Remember the lullaby afternoons of September, when we all figured we'd see a Heisman winner who merited the award? Maybe a Geno Smith, slinging the ball all over the yard, or even a Matt Barkley, who despite being named after Big Bird's dog had the right pedigree and weaponry (Robert Woods and Marquise Lee catching his passes). Maybe it would be a pure quantity guy like Montee Ball, whose junior year at Wisconsin saw him tie the FBS record for touchdowns in a season (Barry Sanders; 39) and lead the nation in rushing yards (1,923) and still place just fourth in the Heisman voting. This award is usually a son of a bitch to win.
But here's what happened. Barkley started in four USC losses, throwing a pair of interceptions in each. Wisconsin lost five games, only one of which saw Ball rush above his season average. Marcus Lattimore's knee supernovaed. Kenjon Barner disappeared in Oregon's season-breaking loss to Stanford. West Virginia's defense turned out to be the worst since "he ran into my knife ten times," rendering Smith's 4,004 yards and 40 touchdowns hollow even as he faded down the stretch.
So now a football player whose nickname includes the word "football" is going to win the Heisman Trophy tomorrow, if Las Vegas ($1,000 will get you $100) is to be believed. This despite the fact that this particular quarterback, in a normal year of Heisman evaluation, would be disqualified for the following blights on his resume:
• Throwing for just 173 yards and running for just 60 on 17 attempts in a loss to Florida.
• Three turnovers (two picks and a fumble during a sack) against middling Ole Miss in a game that required a 13-point fourth-quarter comeback to escape.
• A four-turnover outing against LSU, in a loss that a) wound up keeping his team out of the SEC title game and thus from perhaps playing for the national title; and b) his defense, burned for 57 points a week prior against Louisiana Tech, put within reach. It held LSU to 24 points that day, just a field goal more than the Tigers were able to hang on Alabama's D.
Despite all this, we're almost sure to see Johnny Football Manziel Football become the first freshman to put on a stiff smile and hoist that stiff-arming trophy in New York. Not to knock the job Manziel did this year; no one had more fuckin' A highlights and holy shit box scores this season. He broke Cam Newton's still-warm SEC record for total yardage. He willed A&M to the win at Alabama. He made hard things possible but still made them look hard, always great for the clip reel.
In a normal year, though, he's just a finalist, not a shoo-in for the award. And in a normal year, it's hard to see Manti Te'o or Collin Klein as anything better than fourth or fifth finalists. Consider:
Te'o has a great story. He plays on a fine defense on the top-ranked team in the country. He somehow has intercepted seven passes this year, which may be seven more than he intercepted in his first three years at Notre Dame, but still, there is a knack to being in the right place at the right time. By all appearances he's a decent human being—Eagle Scout, good student, volunteer. This is important for us to bear in mind and to keep repeating, because it's very likely that someone on Notre Dame's roster sexually assaulted a fellow student, and it would be a shame if that alleged incident, the suicide it inspired, and its gross slow-pedaling by investigators were to taint our view of the happy Notre Dame family at large. Yay, Te'o.
But he's also a prime example of why defense-only players have never won this award: If he were truly that conspicuously athletic, a skeptic starts thinking, he'd have the ball in his hands more often. Te'o's ascension from merely a very good player to an instant immortal owes almost entirely to the national 2012 season, when none of the top teams sported a transcendent player who combined freak athleticism with hefty stats and team achievement that we're used to seeing in a player deemed the best in college football. The gaudy awards haul Te'o has already enjoyed this week will make him difficult to keep out of the College Football Hall of Fame one day: the Bronko Nagurski, the Chuck Bednarik, the Dick Butkus, the Maxwell, the Vince Lombardi, and the Walter Camp. But for the love of Wuerffel, I've never seen a player so overheated. If he were a stock, you'd sell the shit out of him today.
All this for a guy who recorded the following statistics in four November games: 13 solo tackles, two interceptions, half a sack. In Notre Dame's triple-overtime heist win against Pittsburgh—that's three overtimes, mind you—he tallied three solo and four assisted tackles. I know defensive stats can be fluky, but you'd think the most feared linebacker since Tecmo Bowl Lawrence Taylor would at least, like, sack a guy in the final month of the season. Or maybe force a single fumble all year. Or perhaps return those seven interceptions for more than 35 combined yards.
At virtually no point in the year could fans look at Te'o and think, No one else could've made that play. Because when you get down to it, his personal highlight reel, full of routine tackles rendered in workmanlike fashion, was exceedingly pedestrian. His one return of any merit came on an interception of Denard Robinson; listen closely on the replay and you'll hear, "I really have no idea why Denard Robinson throws this football." He had a great pick against Oklahoma that came during a tackle a teammate was making. His pick against Boston College came off a tip at the line of scrimmage. The guy's as much scavenger as predator. Good on him. He doesn't need a Heisman.
Alas, nor does Collin Klein. Alone among the finalists, he made the preseason watch lists as a dark horse. And he had a fine season: more than 9 yards per pass attempt, 4.6 yards per rush with 22 touchdowns. His total scoring was actual down a bit from 2011, but his team was way, way up. Ten straight victories to start the season, followed by a No. 1 national ranking, followed by a Sports Illustrated cover profile that included the following sentences: "Violin, mandolin. He plays those too." And: "Steak, medium rare; baked potato; Caesar salad. He likes that." And: "He is said to give excellent hugs, like a 6'5", 226-pound, very friendly bear."
Basically the guy was riding greased rails to Heismantown. Then that very same week, against a team of very unfriendly Bears, he turned in his worst game of the season as Baylor beat K-State by four touchdowns. Klein threw three picks and ran for just 39 yards on 17 carries. Late in the game he rushed on four straight plays from first-and-goal at the Baylor 6; the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs at the Baylor 1. If that happens with your school's shot at a national championship on the line, the Heisman will not be your consolation prize.
So we're left with Johnny The Football Who Plays Football. Damn, how he's fun to watch—even more exciting than Klein, with better numbers, and the enduring glow of overachievement radiating off him, for A&M's win against Alabama. But lest we forget, here's his line against LSU:
Passing: 29-for-56, for 276 yards (4.9 average), no touchdowns and three interceptions, including one with A&M down by 5 with under 5 minutes remaining; LSU scored one play later.
Rushing: 17 for 27 yards (1.6 average), long of 14, no touchdowns, one fumble.
Still, Johnny Manball Footziel will win this Heisman. In that we can take some comfort. The guy who was a shit-ton of fun to watch will be named the best player in college football, over the moral exemplar and the friendly bear, almost entirely on the basis of having been a shit-ton of fun to watch. Players like that deserve their awards. But it's awfully easy to imagine a counterfactual in which this fellow is your 2012 Heisman Trophy winner instead.