This year, the real question surrounding the Heisman Trophy may not be over who will win, but rather which player will see old voting traditions keep them from taking home the award.
And my guess is Manti Te'o will fall short, as defensive players always do.
Of course, Johnny Manziel could be denied because he's a freshman, and freshmen literally never win the Heisman.
Remember, until Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007, no sophomore had ever won the award, let alone a freshman. If you don't think that fact will influence some voters, think again.
But it's more likely that Manti Te'o will be denied simply because he plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Remember, in the the award's history just one defensive player—Charles Woodson, who won because he also made an impact as a punt returner and wide receiver—has ever won.
A player like Te'o—the team's defensive quarterback, if you will, and unquestioned leader—may be just as important to his team's success as Manziel, but it rarely appears that way or looks as sexy on the stat sheet.
(For the record, I'm not going to include Collin Klein in this discussion beyond this blurb. His stats aren't nearly as impressive as Manziel's, and he wasn't able to lead his team to an undefeated season like Te'o. He'll more than likely finish third in the voting.)
Look at what Manziel has done this year. As a freshman in the league's toughest conference, he led No. 9 Texas A&M to a 10-2 record and a win over No. 2 Alabama. His 4,600 yards from scrimmage is an SEC record, and his 43 total touchdowns is staggering.
Compare that to the stat line of Te'o: 103 tackles, seven interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 1.5 sacks. Impressive stuff, sure, but hardly as eye-popping as Manziel's numbers.
Besides, Manziel is terribly exciting to watch. He has a Heisman-ready nickname, Johnny Football. He's a quarterback, for heaven's sake.
Actually seeing the true impact of Te'o is much more difficult than seeing how Manziel influences the game. Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times made an eloquent argument for why the award always seems to go to quarterbacks and running backs:
Quarterbacks and running backs have a disproportional advantage because they affect a game more directly. Can anyone fathom Auburn, two years ago, winning the national title without Cam Newton?
Football is unlike baseball, a sport in which telling analysis can be applied to each position. Baseball factors such as WAR (wins above replacement) can be used to quantify a season such as the one Angels rookie Mike Trout just enjoyed.
Grading a defensive player in football is trickier. Is the safety who leads the nation in tackles doing so because he's a great player or because his team's defensive front is lousy?
In this case, I think it's fair to say that Notre Dame's defensive front isn't lousy, and Te'o is truly the best defensive player on the nation's top-ranked team. But his true value to Notre Dame is far more subtle than Manziel's for Texas A&M, and that will likely hurt him in the voting.
Te'o was a game-changer for Notre Dame. A linebacker with seven interceptions is extraordinary. The defense was expected to be good but not dominant. The team in general came into the season with high expectations, but hardly national championship expectations.
Te'o has class, integrity and is even a sympathetic figure—his grandmother and girlfriend died on the same day this year during the season—and he certainly meets the Heisman's expectations of an excellent football player and an excellent man winning the award.
But in the end, he's not going to beat the quarterback with the amazing stats and catchy nickname. It's just not going to happen.
Unfortunately, that isn't how the Heisman Trophy works. And while I think Johnny Football deserves to win, I think the stigma against defensive players needs to end.
But it won't, at least not this year.
Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets think the hardware is heading Johnny Football's way.
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