Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, not Kansas State QB Collin Klein or Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, deserves the Heisman Trophy. He might not get it—and it wouldn't surprise us if he doesn't—but he deserves it.
Te'o is the leader of one of the best defenses in the nation, on the top-ranked team in the nation. He's tied for third in the nation with seven interceptions. He also has seven tackles for a loss, four passes broken up and four quarterback hurries. His 103 tackles lead Notre Dame by a wide, wide margin—the next-highest teammates are CB Bennett Jackson and S Zeke Motta, and they've each only got 61.
Now, much has been made of the fact that Te'o is not even in the Top 50 of tackles nationwide, and considering he plays a tackle-heavy position like middle linebacker, that would seem to be problematic. But this is lazy thinking, pure and simple, and it needs to be deconstructed.
Would you rather have your defense force a three-and-out in which it gets two tackles and an incomplete pass...or give up a 15-play scoring drive with 14 tackles? Right. Racking up tackles isn't automatically a great sign.
This isn't just some idle thought exercise, either. Of the top 11 tacklers in the nation (there's a three-way tie at ninth), only two come from a team that's even in the top 80 of defenses nationwide: Anthony Hitchens of Iowa and Avery Williamson of Kentucky. And those two teams didn't even come near going to a bowl. The average rank of the team defenses for those top 11 tacklers? Ninety-first in the nation. Those are bad defenses.
What's more, just considering teams with the top-12 defenses in the nation—as in, the top 10 percent of the FBS—all of a sudden Te'o isn't tied for 59th in the nation. Among players on those elite defenses, he's third in tackles, behind only UConn's Yawin Smallwood and LSU's Kevin Minter. Make no mistake, those guys had fine seasons, but they're nowhere near as complete in terms of skill set as Te'o is.
There's also the issue of how to deal with the tragedies Te'o endured early on in the season, when his grandmother and longtime girlfriend both passed away on the same day. Te'o fought through the grief to play in the aftermath of those personal losses and excelled on the field in tribute to those women. That's commendable and it should be considered with the rest of Teo's Heisman resume.
Klein and Manziel partisans might wonder why their favorite players are thus being comparatively punished because those guys didn't lose two loved ones during the year. That type of thinking is crass and cynical, and if you disagree then you're probably enjoying the luxury of having never been in Te'o's situation.
Do you know what a year in which none of the people you love die is? A fantastic year. And a year in which two people you love die is a horrible year. We are purely certain that Te'o would trade any number of his personal accolades and even his bid at a national championship to have his grandmother and girlfriend back. Life doesn't work that way, obviously, but let's be clear: Klein and Manziel will never be the ones suffering most for Te'o's losses.
That unpleasantness aside, let's take one last look at Te'o. He's the leader on and off the field of the No. 1 team in the nation, Notre Dame. He's by far the most productive player on a Top-10 defense loaded with talent, leading the team in tackles by 42 and recording eight turnovers in the process.
Nobody gives up fewer points than Notre Dame and Te'o is a huge reason why. He fought through deep personal adversity in the process and has been an absolutely ideal citizen throughout the season and his entire career.
That, to us, is the kind of guy who deserves the Heisman Trophy.