With six weeks separating No. 1 Notre Dame from its appearance in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7, the attention for the next two weeks will be on the awards circuit and Irish middle linebacker Manti Te'o.
The honors will be numerous for Te'o. The senior is a lock to be an All-American and is the overwhelming favorite for the Butkus Award (top linebacker) and Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player). However, Te'o's also a candidate for the most prestigious trophy in sports, the Heisman Trophy, which will be awarded for the 78th time on Dec. 8 in New York City.
Let's cut to the chase. Either Te'o or Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will claim the Heisman Trophy. There are no other candidates. Collin Klein's chances went out the door with his team's national title hopes two weeks ago in Waco, and neither Alabama nor Georgia, the two remaining title contenders besides the Irish, have a single player who can match the performances of Te'o and Manziel.
The Heisman Trophy has almost always gone to an offensive player, making Manziel the slight favorite at this point. Both players have concluded their regular seasons, so their respective resumes are now complete.
Manziel broke Cam Newton's SEC total offense record on Saturday night, finishing the season with 24 passing touchdowns and 19 rushing touchdowns. However, as Heisman voters begin to cast their ballots this week, the top line should be reserved for Te'o.
Yes, Manziel's numbers are fairly astonishing but go back just one year to what Case Keenum did in Kevin Sumlin's offense at Houston. Keenum threw for 48 touchdown passes and over 5,600 yards, numbers far superior to Manziel. Even as a sixth-year senior, Keenum garnered little attention in the Heisman Trophy race and was not one of the five finalists to travel to New York.
In Manziel's defense, he has played far greater defenses than what Keenum faced, but the takeaway is that more quarterbacks than just Manziel can put up flashy statistics in Sumlin's modified Air Raid offense. Manziel also benefited from two games against FCS opponents as well as the porous defenses of SMU and Louisiana Tech. There is no other linebacker who can do what Te'o does, and there is no such thing as a "system linebacker."
It's hard to forget Manziel's performance at top-ranked Alabama earlier in this month, in which he led a stunning 29-24 upset against the Crimson Tide. However, in the Aggies' two other big games, the offense failed to reach 20 points in home losses to Florida and LSU. Conversely, Te'o was at his best when the lights were brightest, with four of his interceptions coming in wins over Michigan, Oklahoma and USC.
Can you simply ignore the losses to the Gators and Tigers just because Manziel beat Alabama? Winning the Heisman Trophy should require more than just one big performance in a spotlight game. Te'o helped hold the explosive offenses of Oklahoma and USC to just 13 points each, and earlier in the season, the Irish went three-straight games without allowing a touchdown.
Finally, Te'o is the personality that exemplifies what college football is all about. He turned down the NFL Draft to return to South Bend to complete his degree and compete for a national championship. His story has been told many times, with Te'o having done countless interviews with every media outlet imaginable. Te'o is the face of the Notre Dame football program and has handled the spotlight with the poise of someone far beyond his 21 years of age. Manziel will speak publicly for the first time on Monday afternoon, having been sheltered from the media up to this point.
Would Manziel be a deserving winner should his name be called a week from Saturday? Absolutely. But is he truly the most outstanding player in college football this season? I'm not convinced that he is. That honor should belong to Te'o.
When we recall each college football season gone by, there is often one player who immediately comes to mind. In 2010, it was Cam Newton. In 2007, it was Tim Tebow. Both of those players were awarded the Heisman Trophy.
When we reflect upon the 2012 college football season in the coming years, Te'o will be forever linked to the events of the past 13 weeks. That's why Te'o should join Newton, Tebow and 74 others in the exclusive fraternity of Heisman Trophy winners.