(Images courtesy USA TODAY Sports)
Johnny Manziel. (USA TODAY Sports)
Manti Te'o. (USA TODAY Sports)
Collin Klein. (USA TODAY Sports)
Erick Smith, Pat Harty and Leo Roth, USA TODAY Sports
The Heisman Trophy winner for this college football season seemingly was determined in December 2011 when quarterback Matt Barkley decided to return to Southern California. But things didn't work out for Barkley or USC, and he won't even be in New York as a finalist.
The race took more turns, including the rise and fade of West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, the surge of Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein that seemingly was derailed when the Wildcats lost and the star turn of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Will Manziel become the first freshman to win? Will Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o become the first full-time defensive player to take home the award? Or did Klein sway voters back in his direction with his win against Texas in the regular-season finale? The award will be presented Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
USA TODAY Sports Media Group had three voters make a case for one of the top candidates.
The case for Manziel
Unlike most Heisman Trophy candidates, Johnny Manziel burst onto the national scene this fall with virtually no notice as a redshirt freshman.
Manziel first had to win the job to replace Ryan Tannehill as Texas A&M's starting quarterback before he could make history.
Once he cleared that hurdle, each game became his stage and a stepping-out party.
And to say Manziel has exceeded expectations would be a vast understatement.
He set the single-season record for offensive production in the Southeastern Conference with 4,600 yards, surpassing recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tim Tebow.
Manziel is the first freshman and just the fifth player in NCAA history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 in a season.
Manziel also has led Texas A&M to a better-than-expected 10-2 record, highlighted by a 29-24 victory at then-No.1 Alabama on Nov.10 in which he accounted for 345 of the Aggies' 418 yards.
And it's not as if he were terrible in his team's two losses, to Florida in the opener and to LSU. Manziel finished with 233 total yards against the Gators and 303 against LSU - teams that have a combined record of 21-3 and excel on defense.
But it's not just statistics and victories that make Manziel worthy of being the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy; it's also how he plays the game.
Manziel's ability to extend plays with his feet and throw accurately on the run makes him a nightmare for defenses.
Manziel appeared to be stopped in the pocket countless time this season only to escape in true Houdini fashion.
Few things break down a defense more than a dual-threat quarterback who extends plays.
And few players have risen as quickly or as high as Manziel in barely more than three months.
He already has been given the nickname "Johnny Football."
Saturday, Manziel might be given something else, and it would be hard to argue against it.
- Pat Harty
The case for Klein
Collin Klein is no Calvin Klein.
But when it comes to making a statement, the fashion designer has nothing on the Kansas State quarterback.
Klein - Collin - did something Saturday that nobody thought possible, giving undecided Heisman Trophy voters something to think about as the deadline approached.
His senior leadership, toughness and character were palpable - as were his trophy-worthy skills - as he shook off a mundane first half to lead Kansas State to a 42-24 win against Texas that clinched a Big 12 championship and Bowl Championship Series berth.
Klein has never been about just statistics, and the Heisman isn't supposed to be about just statistics. But here voters were, debating the value of the video game numbers put up by Texas A&M freshman sensation Johnny Manziel, the emotion and playmaking of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and the intangibles of Klein.
In this debate, Klein and his immense accomplishments in a Wildcats uniform can't be ignored.
Against Texas, after 4-for-10 passing in the first half, he led two scoring drives in the third quarter and passed and ran for scores in the fourth. He finished with 184 yards passing and 103 rushing and three touchdowns, giving him 3,380 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns this season.
In the third quarter, he ran 11 times for 38 yards during a 67-yard drive for the go-head score, then lofted a perfect 55-yard scoring pass to Tyler Lockett in the fourth quarter to put away the game. If anybody thought the Heisman race was over, that sequence should have told them otherwise.
Klein led Kansas State, picked to finish sixth in the Big 12, to an 8-1 league record (11-1 overall), a conference championship and a Fiesta Bowl invitation. That came a year after Kansas State fell one game short of both goals in the BCS process, so Klein has a body of work to judge beyond one season.
The Heisman race was Klein's to lose when he suffered a concussion against Oklahoma State on Nov.3. His numbers fell and an undefeated season was lost against Baylor. But he didn't miss a start after his injury and was there for his teammates until the final play Saturday night, showing what a healthy Klein means to his team.
Was it too little too late for Klein? Not if talent and intangibles matter.
- Leo Roth
The case for Te'o
The ballot comes every November. More than 900 voters for the Heisman Trophy are asked to select the most outstanding football player in America.
The criteria doesn't delineate between offense or defense. It doesn't say only running backs and quarterbacks can win unless there are special circumstances. It doesn't ask for the best player with a cool nickname.
It asks for the most outstanding player. That person this season is Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
Te'o was the unquestioned leader of the Fighting Irish defense that carried the team to its first Bowl Championship Series title game and first national championship game since 1988.
Even with his penchant for interceptions and play on Notre Dame's memorable goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California, Te'o is at a disadvantage when it comes to the highlight reels of quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Collin Klein and Braxton Miller.
Like any defensive player, he is at a disadvantage if the award comes down to a numbers game. But that doesn't mean Te'o doesn't have impressive statistics.
He led Notre Dame in tackles with 103. His seven interceptions - an unreal total for a linebacker - tied him for second in the country.
The Irish finished No.1 in scoring defense, allowing 10.3 points a game. They were fourth against the rush, with Te'o leading the charge, and sixth in total defense.
Heisman voting is likely to come down to Te'o, Manziel and Klein.
Each has a strong case. Arriving at Te'o as the choice requires a deeper look at the numbers.
Manziel put up huge numbers against Texas A&M's soft schedule that included two lower-division teams and a weak Southeastern Conference West. He engineered an amazing win at Alabama, but whitewashed away in the aftermath of that victory was how poorly he had performed in the team's two other big games - losses at home to Florida and LSU.
Klein was the front-runner until his lone subpar game, a loss at Baylor that was more about Kansas State's defensive implosion than his poor play.
How did Te'o fare in Notre Dame's biggest games?
Against four then-ranked opponents - Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford and Oklahoma - he totaled 42 tackles and three interceptions. The four teams combined for 35 points. Each had its worst scoring game of the season. The Irish won all those games and the other eight games on their schedule, and Te'o was the biggest part of it.
Quarterbacks are given credit for wins in award voting. Shouldn't a linebacker?
If voters can look look past the hype, Te'o will be holding the Heisman on Saturday.
- Erick Smith
Harty also writes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen and Roth also writes for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.
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