The silence was lifted as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel was made available for the media for the first time this season Monday afternoon. He dished on his catchy nickname, creating himself on video games and a season he calls “incredibly surreal and beyond my wildest imagination.”
Throughout a 64-question, 55-minute teleconference, he was composed, confident and funny.
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The freshman phenom won’t take the field until after the Dec. 7 Heisman Trophy ceremony and the buzz surrounding his comments were as key to his candidacy as another game.
History, it would seem, is unfolding before us.
A freshman has never been named the most outstanding player in college football. But the Aggies quarterback is the favorite entering the final week before votes are due, with Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o making a strong case of his own.
If they finish 1-2, it would be the first time in the award’s 78-year history that an upperclassmen QB or a running back wasn’t among the top two.
I expect to have that duo atop my ballot when I submit my vote on Monday and the consensus is that anyone who’s been paying attention will follow suit.
But there are a couple of wildcards remaining in this race: bias and Collin Klein.
During Saturday night’s Notre Dame-USC game, ABC announcer Brent Musburger uttered a sentence that summed up the stance of much of the old guard. Forget Manziel’s freshman and SEC record 4,600 yards of total offense, Musburger, who is also a voter, said there are those “who will not under any circumstances, vote for a freshman.”
But the question is, will they vote for a strictly defensive player? No one has ever won without playing some offense – which Te’o hasn’t – or finished among the top two vote-getters since Pitt defensive end Hugh Green in 1980. If older voters aren’t willing to change their tune for the most dynamic offensive player of the year, regardless of his age, will they be willing to do so for a linebacker?
Which brings us to Kansas State’s redshirt senior quarterback and the importance of playing on that final weekend before votes are due.
A year ago with his biggest challengers, Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson, watching from home in the final weekend of the regular season, Robert Griffin III took advantage. He carved up Texas and parlayed it into his school’s first Heisman.
The impact of leaving voters with a dominating performance has been evident, with each of the last four winners all in action during championship weekend and it certainly aided Griffin. Over the first two weeks of voting, it was Luck that led, while Richardson was a clear second and RG3 was well behind. But over those final days, Griffin gained over 35 percent of the vote and wound up winning by 280 points over Luck.
Now, Klein gets the same opportunity against the same opponent in the Longhorns, while the players he trails in this race, Manziel and Te’o, can only observe.
Can he, like Griffin before him, turn the stage into a statement game that pushes more votes in his favor?
It’s a chance for the Wildcats to clinch the Big 12 title and a spot in a BCS bowl, which only helps his case as all but three winners in this era, Ricky Williams (1998), Tim Tebow (2007) and Griffin, have played in one of those marquee games. It’s also a Top 25 opponent and one with a defense that’s struggled against the Big 12’s other top QBs, giving up four TDs to West Virginia’s Geno Smith and 321 yards and two scores against Oklahoma’s Landy Jones.
Klein will have the final say, but he’ll have to be spectacular given that the frontrunner, Manziel, is from the same voting region in the Southwest. It’s why Texas A&M finally allowing Manziel to speak was such a shrewd move.
In a race that’s often defined by how much a school is willing to push a candidate – see Memphis mailing out die-cast cars to promote DeAngelo Williams, Missouri’s Chase Daniels View-Masters or the ultimate in spending, Oregon’s Times Square billboard for Joey Harrington – Texas A&M had a trump card in its pocket to keep Manziel fresh in voters’ minds.
Of course, there are those that aren’t willing to listen.
Expect voters, especially those like Musburger said aren’t willing to thrown their vote behind a freshman – and those who won’t crown a linebacker — to be watching and waiting for a reason not to make a decision that will alter everything we’ve come to expect with the Heisman, be it with Manziel or Te’o.
For the rest of us, history may be just days away.