At this point, the race for the 2012 Heisman Trophy is very clearly a two-man race—though it should be a one-man race.
He's a bit biased, but Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said it best on Saturday when he told Fox 28 in Indiana:
If a guy like Manti Te'o is not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award. Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.
It's a tough call. It's a lot harder to ascertain the true impact of a defensive player—especially a linebacker—than it is to figure out just how much a guy like Johnny Manziel means to Texas A&M. Defense is more of a group project; offense, especially when you're a quarterback, is all about individual statistics.
Johnny Manziel is the best quarterback in football. He's the best offensive player in football. He's had plenty of Heisman moments and he's helped Texas A&M thrive in a conference that once laughed at the idea of the Aggies being competitive.
But Te'o's resume, though a little less flashy, is just as impressive.
You can have the best stats among all linebackers in college football and it's still virtually impossible to say, This player is the one and only reason why his team won this game. But it's easy to say that about a quarterback, especially one like Manziel, who has proven time and time again this season that he can and will carry the Texas A&M Aggies on his back.
Te'o, however, has carried the Irish on his back, too. It's just harder to define his impact.
The tough thing about thinking objectively about this Heisman race is that it's hard to separate the emotions from the facts. Te'o's story is one that any fan can get behind. Even USC fans have to like Te'o. He put off the NFL, and the millions of dollars it would bring, for one more chance to do something special with the Irish. He's endured more personal tragedy in the span of the last year than any college student deserves. He's indisputably likable.
But the tragedy just adds to his credibility as a Heisman contender. It doesn't define it, and it certainly doesn't detract from it.
Who should win the Heisman?
People want to make it complicated, but it really is as simple as what Kelly said after his team took down the Trojans to remain undefeated in 2012: Te'o has been the backbone, the heart and soul of the top-ranked team in college football.
He may not be the quarterback, and he may not be leading the game-winning drive every week, but he's certainly thwarted enough of his opponents' potentially game-winning drives to be in serious consideration for the award. That matters just as much as throwing the victory-sealing TD pass.
Notre Dame didn't become the No. 1 team this season because of Everett Golson, solid as he's been. It didn't become No. 1 because of any offensive player. It became No. 1 and beat 12 consecutive teams because it has the second best defense in football. Having a great defense is the most valuable asset any team in the NCAA can have, and Te'o is the primary reason the Irish have that asset.
The Irish wouldn't be undefeated without Te'o. They may not even be in bowl contention without Te'o. He's gotten them this far. He may not have the most total yards of any player in SEC history, but he has a 12-0 season and a chance to compete in the national championship.
And those stats are just as significant.