The Heisman Case For ... Manti Te'o
Posted Nov 20, 2012

Tuesday Question: The Heisman Case For ... Manti Te'o

By Bart Doan
Follow me @Bart_cfn

The Heisman is clear as mud, and subject to change weekly. But right now it should enter rarely charted territory. It should go for the second time in college football history, to a primarily defensive player.

Aside from Charles Woodson's Heisman win in 1997, it has been since Gordie Lockbaum of Holy Cross in 1987 that any player that played on that side of the ball finished in the top three of the voting, and he was also a two way player. So you go back to 1972 and Rich Glover of Nebraska, third in the voting to find your last guy to finish in the top three.

Why is that? Shouldn't an award for the "most outstanding college football player" include both sides? This year, it must. Manti Te'o has shone brightly above the rest in leading Notre Dame to the brink of a national title against an arduous schedule.

No, his stats aren't eye popping, but some things about the sterile numbers are. For instance, his interception rate speaks to how an elite player can improve.

As is well known now, Te'o came into the season with zero career interceptions. So one could make the case that if his game had a wart, maybe it was playing the ball in the air. He has six this season, including two in a narrow home win over Michigan.

That speaks to a great player getting better. And winning the Heisman is so much more than statistics, however.

A quick scan of a great many close Notre Dame games all seem to have the same arc to them, and that's of a defense that's as stingy as any in the nation. Te'o always seems to be around the ball when those plays are made, be them the aforementioned interceptions to being right in the middle of the "Stanford stop" that saved the Irish's season.

It's also Te'o's leadership ability. All season you've heard about how he might be the most talented on that defense, but he also works as hard as a guy desperate to climb the depth chart. That resonates to fellow teammates, and they seem to play like it.

Then, there's the final matter of, whether you agree with it or not, that today's Heisman typically defines "to the victor goes the spoils." There aren't many Troy Davis' running around college football these days, that being great players on mediocre teams.

You need to go back a long way to find a Heisman winner not part of a top 10 team. So with Te'o's team entrenched in the BCS title debate, it's only natural that we'd find a front runner from that club. But it is refreshing to see different styles of players being talked about. Most years, this deep into the season, it'd be a meaningless talking point to mention anyone not a skill position player discussed for the Heisman Trophy.

That speaks to a great many things, including a shifting of the voter climate, the ability to look at all players and all positions with an observant eye, and how special of a player Te'o is. He's emotionally put Notre Dame on its back and has been that key leader to an 11-0 record that not many thought possible a few months ago.

The final act? Perhaps a much deserved stiff arm trophy award and a national championship to boot.