Commentary

Manti Te'o finds home with Irish

Originally Published: October 9, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. Manti Te'o

I don't know if the Notre Dame senior linebacker is the best player in college football, or the best defensive player, or even the best linebacker. I do know he's on every one of those short lists.

I also know that you can't fully explain why a kid from Hawaii, who is a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who isn't crazy about the cold, who couldn't pick out South Bend, Ind., on a U.S. map during his recruitment, still ended up at the nation's most famous Catholic university, Notre Dame (84 percent of the student body is Catholic, less than 1 percent is Mormon). And the truth is, Te'o couldn't fully explain it until recently.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
AP Photo/Darron CummingsManti Te'o reason for choosing Notre Dame was tangible during the Michigan game.

You likely have heard the heartbreaking story by now: Last month, in the span of six hours, Te'o learned that his maternal grandmother, as well as his longtime girlfriend, had died. His grandmother, Annette Santiago, passed away after an extended illness. And his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, succumbed to leukemia.

"After the loss of two women who I really love, I think that's where my faith grew stronger -- because I understood what life was all about," Te'o said. "I've always spoken about memories and about coming back to school because of memories. But it wasn't until I lost that, that I realized that life [is] just all about experiences. It's all about experiences that you have [with] the people you love. It puts things in perspective."

The response and support from teammates, fellow Notre Dame students, faculty and staff, Notre Dame alums, opposing players, other coaches and perfect strangers has been overwhelming. He has received hundreds of handwritten letters, prayer cards and sympathy cards from all around the country.

At the coin toss before the Michigan game, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson offered his condolences. Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who (along with Brian Polian) helped recruit Te'o and then coached him during his freshman season, has regularly texted Manti and his father during this ordeal.

Ask Te'o if he can articulate why he now knows he made the right decision to come to Notre Dame, he says: "I can only show you. If you were here for the Michigan game, you would see why."

That was the game in which almost the entire stadium was filled with people wearing leis in honor of Te'o, his grandmother and his girlfriend. It is a sight Te'o will never forget.

"Just love," he said. "It looked like love. It was love."

19. Te'o -- Part II

Four years ago, USC was considered the recruiting leader for Te'o. Notre Dame? At the time, Te'o couldn't even find it on a U.S. map.

"I probably would have circled the whole U.S. and said, 'Somewhere in there."'

His official recruiting visit came on Nov. 22, 2008, the same weekend that Notre Dame was upset by Syracuse. The low temperature that day was 11 degrees.

"Possibly the coldest day of my life," Te'o said.

That was the game Fighting Irish fans booed and threw snowballs at the Notre Dame bench.

"I left at halftime ... because it was too cold," he said. "Watched the game on TV while another recruit and I were playing video games."

He had a long time to think on the flight back to Hawaii.

"If you would have asked me on the plane if I would go to Notre Dame, I'd probably say no," Te'o said.

But he did eventually sign with Notre Dame, leaving some friends and family in Hawaii stunned by the decision. The operative words were, "You're nuts."

"I think the entire island was telling him that," said Te'o dad, Brian. "I was actually rooting for Notre Dame. My research led me to believe that Notre Dame was the place for him, and so I quietly kept that to myself."

Said Weis: "How a Mormon kid came to a Catholic school, just didn't seem like it would be a normal fit. But who doesn't like Manti?

"Son of a gun, the guy took the challenge, stepped up and he's going to leave there as one of the greatest defensive players who ever played at Notre Dame -- and that's saying a lot."

Can he win the Heisman Trophy? Don't hold your breath. But Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is right to suggest that Te'o belongs in the conversation, that he's worthy of such consideration. And he's right, of course.

"He's recognized as the rock of our football team," Kelly said.

Te'o reacts to this sort of talk in his usual way, which is to put up the deflector shields.

"Just to be mentioned with the Heisman and to be a defensive player is just humbling," he said. "It shows I'm headed in the right direction. I still have a lot of work to do, but I'm headed in the right direction."

