Heisman nearing an unprecedented finish

It’s a stubborn idol.

The Heisman Trophy is 25 pounds but it’s weighed down by much more. It’s an award that is as much forged by unwritten rules, politics and regional biases, as it is bronze.

We’re entering a weekend that could redefine the trophy in a way not seen since inaugural winner Jay Berwanger’s aunt Gussie used it as a doorstop (it’s true).

A freshman and a linebacker.

To understand the absurdity of Texas A&M phenom Johnny Manziel and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o being the presumptive 1-2 with less than two weeks before ballots are due is to understand the grip that long-held beliefs have had of its voting populace, beliefs which have been built up over 77 years.

A freshman can’t win, we’ve been made to believe.

Herschel Walker couldn’t do it. Neither could Adrian Peterson. In all, only eight freshmen have ever cracked the top 10 in voting and only three, Walker, Peterson and Michael Vick, have ever been finalists. But the ever-burgeoning legend of Johnny Football has flipped the script.

The Aggies quarterback has jumped into the lead by lighting the biggest, baddest conference in the land on fire, giving us a 4,000-yards and counting of total offense, a record for a first-year player, and he’s 166 yards from breaking the SEC mark of 4,327 Cam Newton set in his Heisman-winning season of 2010. But entering the final game of his regular season, the award looks like its Manziel’s to lose.

Defensive players aren’t serious threats, history tells us.

Even the player most glorify as the first defender to win wasn’t just a cornerback. Charles Woodson returned punts and was included in a handful of plays on offense. But a strictly defensive player? Only three have ever finished in the top three in Alex Karras (1957) and Hugh Green (1980) in second and Rich Glover (1972) third.

Enter Te’o, a Mormon, who has become the poster boy of the revival of the country’s pre-eminent Catholic university. He is the heart and soul of a Fighting Irish defense that’s tied for the fewest points allowed in FBS (10.1 per game), registering 98 tackles and six interceptions, which is tied for second in the nation.

He’s already a lock for a trip to New York for the ceremony and with a signature game against USC, could pose an even bigger threat to Manziel.

A freshman and a linebacker.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone in making the mere thought of those archetypes and the Heisman seems farcical. In six years as a voter and covering the award and a lifetime being obsessed with the Heisman Trophy and its history, I bought into the myths surrounding the award and helped to perpetuate them, never once putting a defensive player on my ballot or considering a freshman a viable candidate.

This weekend can change everything, and not just by solidifying two players the likes of which have never won as the leaders. It can set up a vote that defies further conventions.

Upperclassmen QBs and running backs have defined this award’s past, combining to win in 68 out of 76 times (69 out of 77 if you count Reggie Bush’s now vacated victory). But the top contenders from those groups, Kansas State senior QB Collin Klein and Oregon back Kenjon Barner, have fallen out of favor after a weekend in which their teams suffered their first losses of the season Now they’re in danger of falling even further behind as two more candidates look to take advantage of key opportunities.

USC’s Marqise Lee can build on his already staggering numbers – the sophomore is first in the nation in receiving yards (1,605), second in yards (145.9) and receptions (9.73) per game and third in all-purpose yards (219.6) per – against top-ranked Notre Dame and its vaunted defense.

With preseason hopefuls Matt Barkley (USC) and De’Anthony Thomas (Oregon) out of the running and Barner fading, Lee has a chance to cement himself as the West voting region’s best bet. And he’s doing it at a position that itself is often a Heisman afterthought, producing just two winners, Tim Brown (1987) and Desmond Howard (1991) and in the last 20 years has a top finish of second with Larry Fitzgerald (2003).

Then there’s Ohio State’s Braxton Miller.

Only one player on a team facing a postseason ban has ever won in Andre Ware (1989) and in the years since, no one has been invited to the ceremony. But if the Buckeyes can finish off a perfect season with a win over Michigan in Columbus, Miller, who has generated 2,919 yards of offense and 27 TDs, should be looking at a seat in New York, which is determined by wherever there is a natural breaking point in the voting.

Where does that leave Klein, the player who led this race for the last month, and Barner, a top-flight contender for weeks? Potentially on the wrong side of history.

Not having an upperclassman QB in the top three in voting isn’t completely uncommon; it’s happened 18 times, but not since 1980. It’s even rarer that we not have an RB in the top vote getters, with just five instances, the last coming in ’08. But a vote that doesn’t include a junior/senior QB or an RB among the top three? That’s new territory for the Heisman.

Just how unprecedented could it all be? We may be looking at a group of finalists that includes a freshman, a linebacker, a wide receiver, a player on a team on probation, and an upperclassman QB.

Barring a major setback Saturday vs. 5-6 Missouri, Manziel should all but wrap up the award. Te’o can lay claim to being his biggest challenger in carrying the Irish to the BCS Championship Game and Lee and Miller have their opportunities, too

It’s a weekend that could alter the course of the Heisman like few races in history have and one that could leave us with just one lingering question until the award is handed out on Dec. 8 in Times Square.

Will Manziel, who per Texas A&M policy can’t talk to the media, be allowed to give his own acceptance speech?