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One man’s vote for the Heisman Trophy: it’s Te’o time

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 10:00 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — No freshman has ever won the Heisman Trophy. The only one that finished second was Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson, in 2004, well behind Southern Cal’s Matt Leinart and just ahead of teammate Jason White, the 2003 winner.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel could be about to change that.

Or ...

The only defensive player to ever win perhaps the most recognizable award in sports was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson, who of course also played some wide receiver and returned kicks.

But Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o could be about to change that.

They’re two of the three finalists who’ll be in New York for Saturday’s announcement. The other is Kansas State QB Collin Klein, who like Te’o is a senior.

Not that long ago, the hardware was Klein’s to lose. Then his team, which had risen to first in the polls, lost badly at Baylor. And just like that, the race was on again.

Sort of like last year, when Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden was everybody’s front-runner at the same point in the season. Then his team lost in multiple overtimes at Iowa State, right after there had been a tragic air crash involving the women’s basketball coach at the school. And Weeden somehow didn’t even finish in the top 10. I know stuff happens, but that was a little tough to figure.

Anyway, the popular wisdom seems to be that “Johnny Football” is going to make history. He certainly put up the numbers, in the country’s premier conference. Better numbers than even Tim Tebow had when he won as a sophomore in 2007, or Cam Newton posted two years ago when he ignited Auburn’s magical ride. And maybe that alone should be sufficient. Manziel also has the nickname, and he had his Heisman moment in that late-season win at Alabama.

But, for whatever it’s worth, his stats weren’t all that in the Aggies’ two losses, both at home, against Florida in early September and LSU in mid-October. Just saying.

Te’o was obviously the poster boy for most everything Notre Dame accomplished this season. And that carries a ton of weight. We’ll soon find out exactly how much.

For better or worse, the Heisman doesn’t always go to the so-called best player. Because that isn’t always easy to define. It could be a cornerback in the Pac-12, or a guard at Vanderbilt. That’s for the NFL draft to decide. The Heisman has basically become a popularity contest. It usually goes to the highest-profile skill players, on the highest-profile teams. Simple as that. USC wideout Marqise Lee was a highlight reel many weeks. But his team lost five games. You just can’t overcome that in today’s world. Oregon had three guys who, at different points in the season, you might have considered. But that’s at least one too many. Maybe if the Ducks had finished unbeaten instead of stumbling late.

Manziel might not finish first-team on at least some All-America teams. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think he shouldn’t win just because he’s a freshman. That shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Nor do I think Te’o should win just because he played for the team that did something no other Notre Dame team has done in a quarter-century. But I realize how that works, too. I don’t even know if he’s the best linebacker in the country. I do know I watched a pretty good one from Georgia in the SEC final. But the bottom line is, voting for either Te’o or Klein is almost like voting for an MVP. And that might be OK too.

I’m one of about 1,000 folks who have an official say in this. I have been for a couple of years now. And I try to take it very, very seriously, because it matters. So I gave this a lot of thought. I really favored Klein, to be honest. But in the end I went with Te’o. I could have made a case for all of them and not been wrong. I put Manziel third. I’m probably in the minority. But that’s my story and there’s no going back.

The only thing that’s certain is somebody’s life is never going to be the same. If it’s Manziel, he’ll have almost too much to live up to. Tebow would finish third as a junior, when the Gators won the national title, and fifth as a senior, when they were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 before losing to Alabama (and eventual winner Mark Ingram) in the SEC title game. And if it’s not Manziel, well, Peterson suffered injuries the next two years and didn’t finish in the top 10. Then he left early for the pros. Sometimes you only get one real shot, even when youth is on your side.

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