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Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

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Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

Manti Te'o's Heisman bid started as a pipe dream in mid-September, when the linebacker received plenty of national attention for his outstanding performances against Michigan State and Michigan while dealing with a devastating tragedy.

A month later, Te'o's Heisman chances became legitimate when he intercepted Landry Jones in Norman, sealing Notre Dame's biggest win in nearly two decades. And after Notre Dame beat USC to finish its first undefeated regular season in 24 years, the argument became loud and clear:

If Te'o doesn't get the Heisman Trophy, no defensive player ever will.

"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," coach Brian Kelly said in Los Angeles. "Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase."

On Thursday, Te'o broke Charles Woodson's record for most awards won in a single season. In winning the Maxwell Award -- Te'o's sixth -- he topped Woodson's five won in 1997. One of those awards won by Woodson was the Heisman Trophy, although Te'o is hardly a slam dunk to to win college football's most prestigious honor.

Te'o earned an invite to the Heisman presentation in New York as one of three finalists, meaning he'll be the first defensive player who didn't play offense or special teams to have a top-three Heisman finish since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green in 1980. A handful of defense-only players have finished in the top four -- most recently, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh -- while Alex Karras and Green are the only two defenders to finish in the top three without playing on offense.

Woodson is heralded as the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, but his bid was aided by his explosive returning ability and moonlighting as a receiver. Te'o doesn't have any of that -- his impact comes only on the defensive side of the ball.

And it's a been a huge impact, one that has propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated season and bid in the BCS Championship. Te'o has 103 tackles and seven interceptions, the latter of which is the highest total compiled by an FBS linebacker in a dozen years. He's the emotional leader of a defense allowing 10.3 points per game, the lowest average in the nation. And Te'o's done it all while being a high-character guy, one who's as upstanding of a human being as you'll ever meet.

So what doesn't make him Heisman Trophy material?

It's exactly about what Te'o is lacking, it's about what Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has done. It's Manziel -- not Cam Newton, not Tim Tebow -- who holds the SEC record for total offense, racking up 4,600 yards in his redshirt freshman campaign. With a new coach and new quarterback, Texas A&M actually wound up averaging more points per game this year against fearsome SEC defenses than they did last year against the Swiss cheese defenses of the Big 12, and that was with Ryan Tannehill as the team's quarterback.

The last few weeks have turned into ugly attack campaigns, with those in College Station and South Bend digging to find any reason, however small, to discount the other candidate (in this analogy, then, that makes Collin Klein the Green Party rep). Yes, Manziel didn't play well against Florida and LSU. But Te'o was stymied by Pittsburgh, a game which Notre Dame wound up winning thanks to a few big breaks.

It's Michael Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera all over again, with each grenade thrown making the debate more polarizing.

"That's definitely somebody that's of Heisman material," Te'o said of Manziel. "I'm a real big fan."

Manziel is a deserving candidate. So is Te'o. But only one can win the award -- and all signs point to Manziel -- so that begs another question: why not just split the Heisman Trophy into two categories, one for offense and one for defense?

It's a tricky concept, given the history of the Heisman Trophy. It's arguably the most prestigious and recognizable award in American sports, one that pre-dates baseball's Cy Young Award by 21 years. It'd take a lot of convincing for two players to be welcomed into the Heisman fraternity each year, for two players to strike the pose instead of one.

But it's rare for a defensive player to have the kind of national impact and appeal of Te'o in 2012. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers pepper highlight reels and YouTube clips. A mundane touchdown will get more play than a run-of-the-mill interception, sack or fumble recovery. That's why it's much easier to identify the nation's top offensive players than defensive players, unless a defender has a gargantuan season like Te'o in 2012 or Suh in 2009.

The idea of a defensive Heisman won't be realized anytime soon, if ever. And even if it is installed down the road, it won't help Te'o this year.

In a situation where there are multiple deserving candidates, one will get snubbed. This year, that guy is likely to be Te'o, and he just so happens to play defense. And while there's no doubt Te'o wants to win the Heisman, he has a chance to play for an even bigger honor -- one Manziel doesn't have a chance to get this year.

"You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion," Te'o said last month. "So that's what I want. I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue."

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