18. Trending up

Louisiana Tech.
The HBC.
USC quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Connor Shaw (it's going to kill Trojans fans that I referred to South Carolina's Shaw that way).
Oregon.
Te'o.
The SEC East.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon.
Florida running back Mike Gillislee.
Iowa State.
Rutgers.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
Arkansas coach John L. Smith.
BCS standings (first ones out this Sunday).
Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes. Army.

17. Trending down

The Red River Rivalry.
Southern Mississippi, Tulane and Eastern Michigan (all winless).
The Wave. (Absolutely loved the home crowd vibe at South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium. But please, no more Waves. You're better than that.)
TCU.
LSU's passing game.
Virginia Tech's defense.
The Washington-Oregon series (Oregon has won nine in a row now).
The Northwestern-Penn State series (the Nittany Lions have now won 11 of the past 13 on the field).
Florida State.
Gurshall.
"I Luv Chiz" bumper stickers.
Baylor's defense.
Boston College coach Frank Spaziani.
Me ranking Georgia No. 2 in my weekly top 10.

16. Heisman trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

• West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- Faces Texas Tech, the same Texas Tech that just gave up 41 points and 380 yards to a previously struggling Oklahoma offense. Smith's numbers are beginning to easily outpace Robert Griffin III's stats of a season ago. My favorites: 81.4 completion percentage, 24 TD passes and 0 interceptions.

• Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein -- As expected, Klein bullied his way through an overmatched Kansas defense (four TDs, 129 yards passing, 116 yards rushing) in the 56-16 rout.

• Ohio State's Miller -- Can a guy who plays for a team ineligible for the postseason win a Hesiman? Miller is becoming harder to ignore. If he keeps this up, there's not going to be enough room on his helmet for all the Buckeye stickers.

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- 109 yards and a TD in the big TV win against Georgia. My colleague Chris Low told me to look up how often Lattimore gets tackled for losses. Not much. He's rushed for 556 yards and has only 7 yards in tackles for loss. The dude always moves forward.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

• Florida's Gillislee -- Now has three 100-yard games this season, the latest a 146-yard, 2-TD performance against LSU.

• Notre Dame's Te'o -- The Fighting Irish are No. 2 in the country in scoring defense, No. 13 in total defense. Te'o (10 tackles in the win against Miami) has a little something to do with that.

Semi-sleepers:

• Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- I would pay to watch him run out to the mail box.

• USC's Barkley -- That's more like it: 303 yards and 3 TDs in win against Utah.

• North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard -- I like the name and I like his stats against Virginia Tech (262 yards, 1 TD on 23 rushes).

Thanks for stopping by the booth:

• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- You can thank NC State for this.

• UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin -- It's not you, it's me.

15. If the season ended today ...

Ohio State and Penn State would be tied for first place in the Big Ten's Leaders Division. And both would be ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeNick Florence
Rob Christy/US PresswireBaylor quarterback Nick Florence has picked up where RG3 left off, leading the country in total offense per game.

Duke would be undefeated in the ACC.

West Virginia's Smith would be putting the finishing touches on his Heisman acceptance speech.

Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Auburn would be winless (a combined 0-13) in SEC play.

Baylor's Nick Florence would lead the nation in total offense.

Fifteen teams would be undefeated and one of them would be Oregon State.

Only three teams of them -- Ohio, South Carolina and Oregon -- would be bowl eligible.

Marshall's Rakeem Cato would have more passing yards (2,311) than the combined passing totals of New Mexico, Army, Air Force, Navy and Temple.

Notre Dame's specialty uniforms would still give me the heebie-jeebies.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio would still be wondering how the Spartans gave up almost 200 yards in the first quarter against Indiana.

Alabama would play Oregon for the national championship.

14. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

"I would guess that if you were a red-blooded American man, you'd like to play today. I'm guessing we'll play well."

-- LSU coach Les Miles to CBS's Tracy Wolfson moments before the Hatter's team played Florida in The Swamp. He was 1-for-2 in guesses. LSU didn't play so well in the 14-6 loss (three turnovers, only eight first downs).

13. BMOP -- runner-up

"The Auburn fans and the Auburn family, they did not deserve this today, and I apologize to anybody who came to the game to watch it."

