The best individual defense performance I’ve ever witnessed—at any level—was Ndamukong Suh’s wrecking ball impersonation in the 2009 Big 12 Championship.
His numbers were staggering, although they didn’t adequately reflect his 100-percent dominance. It’s hard to fathom 12 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks not quite doing his game justice, but that was the kind of game it was for Suh.
Just ask Colt McCoy and the Texas offensive line tasked with “attempting” to slow him down.
Despite Suh’s efforts, Nebraska lost 13-12 to the Longhorns on a 46-yard field goal by Hunter Lawrence. This kick propelled them into the national championship unbeaten—a game they would go on to lose—while Suh’s squad finished up the year at 9-4. Before the season concluded, Suh was invited to New York City as a Heisman finalist.
Although there was a fair amount of buzz surrounding him given the game he had played and also his fantastic season, he finished fourth in voting that year behind Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Stanford’s Toby Gerhart and McCoy.
His 166 first-place votes and 815 total points were well behind Ingram’s 1,304 total points, which would propel him to victory. It was one of the closer overall votes in recent memory, but a defensive player was once again shut out of the Heisman.
Suh was college football’s best player in 2009, not just the most impressive talent on his side of the ball. He didn’t play in the national championship game or put up the massive rushing numbers that Gerhart did, but he was far and away the game’s most “outstanding” force.
And even in a year in which the award is very much up for grabs, he didn’t even make the podium. This is what Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is up against in 2012 and what all defensive players must overcome to obtain college football’s ultimate hardware.
Of the 41 Heisman finalists to make it to New York City since 2002, only two have come from the defensive side of the football. Tyrann Mathieu’s appearance last year marked the only other defensive player to be included in the festivities. Mathieu finished fifth in voting, grabbing only 34 first-place votes. His presence wasn’t just on defense, however. He was also the nation’s premier punt returner, adding two touchdowns and nearly a 16-yard-per-return average.
The last defensive player to win the award—Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997—boasted a similar resume. With special teams, defense (he was very special) and even three touchdowns on offense, Woodson did it all. For most members of a defense, however, this kind of active participation in all areas will never be possible.
They play one position, they rarely touch the ball, and there’s a high probability they will never find the end zone. It’s a hard sell given the brand of football in 2012—and the scoreboard destruction that is taking place—but it’s not impossible. Well, perhaps it is. To be quite honest, we just don’t know. We talk about it as if it can happen, and many would love to see it, but filling out the ballots is a different story.
Manti Te’o is trying to be the one that breaks through, although his chances of actually snagging the award should still be viewed as a significant long shot.
You can argue that Te’o might not even be the best defensive player in the country—my vote would go with South Carolina’s defensive end/freak of nature Jadeveon Clowney—but he’s the man in the middle for one of the nation’s best defenses.
He also happens to playing for college football’s biggest brand, which certainly won’t hurt his candidacy.
In terms of numbers, there’s plenty to like. Only three players in the country have more interceptions, and his 9.86 tackles per game are good for 24th overall. Much like Suh in 2009, the numbers are very impressive, but they don’t do the player—and more importantly the season—the justice he deserves.
For Te’o to have a realistic chance to not just be invited to New York but to win the award, he first needs Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein to lose a game and come back down to earth. Both are very much feasible, but Klein’s performance through more than the first half of the season has been nothing short of perfection. He is the winner at this moment, and frankly it’s not all that close.
After him, however, things are wide open. Geno Smith’s Heisman campaign went up in flames like a Morgantown couch following back-to-back blowout losses—one of which came on Klein’s behalf.
A.J. McCarron, Matt Barkley, Kenjon Barner and Braxton Miller are some of the other names being bandied about in this discussion, but none are viewed on the same level as Klein. Te’o is very much included in this group, although things change on a week-to-week, game-to-game basis.
And on this very topic, Te’o’s potential Heisman-maker or -breaker is here. Freshman quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel had his opportunity against LSU last week, only to see his run put on temporary hold with his team’s loss. It may not surface again this year, but we’ll hear his name tied to this award down the road.
For Te’o, this is it. With an upset win against Oklahoma, he’ll be in this discussion until the very end. A loss—even in a game where he plays brilliantly—and he’ll likely lose all hopes of winning and perhaps even a trip to New York.
Taking it one step further, Notre Dame likely has to finish the season unbeaten for him to have a legitimate shot. This seems incredibly unlikely at this point with a tough road stop at Southern Cal on the docket. The room for error is so unfairly small to begin with, and for a defensive player, it’s even more improbable.
If Te’o’s Heisman campaign comes undone in Norman, it’s been an enjoyable two-and-a-half-month stretch. If not, we’ll gladly watch it grow a little longer.
Given his level of play, his leadership and the losses he's had to cope with off the field this season, however, there seems to be no better candidate to tear down these Heisman walls and perhaps change the way we view the award going forward.