The 2012 Heisman Trophy race has been full of suprises.
Three unpredictable finalists ended up in New York this Saturday in a season in which, once again, college football taught us to expect the unexpected. Preseason AP No. 1 USC plummeted to 7-5, and preseason Heisman favorite Matt Barkley's candicacy went out the door right with the Trojans' championship hopes. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball played for a team that struggled to duplicate its 2011 success, even if the Badgers are headed to the Rose Bowl anyway. Players like Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Florida State's E.J. Manuel were far too inconsistent. West Virginia's Geno Smith finished with Heisman-worthy numbers in a pass-happy offense, but a five-game losing streak after a 5-0 start pushed him out of the mix. This list goes on.
So, here we are in December, and the list of top candidates looks nothing like what most expected in August.
There's Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, a dynamic quarterback looking to become the first freshman winner. There's Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, looking to become the first linebacker to win the award and bring the Heisman to South Bend for the first time since Tim Brown in 1987. There's Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, looking to bring Heisman glory to a program that spent decades as one of the worst in America. Plus, while he's not a finalist, quarterback Braxton Miller of 12-0 Ohio State probably would have received enough votes to get to New York had the Buckeyes been eligible for the postseason.
No matter what happens Saturday night, we're poised to see a first.
Johnny Manziel, Entertainer of the Year
By Tommy Tomlinson
The Hoelting brothers of Nazareth, Texas, do a big Christmas light show at the family home every year - it's one of those where the lights are synchronized to music. This year one of the songs is "Johnny B. Goode," and the lights are a tribute to Johnny Manziel.
He went to the Cowboys-Eagles game Sunday night, and when the Cowboys showed him on their giant video screens, people cheered so long they had to briefly hold up the game.
Let's give him the Heisman just for that: The man wore a Scooby suit and totally pulled it off.
Careful readers will note that last week I cast my imaginary Heisman vote for Manti Te'o (check the endnote here). The great thing about an imaginary Heisman vote is, you can imaginarily change it anytime you want. So now I'm riding with Johnny Football. He is undoubtedly the most interesting player in college football this year - if they gave out an Entertainer of the Year award (and they should), he'd dominate the voting.
But there's something beyond the eyeball test. Johnny Manziel put together one of the greatest seasons in college football history.
Let's start here: Three times this year, Manziel had more than 300 yards passing and more than 100 yards rushing in the same game. How rare is that? No other quarterback in the FBS (college football's highest level) has ever done the 300-100 three times in a CAREER. Much less one season.
He's only the fifth FBS player to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season. He broke Archie Manning's SEC record for most total offense in a game with 557 yards against Arkansas. Two weeks later, he re-broke the record with 576 yards against Louisiana Tech. For the season he ended up with 4,600 total yards, which broke Cam Newton's SEC record. To sum up: He out-Cammed Cam, and out-Archied Archie.
All those numbers were in the service of winning games. He needed every one of those 395 yards passing, 181 yards rushing, and six total TDs to beat Louisiana Tech 59-57 in the greatest event in the history of Shreveport. He sealed that game with a 72-yard TD run on third-and-23. Against Ole Miss, down 10, he converted a third-and-19 pass from his three-yard-line, ran for a 29-yard score, and on the next drive threw a perfect 20-yard TD pass to Ryan Swope for the win. It's a work of art in 45 seconds of highlights.
Texas A&M went 10-2 in a season in which the Aggies were expected to take a beatdown as a gang induction to the SEC. They finished No. 9 in the BCS. They're playing old Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
And, oh yeah, they beat Alabama.
Nick Saban's "Process," as successful as it has been, couldn't account for Manziel. Nothing accounts for a smallish QB - 6-foot-1, 200 pounds - who wasn't lusted after out of high school, redshirted his first year, and wasn't named the starting quarterback until just before this season started. The greatness of college football is that players burst from the ground every year like tulips - one day there's nothing, the next there's an explosion of color and beauty.
My God, a freshman.