-- Auburn's Chizik to reporters after the 24-7 loss to Arkansas at home. The dreadful performance came after two weeks of prep work for the game.

12. BMOP -- honorable mention

"The quarterback is kind of ridiculous right now ..."

-- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer on Braxton Miller, who rushed for 186 yards and a TD in the 63-38 win against Nebraska.

11. No one said it was going to be easy

If you used a drone to do recon on Weis' first season at Kansas, then, no, there wouldn't be much to see.

[+] EnlargeDayne Crist
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesDayne Crist followed Charlie Weis to Kansas, but success hasn't come easy for either this season.

The Jayhawks are 1-4 (they're only win coming against FCS-member South Dakota State), fresh off a 40-point loss to Kansas State and likely headed to a 1-11 record, which is one less win than Turner Gill's last season.

Yet, Weis doesn't sound like a guy who regrets leaving Florida as its offensive coordinator.

"Out in the public, it won't look like major strides," Weis said of his program. "Internally the strides have been tremendous."

KU isn't Notre Dame, where Weis spent five years before he was dismissed after the 2009 season. He then spent a year with the Kansas City Chiefs and last season with the Gators.

"We're plugging along," he said. "The No. 1 thing we needed to do here was become competitive for 60 minutes. There were so many games here that were over so early.

"Really, we're going through the transition of learning how to fight for 60 minutes. I think they're doing that. … You can't be frustrated. You realize it's going to take some time."

Kansas is 109th in scoring offense, so we're talking baby steps here. Former ND quarterback Dayne Crist is only completing 50 percent of his passes and the TD/INT ratio needs some work (3/7). KU used four different quarterbacks last Saturday, but at least the Jayhawks scored on their first possession. It's the first time that's happened against a K-State Bill Snyder-coached team since 2004.

And look at this stretch of games: K-State last week, followed by Oklahoma State, at OU, Texas, at Baylor, at Texas Tech, Iowa State and at West Virginia.

"My job is not only to make them better, but get more guys to join up," Weis said.

10. The picks

Just 10-8 without even worrying about the spread? Beyond embarrassing.

This week's choices:

Kansas State over Iowa State, Oklahoma over Texas, Rutgers over Syracuse, Northwestern over Minnesota, Ole Miss over Auburn, Virginia Tech over Duke, Wisconsin over Purdue, Alabama over Missouri, West Virginia over Texas Tech, Notre Dame over Stanford, Oregon State over BYU, USC over Washington, Baylor over TCU, Mississippi State over Tennessee, Texas A&M over Louisiana Tech.

(Last week's record: 10-8. Overall: 72-25.)

9. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

Well, lookee here -- an upset pick that paid off.

It's not like Florida was a huge dog to LSU (2½ points), but it took a small leap of faith to pick them over the Tigers. Anyway, I'll take anything I can get these days.

Last week I narrowed my possible upsets to Arkansas over Auburn (cha-ching), Nebraska over Ohio State (Buckeyes blowout) and Texas Tech over Oklahoma (Sooners blowout).

This week, I thought hard about: Tennessee over Mississippi State (nothing more than a dumb hunch that the bye week will do UT some good when it heads to Starkville); Duke over Virginia Tech (VT has lost two in a row, but then I noticed that Duke has never won in Blacksburg and has lost 11 straight to the Hokies); Louisiana Tech over Texas A&M (La Tech is West Virginia Jr.).

Went With: South Carolina over LSU.

I know the game is in Hatterville, but I like the toughness of the Gamecocks. And I really like their D-line.

(Last week's record: 1-0. Overall: 2-4.)

8. Gene Chizik: Dead coach walking

The SEC is your leading content provider for national championships and melodrama. Someone's always getting fired, hired, rumored to be fired, rumored to be hired or, when in doubt, just rumored.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAuburn coach Gene Chizik's record without Cam Newton can best be described as mediocre.

The rumor that seems to be metastasising at an alarmingly fast rate is this one: Auburn's Gene Chizik could be canned at season's end and replaced by Mr. Integrity himself, Bobby Petrino.

