Manti Te'o made history in 2012, becoming the first player to win both the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards. The Maxwell, awarded to the most outstanding player in college football, is traditionally given to an offensive player (Te'o was the first defender to win since 1980), but that's how uniquely spectacular his season was.
The Bednarik, given to the nation's top defensive player, has only existed since 1995. It took 18 years for one player to win both awards, so naturally, as most would expect, it should take about as long before another guy accomplishes the feat. Right?
Wrong. At least potentially. Calling for back-to-back Maxwell-Bednarik winners seems bold, but if anyone has a chance to buck history, it would have to be Jadeveon Clowney. South Carolina's star defensive end isn't just a great player, he's a transcendent player. And that makes him a serious threat for the Maxwell...if not more.
That word used above— transcendent—gets tossed around far too often. It's become the type of bombastic descriptor used by Stephen A. Smith, a hyperbole in the sports world that few actually understand. Transcendent means, beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience. Immanuel Kant used it to describe that which lies beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know. It's a very powerful word.
And yet, even after accepting the word's epic gravitas, one could still easily ascribe it to Clowney. He is truly an athlete beyond the range of normal human experience. Just ask ESPN's Todd McShay, who, after studying the top six defensive lineman in the SEC—and saying that all would probably be first- or second-round draft picks—conceded that Clowney was not of this Earth:
But who needs McShay to tell them that? We all have eyes, don't we? We saw what Clowney did last season, the way he mutilated defenses despite facing constant, harrying double-teams. After recording eight sacks as a true freshman in 2011, Clowney immediately became the focal point of opposing offenses. And yet, he still increased his sack total by 38 percent, up to a total of 13, the following year.
Clowney only got better as the seasons went on, too. His best game was the Gamecocks' regular season finale, a bitter in-state matchup with Clemson—one of America's top offensive units. Despite the attention focused on him, and despite Tajh Boyd, a highly mobile quarterback, lining up under center, Clowney still managed to finish with 4.5 sacks. The Gamecocks went on to win by 10, and Clemson went on to subsequently beat LSU.
South Carolina's following game, its last of the season, was the Outback Bowl against Michigan. Clowney finished with two tackles for loss, one of which will live forever in college football lore. With South Carolina trailing late and needing to regain possession, the sport's most transcendent defensive end made the year's most transcendent defensive play:
Which is all to say yes, rather emphatically, Clowney does have a realistic shot at winning the Maxwell Award in 2013. He shouldn't be the betting favorite—defensive players are at a disadvantage, and last year's Heisman Trophy winner is back in school—but no one would bat an eyelash if he came out on top.
There are other factors working in his favor as well. The schedule sets up nicely, bookending itself with teams Clowney has always fared well against. He gets Georgia and Vanderbilt in Weeks 2 and 3, two of his favorite victims within the SEC. In four combined games against the Bulldogs and Commodores, Clowney has six sacks and eight tackles for loss. He ends the year with Coastal Carolina—whom Clowney might treat the way Spain treated Tahiti in the Confederations Cup—and Clemson, against whom he has recorded 5.5 sacks in two career games.
That means Clowney should start the year fast, which is always important for one's Maxwell candidacy, and finish with a second flourish, when voters are physically filling out their ballots. The schedule also gives Clowney a (relative) break by avoiding the SEC's top pass-blocking tackles. Texas A&M and Alabama, both of whom have projected first-round tackles (Jake Matthews and Cyrus Kouandjio), do not appear on the Gamecocks' schedule. Neither does the underrated La'el Collins and his Tigers of LSU.
Lastly, and perhaps most underrated of all, Clowney is flanked by another great defensive end. Opposing defenses can double- or triple-team Clowney, but only at their own peril. His pass-rushing partner-in-crime, Kelcy Quarles, made Phil Steele's Preseason All-SEC Second Team. On almost every defense in the world's best defensive conference, he would be the primary pass-rusher. Opposing coaches can't just leave him on an island and send three blockers toward Clowney.
The Gamecocks also ran their signature "rabbit" package last year under new defensive boss Lorenzo Ward. By forcing offenses into third-and-long passing situations, they lined up four defensive ends along the line. That kind of speed is difficult to handle and helps free up more and more room for Clowney to operate. So, as long as the new pieces along South Carolina's front four get after it, Clowney will continue to wreak havoc.
Te'o was great last year, but he couldn't have won the Maxwell without a solid cast around him. Guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Zeke Motta all aided Te'o in his year of wonders. If Clowney gets the same aid from guys like Quarles, Brison Williams and whoever else lines up on the Gamecocks' defensive unit, there's no reason he won't enjoy the same success.
If Te'o can steal the Maxwell Award from Johnny Manziel, Clowney should be able to do it twice over.