And this is the only thing I worry about with Johnny Football. A freshman has never won the Heisman, and surely there are some voters who believe a freshman should never win, in the same way some Baseball Hall of Fame voters believe no one should get in with 100 percent of the vote. The fact is, one freshman should have already won the Heisman (Herschel Walker, 1980). The Heisman's not meant to be about a body of work over three or four years. It's about the wave of a single season, and who caught it and rode it the longest.
Johnny Manziel has the best highlight reel of the season, the best stats of the season and the signature win of the season. Today he turns 20 years old. I don't care if he's 12 (and he does sort of look 12). Nobody else had a year like Johnny Football did. Few players have, ever.
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. The other four QBs with 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season: Vince Young (Texas, 2005); Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan, 2007); Colin Kaepernick (Nevada 2010); and Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois, 2011). If you got all four of those, you watch too much college football.
Manti Te'o, Win One for the Linebackers
By Chuck Culpepper
Our dull, ungrateful, unimaginative nation has a golden chance to show some spunk. It could give the Heisman Trophy to a linebacker.
For 77 dreary yards of our test-pattern existence, we have seen the award go to 29 quarterbacks, 19 running backs, 17 halfbacks, three ends, three wide receivers, two fullbacks, one quarterback/halfback, one cornerback/returner/receiver, one halfback/punter and one halfback/linebacker/fullback.
Bravo on the halfback/punter, Vic Janowicz of Ohio State (1950), in a half-nod to forgotten punters everywhere.
And bravo on the halfback/linebacker/fullback, Ernie Davis of Syracuse (1961), but in which place might Davis have finished if shorn of the "halfback" and "fullback" labels? I know precisely which place: not first.
No, being a statistics culture, we just tend to drowsily look up the yardage, see who has a whole bunch of yardage and check the box. Or, failing compelling yardage in a big program, we just go ahead and give it to a leading quarterback, which is how quarterback Gino Torretta won in 1992 over linebacker Marvin Jones, the best player in the country, in a thud of a vote that reflected nada on the good leadership that Torretta sustained at length until those Alabama defensive ends got hold of him in New Orleans.
Jones? He finished fourth that time. He did not return a 20-years-later call seeking comment, but let Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly speak for linebackers, because Kelly has done an eloquent job of it. Forging Heisman-argument freshness while stumping for Notre Dame's heart-and-soul-and-pancreas-and-all-of-it Manti Te'o, Kelly goes like this:
"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, then they should just make it an offensive award. Just give it to an offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don't know how Manti Te'o is left out of that conversation."
How unsurprising that Kelly once worked in politics, and how close, the choice between Te'o and quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Manziel has the phenomenal leadership that evening in Tuscaloosa plus the overall excellence and the (uh oh) yards; Te'o has …
Well, I go with the gut. I look out there all autumn and I tell my brain to think, Who's the best football player? Manti Te'o is the best football player.
Yet we continue to overlook linebackers and their roles in our lives, and probably will continue to do so through Saturday, because we are an ungrateful people. For decades, we have driven to stadiums. We have set up our tailgates. We have talked about football while eating our tailgate food. We have gone into stadiums, and we have fretted ourselves to a frazzle over our teams.
While we fret and scream and dial up the radio to complain about the coaches (especially the coordinators), linebackers look out for us. Desperately they try to see to it that the uppity offenses of the world do not attempt to spoil our Saturday night and Sunday morning moods. They command the defense and roam all its contours. They bleed and grunt and spit and exert to ensure our happiness, and for that we give them zero Heismans out of 77.
I do hear the argument that defensive players better than Te'o have not won the Heisman, so it would be unfitting if Te'o did win the Heisman, but that's a bit like saying Meryl Streep shouldn't have won for "The Iron Lady" because she was better in "A Cry In The Dark" and "The Devil Wears Prada." Bygone mistakes should not govern given years. Oklahoma linebacker Kurt Burris finished second in 1954, but gained renown mostly as a center (and what a glorious and due homage to centers). The hyper-famous Dick Butkus of Illinois finished third in 1964 as the inverse of Burris (a linebacker who also played center). Full-time linebackers who finished fourth included Jones, UCLA's Donn Moomaw in 1952, Alabama's Lee Roy Jordan in 1962 and Oklahoma's Brian Bosworth in 1986. Two-way linebackers who finished fourth included Fordham's Alex Wojciechowicz (also a center) in 1937, Oklahoma's Jerry Tubbs (also a center) in 1956 and Illinois' Bill Burrell (also a guard) in 1959.
(Notes: Moomaw, later a reverend, spoke at Ronald Reagan's first inaugural in 1981, Wojciechowicz inspired the same-named character on the 1970 sitcom "Barney Miller," Bosworth has had a film career that stretches longer than you think it does and The Bear himself said Jordan "never had a bad day," which if the Bear said that probably should have been enough.)
Indeed, defense wins championships but not Heismans. We usually do sprinkle the top 10 with one to three defenders just to make ourselves look thoughtful, but there's evidence that we're becoming even less so. Other than the lapse into insight that enabled Charles Woodson's win in 1997, not since Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green finished second in 1980 have we positioned a defender even in the top three. In that light, the Te'o choice has overarching national implications that should be separate from the vote itself. In addition to being accurate for the Heisman, it's bigger than the Heisman. In addition to anointing the best college football player, we get to suspend our longstanding unimaginative streak.
Besides, did you realize that linebackers are important?
Collin Klein, The Most Important Player in America
By Matt Brown
Let's start with the bad. Saturday night, Nov. 17 in Waco, Texas, heavily favored Kansas State encounters the nation's worst defense. The Wildcats were 10-0 and ready to make it 11, ready to further stake their claim to the national title. Except Collin Klein had nowhere to run. He had just 39 rushing yards on 17 attempts, and threw three interceptions -- the first multi-interception game of his career.
And with the Wildcats' 52-24 defeat, they became almost an afterthought, a shocking blowout loss and then a bye week, just as Johnny Football was taking college football by storm and Notre Dame kept winning. In one game out of 12, Kansas State is eliminated from the national championship picture, and Klein gets knocked off his Heisman perch and has a steep mountain to climb back up. When you're Kansas State, no matter how much Bill Snyder has done, the margin for error is nearly zero.
Still, even talking about Kansas State as a national title favorite is remarkable in itself, and for as much as Kansas State's renewed success is tied to Snyder -- and deservedly so, after he brought the program back from the dead for the second time, now in his 70s -- it is just as much tied to the play of Collin Klein, running quarterback extraordinaire, the most important player in college football.
"Well, I don't know about everybody else, but I don't know anybody who means more to his football team than Collin Klein," said Snyder, the coach who means as much to his football team as any other.
It's a perfect marriage of player and coach, of pupil and teacher, the two centerpieces of a football team reliant on finding just the right pieces to compete: a Big 12 version of Boise State, one that doesn't have access to the same talent pool as Texas and Oklahoma, Alabama and Georgia, but plays cohesive football, gets the most out of its talent and beats you anyway. That freshman backup Daniel Sams, another great athlete, could wind up being a brilliant quarterback for Kansas State is beside the point. This is Klein's team, and not just because of a whole mess of intangibles that surely exist but are not necessarily relevant to this discussion. He's a great leader, yes; by all accounts he's just about a perfect citizen off the field, too. That's important, but it's not even needed to justify his inclusion in the Heisman discussion.
Collin Klein is great college football player, period, one with a skillset we've rarely seen. One bad game doesn't make a season; lest we forget, Johnny Manziel threw three picks and had no touchdowns in a loss to LSU, too. While Manziel has the gaudier numbers, his stats benefit from Texas A&M's faster pace, a factor that provides important context to any numbers relevant to the Heisman. Texas A&M ran 959 plays in its up-tempo spread attack, while Kansas State ran only 771 as it methodically controlled the clock and broke defenses down. That's a difference of nearly 16 plays per game, yet Klein still threw for 2,490 yards (completing 66.2 percent of his attempts), ran for 890 yards, scored 22 rushing touchdowns and threw 15 touchdown passes. He's the first quarterback ever to rush for more than 20 touchdowns and throw more than 10 in consecutive seasons. Only three college quarterbacks have even done it once -- Cam Newton, Tim Tebow and Eric Crouch -- and they all won the Heisman, as Kansas State's PR department has repeatedly emphasized. (To be fair, Manziel came up one rushing touchdown short of that arbitrary round number, while also throwing 24 touchdown passes, and he can reach 20 rushing in the Cotton Bowl.)
None of this is to say Klein should win over Manziel, but the statistical gap is not as large as it seems -- not when Klein is one of only seven QBs in America to average more than nine yards per pass attempt, even though he's thought of as a run-first QB; not when he's made significant strides as a passer while continuing to dazzle with his running ability and carry the Wildcats on his back. The perception was that he couldn't throw consistently, couldn't pass to win. While that's partially true in that he's a run-first QB, and while he likely won't succeed in the NFL as a traditional quarterback, he fits perfectly into the offense Kansas State has crafted around him.
There's last year's TD run against Oklahoma: ball at the 42-yard line, he follows his fullback, finds the hole, ducks his 6-foot-5 frame down toward the level of 5-foot-7 backfield mate John Hubert, brushes off a tackler, bounces toward the outside and then out-runs the Oklahoma secondary down the sideline with a great second gear, looking a little like Cam Newton. There's the long strides that make him look like he's effortlessly gliding past defenders. There's the way he runs patiently and overtly directs traffic to get what he wants out of his blockers. And then there's the perfect deep strike with a pass rusher about to plant him into the turf.
For all the niceties about his personality, Klein's also the kind of quarterback who will not think twice about lowering his shoulder and running you over if you're a 240-pound linebacker who dares get in his way, that is, if he doesn't juke and sprint past you first. He's a big QB who can run like a fullback, yes, like Tebow, but he also has a little Newton in him, when you combine the size with his burst and breakaway speed. Those attributes made him a wide receiver when he first arrived in Manhattan under Ron Prince, who, in his disastrous tenure, at least managed to leave a secret weapon hiding at the wrong position for Snyder to find.
The first Heisman Trophy in Kansas State history -- Michael Bishop finished second in 1998, but in a landslide loss to Ricky Williams -- would mean a great deal and would be a fitting conclusion to Klein's career, but it's not necessary to validate the mark he made on this program. Twenty-one wins in two seasons with a Fiesta bowl left, Big 12 champions and the perfect wingman for Snyder, the program builder who has what was once the worst program in college football back at the forefront of the national discussion, back in New York on the second Saturday in December. Perhaps Sams will take the Wildcats just as far or even farther, but Klein was the perfect quarterback to lay the groundwork, and one November loss doesn't change the big picture.
Braxton Miller, The Cat's Meow
By Todd Jones
Football leaves little for the imagination. The hard game is more rock-pounding and ditch-digging than free-spirited paint being stroked onto a canvas. Coaches sink into their bunkers, hostages to their own analyzing and organizing, all seeking control through preparation, for that's what each week's metaphorical invasion of Normandy demands. If they do this, you do that, this will happen, that will be the end result. Got it? It's all there on the film.
Braxton Miller's game doesn't fit his environment. He's here and he's there, often wonderful, sometimes maddening. Defenders find tackling the Ohio State quarterback to be like lassoing a wisp of smoke. Miller is unpredictable with the ball in his hands, juking, spinning, stopping and accelerating. His passing is unrefined, yet capable of being a dagger when least expected. His feet are quick pistons propelling him through slivers of space. Miller is jazz in a football world accustomed to the droning sound of over-prepared monotony. First-and-10, do it again goes the mantra, except when occasional players come along who hear a certain sound not tied to the well-known musical scale. In the Jazz Age, that person would have been known as the big cheese, the cat's meow. They're special.
Special is the word Urban Meyer has used about Miller since he took the Ohio State coaching job one year ago. Meyer inherited a proud program left in disarray by NCAA trouble and a 6-7 record. In the rubble, however, he saw a precocious quarterback, one who flashed brilliance as a freshman while also suffering the mistakes of youth. The kid had a knack for making stuff happen even when he didn't know what he was doing.
"He was scared at times, just running around, throwing it," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said.
Still, the green Miller was named the Big Ten freshman of the year. And he did it with panache. He made defenders look bad. One Indiana safety simply fell on his face as Miller dashed 20 yards for a score. Fellow Buckeyes chuckled at times during film sessions, seeing their raw QB make a magical move. Meyer declared Miller to be "the most dynamic athlete I've ever coached," before this year's first game. The new coach sprinkled jazz lingo into descriptions of the kid from Springfield, Ohio, while demanding perfection in an up-tempo, spread offense based on quarterback reads.
"I'm putting a lot of pressure on this cat already, because he's special," Meyer said in the heat of August.
By October, his sophomore quarterback had dashed into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Miller struck fear in opponents when the rest of the Buckeyes were harmless as monks. He seemed to grow every week, layers of confidence lathered onto his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame. He began recognizing defenses, changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on formations, many flooding the box to corral the scarlet-and-grey cat. Miller started being a quarterback in more than just title. His passes weren't always on target. Too often his feet got tangled into knots, causing his throwing mechanics to get out of whack. His running, however, left folks breathless. He showed lateral, crab-like speed and an instinctive field of vision. His personal favorite highlight occurred at Penn State in what the game notes describe as a one-yard run. Those three feet gained came wrapped in mink. Miller was supposed to hand off to Carlos Hyde, but he pulled the ball away as the Nittany Lions blew up the line with a bull-rush. The quick-thinking QB stepped back, faked linebacker Gerald Hodges, contorted himself to avoid another would-be tackler and dove into the end zone.
"We have a drill: Make seven people miss and dive across," Meyer joked afterward.
Those high-style moments can't be taught. Like jazz, Miller kept improvising on runs, swinging with an openness to possibilities. A high-stepping, change-of-pace move here. A juke, spin and dive there. The Buckeyes kept winning, and never stopped. They finished 12-0, becoming only the sixth team in Ohio State history to go unbeaten and untied. Miller's personal statistics dropped off in the final two games -- wins over Wisconsin and rival Michigan -- as Hyde provided aid as an improved running force. His power complemented the quarterback's quick feet, the two styles meshing while remaining distinct. The sound of production, however, occurred in a vacuum, as the Buckeyes played the season under a one-year bowl ban because of NCAA sanctions. In the end, Miller's incredible statistics -- an Ohio State single-season record of 3,310 total yards of offense -- earned him the honors of Big Ten offensive player and quarterback of the year. His 2,039 passing yards, 1,271 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns weren't enough to deem him worthy of a trip to New York City as a Heisman finalist. Boundaries, however, don't hem him in. His future is wide open, an undefined tune.
"The sky's the limit," Miller said.
While his skills must still be honed, no one debates Miller's toughness. He took some viscous shots this year, beginning with 44 carries in the season's first two games. Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis tripped him out of bounds, where he slid headfirst into a huge equipment box. Later that game, he hit the turf because of sudden knee pain, causing Meyer to say his own heart was close to stopping. Purdue cornerback Josh Johnson slammed Miller to the ground so hard that an ambulance took him to the hospital because of dizziness and a whiplash sensation in his neck. Miller started at Penn State a week later, shook off his inaccurate passing in the first half, and churned out another win for the Buckeyes with a fearlessness and persistence that draws raves from teammates. In the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties, they would have called him hard-boiled.
"We've got a freaking dude at quarterback," Meyer said.
Meyer has a high bar for comparison. Tim Tebow won the 2007 Heisman while playing for him at Florida, where they won two national championships together. Alex Smith blossomed under Meyer's tutelage at Utah to become the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NFL draft. "Not that close," the coach said when asked at season's end how far off Miller is to being the player he can be. And the even-keel player took the assessment as truth, exuding a refreshing willingness to work harder. Miller knows he needs to scramble more efficiently and pass more accurately. He needs to become more comfortable in the pocket. And the humble, soft-spoken sophomore must further blossom as a leader, which he has improved on exponentially since Meyer took over and pounded that theme daily into his ears.
"I think it'll be comical what he'll do," Meyer said, "but he's not there yet."
Like jazz, you can't predict where he's going next, but the possibilities are rich.
Todd Jones is a senior reporter for The Columbus Dispatch