From a stellar high school career to outstanding college play, Manti Te'o has rightfully earned his place as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy in 2012.
In his senior season, Te'o has etched himself in Fighting Irish history. He is one of only 10 players to record over 300 tackles during a college career, taking the eighth spot overall, with the most in Notre Dame history.
There's no question Te'o is one of the great college players today, and he is sure to be a high draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
A Heisman Trophy is in his sights, and for the rest of the 2012 season, Te'o will separate himself to become the No. 1 candidate expected to win the honor.
Notre Dame has been fortunate to have Te'o at the linebacker position. In his freshman season in 2009, Te'o played in all 12 games and started in 10. He recorded 63 tackles on the season, the third-most ever by a freshman at Notre Dame.
Te'o had continued success in his second year, leading the Irish in tackles with 133 and was second in tackles for loss with 9.5.
At this point, Te'o was regarded as one of the best defensive players in college football. Notre Dame finished its season 8-5 and became Sun Bowl Champions, defeating the University of Miami 33-17.
In 2011, Te'o again led the team in total tackles with 128 and increased his tackles-for-loss statistic to a career-high 13.5. He also finished the season second in sacks with five.
His fantastic play garnered him the 2011 FBS Independent Defensive Player of the Year award, and rightfully so.
This year, his senior season, Te'o has established himself as one of the best players in college. As one of his team's captains, he leads a defense that has not allowed a rushing touchdown so far in the season.
Through seven games, Te'o has tallied 69 tackles and four interceptions for 35 yards. He continues to be a terrorizing force for both passing and running attacks from opposing teams and, as mentioned, he is on track to be a Heisman finalist.
This brings the importance of the Oklahoma Sooners game to a heightened level.
For the first time in 46 years, the Irish will visit Oklahoma and play a game with BCS National Championship implications.
Notre Dame is ranked fifth with an undefeated record of 7-0. Irish fans believe that the team is finally in the discussion to become a national title contender.
At the same time, even though Oklahoma already has a loss on the season, the Sooners aren't completely ruled out of the national title game either, as they have dominated in all of their wins, usually by large margins.
In order for Oklahoma to remain in the hunt, it will have to continue to dominate teams and force a loss for a few undefeated teams, starting with the Irish.
The Sooner offense, led by quarterback Landry Jones, has played lights-out ball.
In the Sooners' last two games, the offense has amassed 1,083 total yards—647 of which were in the air—and scored 12 touchdowns.
While those numbers leave people in awe, against a solid Fighting Irish defense, the Sooners will have a tougher time maintaining that kind of production.
Notre Dame has only allowed an average of 9.4 points, where it ranks second in defense behind Alabama.
The Irish have also picked off opponents 12 times and given up just a mere five passing touchdowns.
This defense, led by Te'o, will certainly give the Sooners problems, and a stellar game by Te'o can help separate himself from the rest of the pack in the Heisman running.
Big numbers and clutch play by Te'o against a Sooner team trying to remain in the BCS national title game discussion will prove to be one of his defining moments as a member of the Fighting Irish.
He has already posted record numbers and put himself in Notre Dame history, so helping to knock off a contender and keeping the Irish's undefeated streak alive will do both him and the team some good.
Landry Jones will give Te'o all the opportunity in the world to post big interception numbers. The Sooners' run play can help him boost his tackle numbers and maybe force a fumble or two.
Believe it or not, a high-octane offense like Oklahoma gives Te'o a great opportunity to make big shutdown plays, which can't hurt him with Heisman voters.
All in all, this game is large for both teams and personally for Te'o. In many people's eyes, he will go down as one of the best linebackers in Notre Dame history, and it will be interesting to see if he can duplicate his dominance in the NFL.
But for now, Te'o faces a big task at hand against the Oklahoma Sooners, both on his quest for the Heisman Trophy and in helping Notre Dame realize its dream of winning the BCS National Championship in his final year.
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