One way or another, another needless college football barrier would be smashed Saturday night in New York City. The traditionally offensive upperclassman Heisman Trophy would either go to a freshman or to a linebacker (Kansas State's Collin Klein entered as the longshot).
It's gone to 20-year-old (barely 20-year-old) Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and deservedly so.
Manziel finished second in the country in total yards per game despite playing Florida, LSU and Alabama; broke and rebroke the SEC single-game yardage record; played a major part in the Aggies' Tuscaloosa takedown of the No. 1 Tide; helped establish the rookie Aggies as a legitimate SEC West threat and so much more -- see below for a fancy graphic comparing Manziel to his predecessors and competition.
Te'o and Klein are both unforgettable, and at points this year each looked to be the obvious Heisman. And uninvited players like USC's Marqise Lee, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and NIU's Jordan Lynch are worthy of the praises that'll continue to come their way, but the Heisman aims to award the most outstanding player in the country. There should be no real dispute here.
The Heisman freshman stigma has indeed been real, but this kind of breakthrough has been a long time coming. It was a big to-do in 2007 when Florida's Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win.
Coming into Saturday, the top four freshman Heisman finalists on Stewart Mandel's list were Virginia Tech's Michael Vick, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, Georgia's Herschel Walker and Georgia Tech's Clint Castleberry. Six of his top 10 played in the last 25 years, with two since 2004. Looking back, many will argue Peterson and Walker were robbed (by USC's Matt Leinart and South Carolina's George Rogers, respectively), while the Ron Dayne-Joe Hamilton-Vick-Drew Brees debate continues as well. The point is that freshmen have been inching closer to the trophy for a while now, and one of them has finally done it.
In this case, breaking one kind of ground meant leaving another undisturbed. A purely defensive player has still never won a Heisman, and there was a very good one nominated this year. The Te'o argument is strong.
Arguing for Manziel often means arguing against Te'o, which is not fun. Te'o is a ferocious talent, is the heart of the (for now) best team in the country and has overcome personal tragedy that would've had most of us taking a month off work. His team is unbeaten and playing for the title, and Manziel's isn't, and Te'o is perhaps the single player most responsible for altering this year's national title matchup -- remember Notre Dame entered the year unranked.
Te'o's setback, other than playing in the same year as Manziel, is that his numbers as a whole are simply not all-time outstanding. The counter is that they're about as good as they could be, considering Notre Dame's defense as a whole is good, and the middle linebacker role in Bob Diaco's defense is not to attack the backfield but to wall off the middle of the field.
We can say the impact Te'o has made can't be measured by numbers alone. That's true for every player, but moreso defenders. But unless every voter is required to have watched all 12 games by each of the top candidates, we have to factor them in.
The biggest number Te'o produced: those seven interceptions. That's a lot for a linebacker, but it's not unheard of. It happens pretty much every year, actually. Compare tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, hurries, pass-breakups, touchdowns and team defensive ranking for every linebacker (that I could find) since 2005 to record five or more picks:
Some excellent players on that list, and a few who played on very good defenses. Some didn't even make All-America though, let alone Heisman noise.
Numbers matter, highlights matter, and wins matter. Te'o has the latter two. He's the soul of his team. So are Klein and Manziel and, well, dozens of other players. But please let me stop talking down Te'o now.
We'll hear talk for the next two or three years about Manziel possibly becoming the only repeat winner besides Ohio State's Archie Griffin. Keep in mind Manziel likely loses two first-round-pick offensive linemen, his second- and third-leading receivers and possibly even offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, if that Texas Tech job comes calling. And Alabama and LSU won't get any easier.
However, this was already a young Aggies offense, and even if there's a dropoff next year, counting on Manziel to make it to New York again the following year would not be a bad bet. But that's for next year and beyond.
Right now, what matters is that the right player won American team sports' most prestigious individual award.
What also matters is that another pointless college football tradition is no more. We can and should mourn rivalries that have been sidelined by conference realignment (like, hey, Texas A&M vs. Texas), but the sport is getting a more legitimate postseason soon, and players are very slowly drawing closer to being properly compensated for their contributions to their schools. On the whole, progress is good.
I look at Manziel's victory as both a deserved honor and as one step in the right direction for college football.
The case for Manziel condensed to a single image, via SB Nation's excellent Texas A&M site Good Bull Hunting:
Look through SB Nation's many excellent college football blogs to find your team's community.