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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Manti Te'o deserves the Heisman

By Skip Bayless
ESPN.com

Manziel-Heisman-Te'o
Johnny Manziel, left, is the hot pick for the 2012 Heisman right now. But a look at Manti Te'o's season shows he has built a stronger, season-long case.

You can't convince me Johnny Manziel deserves the Heisman over Manti Te'o any more than I'll probably be able to convince you that, right now, Johnny Football's team could beat Notre Dame, Alabama or Georgia.

But both statements are all too true and precisely what's wrong with college football. Heismans shouldn't be won by a quarterback with an all-time great nickname whose beyond-Cam Newton pass/run stats camouflage two bad second halves in Texas A&M's two biggest home games, both losses.

BUT: Those two losses, in Games 1 and 7, to teams now ranked No. 4 in the BCS (Florida) and No. 7 (LSU), should NOT keep a team with a redshirt freshman at quarterback from being able to grow up and catch fire and demolish Mississippi State (then ranked 15th) in Starkville and soundly whip Alabama in Tuscaloosa and earn a berth in an eight-team tournament for the national championship.

One day, when Manti Te'o, the Next Ray Lewis, has retired after 15 or so NFL seasons as a perennial Pro Bowler, maybe we'll have that eight-team college football playoff.

But if we had one now, the last team I'd want to play is Johnny Football's -- that is, if A&M got the final berth. It's currently and preposterously ranked ninth in the BCS.

You will find no bigger media fan of Manziel's than I am. I was skeptical last year, as he redshirted, when newspaper friends in Texas told me longtime high school reporters called Manziel the most amazing prep player they'd ever watched. That's a mouthful, podnah.

Yet after watching Manziel start to finish in five games this season (Florida, LSU, Mississippi State, Alabama and Missouri), I'm ready to say he'll win two of the next three Heismans, at least. But he shouldn't win this year's. Te'o should, and it shouldn't be close. In fact, I'm embarrassed over the sudden media hysteria to elect a two-loss Johnny Football over an undefeated Manti Football.

Let's see, Geno Smith faded and Optimus Klein lost. We need another quarterback. & How 'bout Johnny Football, who broke Cam's single-season yardage record!

Meanwhile, all Te'o did was become the first-game-to-last driving force of college football's best defense -- better even than Alabama's or LSU's. Te'o was by far the biggest reason Notre Dame kept shutting the mouths of doubters (such as me).

As coach Brian Kelly played a dangerous game going back and forth between QBs Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, Te'o became the face of the program, the leader of the offense as well as the defense, the William Wallace going "Braveheart" at Michigan State and at Oklahoma and at USC this season. In L.A.'s Coliseum on Saturday night, Te'o led the charge on two fourth-quarter goal-line stands that allowed only three points.

You got the feeling the Trojans still could be out there trying play after play, run or pass, and Te'o's defense still would be saying: NO.

Game after game, Te'o was literally all over the field. Like Ray Lewis, he outstudies and outthinks quarterbacks. At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, he can run with backs and cover tight ends. Saturday night, he intercepted his seventh pass, tied for second in the nation. At Michigan State, Te'o had 12 tackles and won his highly anticipated collision with running back Le' Veon Bell, who managed only 77 yards on 19 carries, often getting his psyche rocked by a man just as quick and powerful, Notre Dame's No. 5.

At Oklahoma, Te'o devastated the Sooners and finally sold me. I'm an OU fan by birth. I thought my Sooners would win by three touchdowns. When Te'o wasn't intercepting Landry Jones, he was blitz-sacking him into psychological oblivion. His 11 tackles helped hold OU to 15 yards rushing -- the same OU that had bum-rushed Texas two weeks before for 343. Fifteen yards! In Norman! Notre Dame 30, My Guys 13.

Please don't tell me it's an unwritten rule that inside linebackers can't win the Heisman. Of the 124 FBS schools, Notre Dame's offense is tied for 75th in points per game. Notre Dame kept surviving and silencing us critics because of its defense -- because of Te'o.

And please, this isn't a sympathy vote. Yes, Te'o had to play through the incomprehensible loss of his grandmother and girlfriend in the span of a day, the week of the third game, at Michigan State. That would make his Heisman story all the greater. But that should have nothing to do with whether he deserves the award.

Te'o proved 12 times he's the best player in college football. I'd take him No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Mel Kiper has him second, Todd McShay fourth. No guesswork here: In Te'o, you'll have an every-down linebacker you can trust to tackle, cover and lead for a long time.

I'm not yet sure how good -- or even great -- Manziel can be in the NFL. But I've seen enough to know this: I wouldn't bet against him. I'm not sure he's even 6 feet tall -- he's listed at 6-1. But he's a bigger, stronger Doug Flutie (at 200 pounds) with a lightning mind and release and plenty enough arm. Escape artist Flutie was absurdly quick. Manziel is that quick and down-field fast. He can Houdini out of a four-man sack trap and take it to the house.

If he had closed the deal at home against Florida and LSU, he would have my Heisman endorsement over Te'o, even though Manziel is only a freshman. I wouldn't care if he were a pure freshman who had graduated from high school a year early. Great is great no matter the age. And Johnny Football is simply the most exciting player in college or pro football. Yes, or pro.

As a Tim Tebow supporter, I love it that Manziel believes in Tebow and even retweeted my #FreeTebow campaign hashtag. But the truth is, because he's a freshman, he wasn't quite ready for Florida in his first college start or for LSU in his seventh, and it should cost him this Heisman.

A&M led Florida 17-7 midway through the second quarter -- and didn't score another point. From that point on, Manziel threw for only 80 more yards and ran for only 20 more. Florida pretty much shut him down. Florida won, 20-17.

Then A&M led LSU 12-0 late in the first half. From that point on, Manziel threw three interceptions while rushing for only four yards and scoring no touchdowns. LSU made Johnny Football look more like Johnny Rotten. LSU won, 24-19.

Sorry, not Heisman good enough.

But then something began to happen for which A&M isn't getting nearly enough credit. While America overreacts to Johnny-Football-for-Heisman, it's missing this point. Johnny Football's team is playing at a higher level than anybody.

Manziel has figured out how to close.

Understand, when you play A&M, you don't know what no-huddle hit you. No team starts crazy faster. In first halves, A&M has outscored opponents by 241 points, 343-102. At Mississippi State it was 24-0 at half. Manziel closed, 38-13. In Tuscaloosa versus the top-ranked Tide, it was 20-0 after a quarter. Manziel closed with a sweet backside 24-yard TD pass that made it 29-17 midway through the fourth quarter on the way to a no-fluke 29-24 win.

If you can outplay the nation's No. 1 team in its stronghold in November, you deserve to be ranked higher than ninth.

Missouri didn't have starting quarterback James Franklin on Saturday night at A&M. But on Nov. 3 in Gainesville, Mizzou's defense hung in and lost only 14-7 to Florida. Saturday night in College Station, it was 42-0 with 3:33 left in the first half.

Wake up, people. Manziel did blow the Heisman against Florida and LSU. Then he started blowing away college football.

Right now, A&M vs. Manti's team or Nick Saban's on a neutral field for all the marbles?

I got Johnny Football's team.