Zemek: Manziel blasts the freshman barrier

Posted Dec 8, 2012

Matt Zemek: Johnny Manziel blows away the freshman Heisman barrier

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

Johnny Manziel deserved to win the 2012 John W. Heisman Memorial Trophy. The notion that a freshman couldn't – and more urgently, shouldn't – win this prestigious piece of hardware was blessedly blown out of the water on Saturday night at the Downtown Athletic Club.

Herschel Walker (1980), Michael Vick (1999), Adrian Peterson (2004), and other freshmen sensations from seasons past should be smiling broadly right now. They have seen the Heisman take a step forward, much as it did last year, when a player on a 9-3 team – a team that didn't even make a BCS bowl game – cradled one of the most cherished individual trophies in American sports.

Manziel's performance in the belly of the beast – Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. – certainly represented the kind of moment that defines a Heisman winner. There's no question – none – that Manziel made a very compelling case for the award and is a deserving winner. There is no reticence or hesitation in saying as much. There shouldn't be.


Yet, in one of the most difficult elements of analysis – for the Heisman, college football, competitive sports, and any complex human endeavor – one has to be able to hold competing truths together in tension with each other. On this Heisman night of triumph for Johnny Football, it's also worth noting that Manti Te'o and Collin Klein… and Marqise Lee, and maybe even Tavon Austin… had just as good a case for the award. You could also throw Jadeveon Clowney into the mix and not be thought of as foolish; that is also a credible Heisman name in a very complicated 2012 race.

It is worth asking on this year's Heisman night, "Just how does one arrive at picking the Heisman winner and finalists? Just how does one pick the most outstanding player in college football?"

Even as the Heisman grows due to its acceptance of 9-3 players (Robert Griffin III) and freshmen (Manziel), this award still remains hamstrung by the dynamics of mass-media availability, publicity and emphasis. No, this is not meant to take away from what Manziel achieved; it is merely an attempt to deconstruct how some candidates rise while others fall in the political/horse-race dimension of the Heisman chase as it actually evolves… not as we want it to evolve or as we THINK it SHOULD evolve.

One cannot deny that Manziel's win at Alabama was the one moment that made his Heisman campaign. Yet, what was Manziel's second-best win? It's probably against a non-SEC school, Louisiana Tech. From a standpoint of cold "political" analysis that dissects how this award was won by the winner, it is hard to think that the Louisiana Tech game gave Manziel that much of a national splash. Most pundits and national writers were paying attention to LSU's close (23-21) win over South Carolina, a game that remained tight until the end and covered roughly 55 to 60 percent of the Texas A&M-Louisiana Tech game. Manziel certainly put on a spectacular pyrotechnic display in the second half against Louisiana Tech when I and various other commentators flipped the channel and focused on Aggies-Bulldogs, but the notion that Manziel (on a purely political level) accrued substantial Heisman leverage in a video game against a Western Athletic Conference opponent strains the bounds of credulity. The 2012 Heisman was, politically speaking, an award that turned on (and in) one game: A&M at Bama on Nov. 10. Did the whole of Manziel's season produce multiple eye-popping statistics? Yes. Did Manziel dazzle at times? Absolutely. Was he a magician in several situations? Unquestionably.

Yet, it was only after he beat Alabama that the masses really seemed to notice, that the punditocracy really seemed to care, that the college football community pivoted away from Collin Klein and toward Johnny Football, The Man With The Golden Gun.

Manziel was slickly marketed and packaged in late November. His "meet the public" press conference gained a lot of Twitter traction (a similar dynamic emerged for Manti Te'o, for what it's worth), and the Heisman train left the station. Collin Klein, playing for an unsexy program and an unsexy coach in an unsexy place, didn't enjoy the same media centrality, visibility or prominence as Manziel. Such was the case last year for Klein in relationship to Andrew Luck, who became a 2011 Heisman finalist instead of Klein despite having a markedly inferior season on the raw merits.

These dynamics can only make one wonder: Why and how and when does the Heisman calculus change? Who determines this? How should the race be determined? These questions might seem simplistic, but they are meant to unearth a deeper rationale for making Heisman selections. When one talks about the most outstanding player in college football, several players existed on the same plane this season.

Marqise Lee caught pass after pass, deep ball after deep ball, despite the fact that Matt Barkley… and Robert Woods… and his offensive line… and his defense all struggled for much of the season. Lee shouldered so great a workload and delivered so many plays despite being the only player on his highly-hyped team to truly live up to the full measure of preseason buzz that was thrown in USC's direction. Lee certainly fit the description of a truly outstanding player. In what was and is a very subjective debate – how do you quantify Manti Te'o's stats, for instance? – Lee had as good a claim as anyone. Austin – in light of everything he achieved on the field for West Virginia this season – authored the same basic narrative and made the same fundamental argument that Lee advanced. Geno Smith struggled mightily in the second half of the season. West Virginia, like USC, stumbled to a 7-5 finish. Other parts of the roster broke down, but through it all, Austin – just like Lee in a different corner of the country – kept being the best player on the field in almost every game he played, even most of his team's losses.

What is it about the media alchemy of the Heisman race – the political contest, not the true evaluation of raw football merits – that makes voters prevent Lee and Austin from being Heisman finalists?

Let's give Johnny Manziel the praise and congratulations he has earned the right to receive on his special night, the night he will remember for the rest of his life. Yet, in the spirit of holding inconvenient and competing truths in tension with each other, let us also try to ask the kinds of questions and engage in the rigorous analytical processes that can enable future Heisman competitions to more centrally revolve around raw merits, and little else.