Monday afternoon I opened my online Heisman Trophy ballot with no idea whose name I was going to put on top.
I wanted to type "Manti Te'o."
Instead I typed "Johnny Manziel."
It might have been the toughest Heisman decision I've had in my two decades as a voter. Either player would be a deserving winner. But you can only vote for one.
I wanted to vote for Te'o because I love everything about the guy: a senior with extraordinary leadership ability and charisma; a guy who has elevated his team to a new level of success; a defensive star in a sport that always favors the offensive stars; a young man with a heart-tugging backstory; and – this is important – a brilliant football player who has had a dominant season.
I would be quite happy to see him win Saturday night.
Yet in the end, after scrutinizing the statistics, I believe Manziel had the better season and deserved the vote. Barely.
The hardest part of this Heisman procedure was comparing a quarterback to a linebacker. There is no statistical commonality. It is very much apples for defense and oranges for offense.
But I tried to find a way, and here's what I came up with: I considered defensive turnovers forced to be the rough equivalent of offensive touchdowns scored. But since there are still more offensive touchdowns than turnovers forced, I broke it down to a percentage. Which player produced a higher percentage of his team's turnovers/touchdowns?
Te'o has seven interceptions and a fumble return this season. That's eight of Notre Dame's 23 takeaways, and that's a remarkable number. His percentage of Irish takeaways is .348.
Manziel has thrown for 24 touchdowns and run for 19. Texas A&M has scored 72 touchdowns. His percentage of the Aggies' TDs is .597. That's an even more remarkable number.
Still, I wanted to make sure Manziel didn't just run up numbers against the three non-conference lightweights on the A&M schedule: SMU, South Carolina State and Sam Houston State. He had a hand in 16 of the Aggies' 23 touchdowns in those games (.696). But if you subtract those numbers from the season totals, Manziel still was a part of more than half of A&M's touchdowns (.551).
That's a pretty strong advantage for Johnny Football.
He also produced 4,600 of the Aggies' 6,628 yards of total offense (69.4 percent). And while it is easy to say that a quarterback is naturally in position to have a greater impact on a game than a linebacker, it's hard to have an impact as great as Manziel's. His 584 plays (running and passing) averages out to 49 per game – a huge load on one player's shoulders.
He handled that load spectacularly. Manziel was durable and dependable, the prime example of the rising impact of the dual-threat quarterback in an up-tempo offense. He's the embodiment of the modern, do-everything QB – and, yes, that guy is going to have an advantage when it comes to things like winning the Heisman.
Outside of individual stats, team success is obviously a major Heisman component, too. And you cannot do better than undefeated and ranked No. 1. But in terms of elevating a team from one year to the next, Manziel has equaled Te'o: Notre Dame has gone from eight regular-season victories in 2011 to 12 in 2012; A&M has gone from six regular-season victories in 2011 to 10 in 2012. That's a plus-four for both.
There are some who have said A&M's improvement and Manziel's numbers are largely a product of playing in new coach Kevin Sumlin's pyrotechnic offense. There's no doubt that was a factor. But Te'o has had some help this season as well, playing behind a defensive front full of havoc-wreaking linemen who are ticketed for the NFL.
(The highlight of the BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame figures to be the Crimson Tide's mauling offensive line and the Fighting Irish's indomitable defensive line. Trust me, NFL scouts will be riveted.)
The ability of the Irish line might also have contributed to Te'o's diminished tackle statistics this season. He went from 133 total tackles as a sophomore to 128 last year to 103 this year (with still one game to go). He didn't have a game with more than 12 total tackles this season, and did not have more than seven in any of the final four games.
[Photo gallery: Best players not to have won the Heisman]
A common knock on Manziel was his production against the elite defenses of Florida and LSU: He had no touchdown passes and three interceptions while running for one score and compiling "only" 536 total yards. But keep a couple things in mind:
• Almost every quarterback struggled against those two defenses. The Gators lead the nation in pass efficiency defense and the Tigers are ninth.
• The Florida game was Manziel's first as a collegian. With the postponement of the Aggies' opener against Louisiana Tech, that was his debut. Under those circumstances, 233 yards of total offense and a touchdown running isn't bad.
Bringing up those stats against elite defenses without crediting Manziel for what he did against Alabama – as some people have – is intellectually dishonest. Against the nation's No. 1 defense, on the road, Manziel sliced up then-undefeated No. 1 'Bama for 345 yards of offense and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions. And many of those plays were highlight-reel, Heisman-worthy stuff.
For all those reasons, I typed "Johnny Manziel” at the top of my Heisman Trophy ballot. Head overruled heart. I had to go with the best player, not the guy with the best story.
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