It has been the Notre Dame mantra all season: focus only on what you can control.
The result is an 11-0 record and undisputed control of the No. 1 spot in the BCS with just USC remaining on the schedule.
To get to this point, the Irish have relied on their top-ranked defense to keep games within reach for their developing offense led by Everett Golson, a red-shirt sophomore.
Captaining that defense has been senior linebacker Manti Te’o.
With 96 total tackles and six interceptions—second-most in the FBS—Te’o has been so good this season that it has been hard for voters to ignore him for Heisman candidacy.
Experts have cycled through a list of names—mostly quarterbacks and running backs—including Matt Barkley (USC), Braxton Miller (Ohio State), Kenjon Barner (Oregon), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), and Collin Klein (K-State).
However, Manti Te’o has yet to fall away or instill doubt the way Barkley, Miller, Barner, McCarron and Klein have.
But, instead of rising in their place, Texas A&M’s freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel leads the pack, despite the fact that no freshman has ever won the award.
On Saturday, Notre Dame will renew their rivalry with the USC Trojans, with a trip to the BCS National Championship Game on the line.
Trust that Manti Te’o and the Irish will be focused on that above all else, but a nice side effect for Te’o is that he is poised to have a big game that could help him leapfrog Manziel in the ratings.
Having been on the business end of a brutal sack against UCLA last week, Matt Barkley will be out against the Irish on Saturday. In his place is the untested freshman, Max Wittek.
Wittek will benefit from top receivers like Robert Woods and Marquise Lee—who is currently fourth in Heisman voting.
Notre Dame can take away the rush and force teams to the air, where they have allowed just 2,147 yards and six touchdowns this season.
There is also a mental edge that comes with a game of this magnitude.
Te’o has been as much a mental leader as a physical presence this season. It remains to be seen if Wittek has the mental fortitude to counter that—although he certainly has the swagger, guaranteeing a Trojan victory and fueling the Irish’ motivation.
Currently, Te’o is second in Heisman voting this week with three first-place votes to Manziel’s ten. Te’o also leads in second-place votes, with five.
It is hard to make the argument for Te’o, because defensive impact is so difficult to quantify. Even above Te’o’s game-by-game stats on ESPN.com, a disclaimer indicates “Defensive statistics not considered official.”
College football thrives on a fine blend of statistics and emotions.
Arbitrary arguments have been used to justify consideration for A.J. McCarron, even though he had less than 2300 yards and just 244 passing attempts.
Experts argued McCarron’s merit because he was the quarterback and leader of the then-top-ranked team in the nation.
Now, it is Manti Te’o who leads the top-ranked team in the nation.
If Manziel falters this week, particularly against a middle-of-the-road Mizzou defense, there should be no excuse not to see a rise in voting for Te’o.
Still, the only way for Te’o to keep voters talking is to stay focused on what he can control.