If you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm going to go get an MRI. I think I just cracked my rib cage from laughing.

Really? Again with the Petrino-to-Auburn stuff? Didn't everyone learn their lesson the last time, when the school secretly interviewed Petrino when he was at Louisville and Tommy Tuberville was still, you know, the actual Auburn coach?

The mere idea of it is so preposterous, so absurd … that it makes perfect sense in the SEC.

Chizik is under serious duress at Auburn -- Land of Lost Memories. It doesn't seem to matter anymore that Chizik led the school to a BCS Championship in 2010. To some Tigers fans, 2010 is the same as 1910.

Chizik, they say, won with Cam Newton. Without him, Chizik is another coach with a whistle and a courtesy car.

Yes, he won a national title with Newton. But guess what? So did Urban Meyer with Tim Tebow. And Mack Brown with Vince Young. And Pete Carroll with Matt Leinart.

That's how it works. The better the player, the better the coach you are.

Right now, Auburn is 1-4 and doesn't have enough good football players. And if they do have them, they're too young to make a difference.

The offensive line is a mess with two freshmen and two sophomore starters. Sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier is a work in progress, which is a nice way of saying, it isn't going well. And the small senior class doesn't have any difference-making vocal leaders.

Auburn is dead last (120th) in turnover margin and tackles for losses allowed. It is tied for 118th in turnovers lost and tied for 110th in sacks allowed. And it just lost to Arkansas. Not only lost, but lost 24-7 to a team that was at the brink of its own meltdown.

So Auburn followers want their pound of flesh and, well, Chizik has some meat on his bones, right?

7. Dead coach walking -- Part II

Maybe this is a good time to mention that Chizik has a reported $7.5 million buyout. That's a lot of money to make someone go away. Plus, you've got to hire the next guy and pay him a lot of money too.

Chizik is 9-9 since winning that national championship. Meanwhile, Auburn's Lex Luthor -- Nick Saban of Alabama -- led the Tide to a BCS championship last season (as well as in 2009) and has Bama positioned to win another one this season.

Saban is also a recruiting machine. Bama has commitments from nine 2013 prospects in the ESPN150 rankings. But Auburn is no slouch. The Tigers have commitments from three of the top eight and five in the top 129 of that ESPN150 list.

Of course, there are too many Auburns fans with the patience of a puppy. They yap on the radio shows. In the chat rooms. On the blogs. Chizik must go.

But unless Auburn suffers an absolute banana republic collapse, Chizik isn't likely to go anywhere. And by collapse, I mean go 0-for-SEC. Even then, I'm not totally convinced athletic director Jay Jacobs would fire him -- though, an 0-8 league record that included, say, a season-ending woodshed loss at Bama, might do the trick.

If Auburn did fire Chizik, then what? Would it actually hire Petrino?

If it were up to Jacobs, doubtful. Jacobs is known within the walls of Auburn as a church-going, moral guy who might find Petrino's past on the distasteful side. Then again, coaching searches make strange bedfellows.

As Chizik raised that crystal BCS trophy on Jan. 10, 2011, there's no way he thought he might have to worry about his job status 22 months later. But the SEC is a merciless, unforgiving league. And its fans, especially those from Auburn, are in the mood to blame.

6. BMOC player of the week

The finalists: North Carolina's Bernard, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, West Virginia's Smith (this is a recording), Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer, Ohio State's Miller, Stanford's Nunes, Arizona's Matt Scott, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, South Carolina's Shaw, Iowa State wide receiver Josh Lenz, Florida's Gillislee, K-State's Klein, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon.

And the winner is … Shaw. He's the Klein of the SEC.

5. BMOC coach of the week

The finalists: Arkansas' John L. Smith (nobody is going to confuse Auburn with Bama, but given the circumstances -- and that it was a road game -- Smith deserves some serious props); Army's Rich Ellerson (a week after losing to FCS-member Stony Brook, the previously winless Black Knights stun Boston College); South Carolina's Steve Spurrier (honorable mention: defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward); Penn State's Bill O'Brien (from 0-2 to 4-2, including a comeback win against unbeaten Northwestern on Saturday).

