Manti Te’o and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish only have a matchup with unranked USC standing between them and a surprising National Championship Game berth. But equally as surprising is Te’o’s current status as a Heisman frontrunner, despite his good-but-not-great statistics through 11 games.
Certainly nothing should be taken away from Te’o’s quality play this year. He has had a wonderful senior season for the Irish and is the clear leader of the top-ranked scoring defense in the nation. He has fulfilled every heavy expectation laid upon him after his fiercely competitive recruitment and is likely on his way to a high NFL draft selection and a successful professional career.
Yet calling Te’o a Heisman Trophy frontrunner is very questionable.
According to many major sports publications, like ESPN and Sports Illustrated, the Heisman will come down to Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel (notice the refusal to use that stupid nickname), Kansas State’s Collin Klein and Te’o.
But no matter how refreshing it would be to watch a linebacker take the honor over a group of quarterbacks (considering ten of the last twelve winners have been quarterbacks), Te’o’s win would be insulting to other outstanding defenders that came before him.
This is not to say that Te’o was better or worse than these former players, but just that his win would be largely based on his team’s success, his personal character, and the media’s apparent need to christen a star from an otherwise success-by-committee Notre Dame team.
The most dominant linebacker to come before Te’o was likely Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. Kuechly led the nation with 191 tackles in 2011, tallying 32 more tackles than his closest competitor. Despite averaging almost 16 tackles per game, Kuechly did not even make the top ten in the Heisman voting, largely because of his team’s 4-8 record.
And let’s also compare Manti Te’o’s resume to that of the most competitive defensive Heisman candidate in recent memory, Ndamukong Suh.
Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting after finishing 2009 fifth in tackles for loss among linemen and second in the nation in blocked kicks. He also tallied ten pass breakups, despite playing defensive tackle for the 9-4 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Meanwhile, Manti Te’o’s statistics simply do not compare. Although he has totaled an impressive six interceptions, he ranks 40th in the nation in tackles among linebackers and has managed only five-and-a-half tackles for loss. While statistics are never a perfect indication of a player’s performance, they are undeniably crucial in the race for the Heisman Trophy.
But despite these lackluster (by Heisman standards) numbers, Te’o remains firmly in the Heisman discussion thanks to Notre Dame’s undefeated run. As long as the Irish remain in the national spotlight, the media will feel the need to name one of their players a Heisman candidate.
Is Manti Te’o an All-American candidate? Certainly. Should he be considered for defensive and linebacker-specific awards? Absolutely.
But giving him serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy only shows the award’s bias toward players on national title contending teams. Try explaining to Luke Kuechly that one year later a linebacker with half as many tackles is receiving Heisman votes. And tell Ndamukong Suh that a player with one-fourth as many tackles for loss is more deserving of the award than he was.
Manti Te’o is truly an extraordinary player with a brilliant professional career ahead of him. But adorning him with the Heisman Trophy will not be an indication of his outstanding season, but rather a recognition of Notre Dame’s return to national prominence.