Dome managing editor Chris Palmquist lays out why he thinks Manti Te’o should win this year’s Heisman trophy.
     The debate is heating up, as the college football season itself winds down. The drama is gone from the national championship hunt (as has been pounded over our heads for a couple of weeks, it will be Notre Dame vs. either Georgia or Alabama). The coaching carousel has already started. But this post is not about either of those. It’s about the Heisman Trophy. For the first time in a while, there is no clear-cut winner. Seemingly, the front-runner would do his part to make the race interesting. “No, I insist, one of you take it,” said Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein after the Baylor game. “No, I don’t want it,” said Oregon running back Kenjon Barner. “I want it, but my team is ineligible so I don’t have a chance at it,” said Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. After 12 games, we will find out the winner of the Heisman Trophy in 8 short days. It will be either redshirt-freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M or Notre Dame’s senior linebacker Manti Te’o. Let’s take a look at these two candidates and discuss who is more deserving of the bronze trophy.
     Manziel, or Johnny Football, has electrified college football fans all year. Playing in the self-proclaimed and perpetuated best conference in football, Manziel burst onto the scene and into the Heisman talk after the Aggies’ upset win over then-No. 1 Alabama. Johnny Football threw for 253 yards and ran for 92 more as Texas A&M jumped out to a 20-0 lead and survived a late Tide rally to win 29-24. Manziel was efficient, if not spectacular, in this game. I will be the first to admit that. But, if Deshazor Everett doesn’t intecept Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron on the goal line with time winding down, A&M loses and Manziel probably is out of the discussion. Similarly, if Alabama doesn’t jump offside on a punt by A&M on their own 13 with 40 seconds left, the Aggies likely lose and Manziel is out of the discussion.
     This is not meant as an insult to Manziel. He led his team to victory, in one of the toughest atmospheres in the nation, and in one of the most spectacular individual performances of the year. But this is meant to be an insult to Johnny Football. Where was he in the the Aggies’ other two largest games of the season?
     A&M played one of the most difficult schedules in the country, facing three teams currently ranked in the top 10. They had one of the best wins of the year going into Tuscaloosa and beating Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. But what about their two home losses to Florida and LSU? Manziel was silent in these games. Against the Gators, Johnny Football was 23-30 (a great percentage) but for only 173 yards (5.8 yards per attempt!!) and no touchdowns. On the ground he went for 60 yards and a score (again, solid), but he carried 17 times (3.5 yards per carry!). Manziel was horrid against the Bayou Bengals, again, at Kyle Field in front of the “12th Man.” He was 29-56 passing for 276 yards (4.9 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and a whopping three interceptions. On the ground he carried 17 times for a whopping 27 yards and no scores.
     If you want to give Manziel credit for the upset over Alabama, you have to give him fault for the 5-point loss to LSU. That means you need to look at the rest of Manziel’s body of work, and the defenses against which he accrued his impressive statistics. Here, I’ll save you the work. These are the other nine opponents that show Manziel is the “most outstanding player in college football”:  SMU (57th in points allowed per game); South Carolina St. (FCS); Arkansas (82nd); Ole Miss (69th); Louisiana Tech (118th!!!); Auburn (66th); Mississippi St. (29th); Sam Houston St. (FCS!!!); and Missouri (68th). Not real stellar opponents. The American Football Coaches Association released their All-America teams the other day. How telling is it, that men who know the sport better than anybody else, did not select Manziel as the quarterback? That honor went to Tajh Boyd of Clemson.
     I didn’t even mention Manziel’s off-field issues. While that won’t have an impact on the Heisman balloting, it should. The following is taken directly from the Heisman Trust Mission Statement: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work. The Heisman Trophy ensures the continuation and integrity of this award.”
     No single player in college football in 2012 better represents this vision than Manti Te’o. Before you accuse me of being a Notre Dame homer, which full admittance I am, listen to the case. Nowhere in that statement does it say the best offensive player, or best quarterback. It says most outstanding player. Te’o has led a resurgent defense. He has over 100 tackles for the third consecutive season. He has 7(!) interceptions. As a linebacker! The only player in college football with more interceptions than Te’o is a safety. In fact, you could look ten players below Te’o before you find another linebacker on the list.
     Unlike Johnny Manziel, Te’o played his best in the biggest games of the season for Notre Dame. Against Michigan State (on the road), Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma (on the road), and USC (on the road), Te’o combined for 57 tackles, a sack, and four interceptions. He led Notre Dame to a 12-0 mark for the first time since 1988. He led Notre Dame to an undefeated home slate for the first time since 1998. The defense was the focal point of the Irish this year, and Te’o was at the center of it.
     Te’o is the epitome of pursuing excellence with integrity. He, unlike most other college football stars guaranteed of a high-draft pick, returned to college to get his degree. He will graduate next month with a 3.32 GPA after 3 ½ years of school. He has never had a run-in with the law. He is the humblest superstar in college football.
     While the following should not be a factor in Heisman voting, it is worth noting. Everybody knows the personal tragedy that Te’o encountered this season. His grandmother and his girlfriend passed away within hours of each other days before the Irish traveled to East Lansing, Michigan to take on the 10th-ranked Spartans. He had 12 tackles, 2 passes broken up, and a fumble recovery. Not to mention holding Le’Veon Bell to 77 yards and the Spartans without a touchdown. Then, on the day his grandmother was buried, Te’o led the Irish to a win over Michigan for the first time since 2008. He had 8 tackles and 2 interceptions, and held the Wolverines to a pair of field goals.
     You can make an argument for either Manziel or Te’o to win the Heisman. I understand that some people won’t vote for a freshman out of principle. By the same token, I understand that some won’t vote for a defensive player out of principle. Here’s the question the Heisman voters face though. The trophy has lost some of its luster over the past couple of years. Reggie Bush saw his vacated. Cam Newton’s is under scrutiny. There is no better move for the voters than to vote for Manti Te’o, a pillar of character. It’s not a sympathy vote either. Te’o was simply the  “most outstanding college football player.”