currently defined, illegitimate.
The only thing he has done spectacularly is intercept seven passes. Is that more impressive than scoring 43 touchdowns? Is it more outstanding than breaking the all-time SEC total offense record that was set by Cam Newton during his Heisman trophy-winning season? Year in school aside, there’s probably not a person outside of South Bend that would say yes to those questions. Which means that if Te’o wins the award for this season’s most outstanding player it will be because of those outside factors mentioned in the previous paragraph, which are not what the Heisman Trophy is for.
It’s too bad we’ll never see Manziel and Te’o battle it out on the field. It would be a good one to watch considering that entering this season (you know, since we’re apparently taking into account full careers now) Te’o couldn’t stop Denard Robinson. Instead, we’ll have to settle for the two battling it out on a stage in New York and hopefully the voters will uphold the integrity of the award by actually awarding it to the nation’s most outstanding player rather than one whose only distinguishing points among dozens of other linebackers are interceptions and a stellar career.