And the winner is ... Ellerson.

4. BMOC flop of the week

The finalists: Auburn (the Tigers committed five turnovers and gave up eight sacks to a team that had been outscored, 110-10, in its first two SEC games); Florida State (the Seminoles were up 16-0 at half and apparently thought NC State would call it a night); Georgia (a no-show against South Carolina); Arizona (blew a 14-point lead in the last 6:34 of the fourth quarter against Stanford and then lost in OT).

And the flopper is ... Auburn.

3. If there were a playoff

(And there will be in two more years ...)

Shoulder Pad Bracket:

Alabama vs. South Carolina

A.K.A., the SEC Championship?

Chin Strap Bracket:

Florida vs. Oregon

First and only meeting was in 1929. The Gators won. That same season Florida played Harvard … and lost.

2. If there were a playoff for knuckleheads

Who would win this first-round matchup: Missouri freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham vs. Ohio State third-string quarterback Cardale Jones.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
AP Photo/L.G. Patterson/AP PhotoMissouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham missed last Saturday's game against Vanderbilt.

Jones is the one who said this on Twitter last week: "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS."

Well, that's one way of looking at it. But considering Jones is the third-string QB and hasn't played a single down this season, maybe school isn't such a bad option?

Meanwhile, the much-heralded Green-Beckham was one of three Mizzou players who were arrested Wednesday night on a misdemeanor charge of possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana.

We're not talking Bob Marley here, but could DGB and his teammates have made it any easier for campus police? The players allegedly were parked near Memorial Stadium in Green-Beckham's SUV shortly before midnight.

Doesn't sound like study hall to me.

According to the police report, officers approached the car, which is registered to Green-Beckham, smelled the funny stuff and off we go. Hello, arrest. Hello, one game suspension (Mizzou lost to Vandy, by the way).

1. The BMOC top 10

No. 10: LSU (5-1)
Next: South Carolina.
The Tigers are ranked 98th in passing offense. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee want apologies for all the grief they took a season ago.

No. 9: Ohio State (6-0)
Next: Indiana.
Huh? Buckeyes scored 29 points against UAB, but 63 against Nebraska? Still waiting for defense to kick in.

No. 8: Kansas State (5-0)
Next: at Iowa State.
Cyclones are going to be feeling a bit saucy after win against TCU. Thing is, TCU isn't K-State. Not even close.

No. 7: Oregon State (4-0)
Next: at BYU
Could be a toughie, especially with the injury to QB Sean Mannion. Cougars have given up a combined nine points in their past three games.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Eric GayGeno Smith's next challenge comes on the road in Lubbock at Texas Tech.

No. 6: West Virginia (5-0)
Next: at Texas Tech.
I know OU torched the Red Raiders. And I know Geno Smith will probably do the same. But just in case, be careful in this one, Mountaineers.

No. 5: Notre Dame (5-0)
Next: Stanford.
The Fighting Irish are the only team who haven't trailed in a game this season. It helps when you haven't given up a touchdown in your past three games. Stat alert: Stanford has won three straight against N.D.

No. 4: South Carolina (6-0)
Next: at LSU.
Steve Spurrier says Gamecocks' biggest opponent this week isn't LSU, but overconfidence and believing the hype. After listening to Shaw and RB Lattimore do the team leader thing after Saturday night's win against Georgia, I don't think that's going to be an issue.

No. 3: Oregon (6-0)
Next: at Arizona State Oct. 18.
The only thing that can stop the Ducks from scoring is a bye week.

No. 2: Florida (5-0)
Next: at Vanderbilt.
A little bit of a trap-game possibility here, what with South Carolina and the Head Ball Coach coming to town on Oct. 20.

No. 1: Alabama (5-0)
Next: at Missouri.
So, Mizzou, how are you enjoying the SEC so far? Let me introduce you to the Crimson Tide, who have had two weeks to get ready for this one. Quarterback Corbin Berkstresser will replace the injured James Franklin in the Tigers' starting lineup. Good luck with that.

(Five on the fringe: Stanford, USC, Georgia, Texas, Florida State.)

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter