- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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Perhaps the most effective endorsements of Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy candidacy the past two seasons have come from the team that he struggled the most against: LSU.
Last year, it was then-senior defensive end Sam Montgomery who needed just five words:
"Heisman give it to him."
Montgomery uttered those words as part of a minute-long soliloquy praising Manziel in November after being informed that the Aggies had just upset No. 1 Alabama.
Make no mistake, Manziel was given nothing. He took the Heisman Trophy, in large part because he dazzled the country with his 345-total-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Aggies' 29-24 triumph in Tuscaloosa, a win that validated his historic freshman season.
On Monday morning, mere days before his team faces Manziel again, it was LSU coach Les Miles who spoke his piece about the 2013 version of Manziel.
"Johnny Manziel's bigger, faster, stronger," Miles told reporters in his Monday news conference. "I see him as a much more complete quarterback and a very good player. If there's a better player in college football, I'd like to know who he is."
Manziel will get a chance to prove Miles right, and if he does -- by beating the Tigers when the Aggies travel to LSU on Saturday -- he could be well on his way to making history.
The chance to win the Heisman Trophy -- and become just the second player to win it twice -- rests in Johnny Football's hands.
He has the statistics. He has the highlights. And he gets another chance to leave another lasting impression this Saturday in Death Valley.
The Aggies will once again play in the SEC's signature 3:30 p.m. ET slot, the fourth time they've done so. The first two times it didn't work out so well -- they lost to Alabama and Auburn -- but you can hardly blame Manziel. His efforts against both teams are well documented. He averaged 532 total offensive yards against the state-of-Alabama powers, both of whom are currently ranked in the top 10.
He threw two interceptions against the Crimson Tide, but kept coming at them until the clock expired, pulling Texas A&M to within a score after being down by as many as 21 points in the third quarter. Against Auburn, he suffered an injury to his throwing shoulder and couldn't lift his arm enough to throw before finding a way back onto the field mere minutes later, putting the Aggies in position to win before eventually falling short. He certainly had help from receiver Mike Evans in those instances, but not much from the Aggies' defense, which allowed nearly 1,200 combined yards to those two teams.
Even in defeat, Manziel has been entertaining and elite.
With the Heisman Trophy race heating up, his stage will be larger than the one Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, his primary competition for the trophy, will have down the stretch. Winston's signature games, in which he performed beautifully, are in the rearview mirror. Because of those performances, against Clemson and Miami, which were both ranked in the top 10 at the time, Winston has been at or near the top of the conversation in the past month.
But while Winston's Florida State squad has games left against Idaho, a struggling and beat-up Florida squad, and whoever wins the ACC Coastal Division, Manziel gets two top-25 teams -- on the road -- to make his case.
He leads the SEC in Total QBR, completions, passing touchdowns, completion percentage and touchdowns responsible for, so that part of his case is intact. The constant chatter about his off-the-field adventures seems to be all but a distant memory now, as his on-field play took center stage throughout the season. He needs signature wins to add to his résumé, which Winston already has.
If Manziel does what he couldn't last year and conquers No. 22 LSU, he'll have to finish the deal at No. 8 Missouri, which is trying to win its first SEC East Division championship. That won't be an easy task either, with quarterback James Franklin back in the fold and huge stakes for the Tigers (if Missouri gets past Ole Miss this weekend, a loss would mean South Carolina takes Missouri's spot in the SEC championship game).
If voters are searching for a "Heisman moment" from Manziel, he'll have two chances to deliver. LSU is the one team that Manziel couldn't quite solve last year and you better believe he's thinking about it. LSU held Manziel to career-worst marks in completion percentage (51.8), yards per pass attempt (4.9), yards per carry (1.6) and picked him off three times in a 24-19 victory at Kyle Field last October. LSU is the dragon Manziel has yet to slay.
The following week, if Manziel leads the Aggies to a win and knocks Missouri out of the SEC title game, it would be an exclamation point on his entire season, one in which he has been even better than in 2012. Neither task is easy and much has to go right. The Aggies defense will have to come up with clutch performances after struggling for most of the year and Texas A&M will have to continue an impressive road winning streak (the Aggies are undefeated away from home under Kevin Sumlin).
Manziel seems to have a knack for rising to the occasion. As Sumlin has said before, "no stage is too big for him." If he performs like he has proven capable of under the bright spotlight he'll be under the next two weeks, voters might just "give it to him" again.
4dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf