The Heisman Trophy winner will be announced Saturday in New York, and my fingers are crossed that Johnny "Football" Manziel, a redshirt freshman quarterback for Texas A&M and this year's golden boy, doesn't win.
True, his freshman year was rather astounding. Against powerhouse Alabama — which won the national championship in two of the last three seasons — Manziel delivered an incredible upset victory already hailed as an instant classic. But Manziel's body of work over the course of his entire college career doesn't rival that of this year's other two Heisman finalists, who are both seniors. (That would be Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and Kansas State QB Collin Klein.)
Now, I'm not advocating age over quality; it's experience and depth that I value most. And Klein and Te'o have proven themselves critical to their teams for years, often in the face of roster changes, injuries, and all the other obstacles inherent to college sports. Manziel, on the other hand, is still green and largely untested. And really, does a freshman quarterback ever deserve college football's ultimate individual award?
Manziel became a Heisman favorite in early November when he led Texas A&M to that upset over Alabama. At the time, the Crimson Tide were widely expected to stroll to another national championship. Johnny Football got in the way. He passed for 253 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 92 yards, rivaling the best game by Tim Tebow during his own Heisman-winning year. (Against Ole Miss in that 2007 game, Tebow racked up 261 passing yards with two touchdowns and, because he plays like a running back, 166 yards rushing. )
This is Texas A&M's first year in the nation-leading SEC (the conference has won the last six national titles), and Manziel led the Aggies to a surprisingly stellar 10-2 record. The team lost only to Florida and LSU — both top-tier programs. Indeed, it was the winningest year Texas A&M had had since 1998, when the team went 11-3. And even though much of the hype is from the Alabama game, Johnny Football's stats have been terrific all year. He's completed more than 68 percent of his passes, thrown for nearly 3,500 yards, and thrown 24 TDs with only eight interceptions.
There's no denying Manziel is Heisman good. He should obviously be a finalist. But he shouldn't win. At least not until he's had another year to prove this year wasn't a total aberration.
It's exciting to see young players like Manziel do well. But so often now, the more experienced guys are getting passed over for their younger counterparts. This trend began in 2007 when Tebow became the youngest person and the first sophomore to ever win the trophy. In favor of Tebow, the Club Trophy Committee snubbed three more experienced guys, including Colt Brennan, a senior, and two juniors, Chase Daniel and Darren McFadden. That season, Tebow had 3,286 passing yards with a 66.9 percent pass completion rate, 32 passing touchdowns, and six interceptions. The bruising, rough-and-tumble QB also rushed for an astounding 895 yards.
Comparatively, Brennan completed 4,343 passing yards at a rate of 70.4 percent with 17 interceptions and 38 touchdown passes. Daniel, who is now riding the bench for the New Orleans Saints, had 4,306 passing yards with a completion rate of 68.2 percent, 33 touchdown passes, and 11 interceptions. The Heisman race was tight because the other candidates had proven themselves successful in college football over the long-term. But in the end, it was simply too exciting to see someone so young be so good. Tebow won.
After that, the Club Trophy Committee went on a bit of a youth kick, picking Sam Bradford in 2008 and Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009, both of whom were sophomores. The committee passed over finalists like Colt McCoy (junior and senior year), Ndamukong Suh (senior), and Toby Gerhart (senior), all of whom had outstanding college careers.
Now that players are leaving college early to enter the NFL draft, the best of the best are usually gone before their senior years. They're tempted by high-paying professional contracts and they often choose to enter the draft when they know their stock is high, rather than risk an injury-plagued or loss-ravaged college season that might lower their draft position. As a result, there are fewer really good seniors who would make great Heisman candidates. Guys like Andrew Luck are the exception.
More than a few sports columnists believe age shouldn't matter and that Manziel is a shoe-in for the 2012 trophy. But if Manziel really is as good as they say, he'll be just as good next year. Give him a couple years to become a bonafide superstar, then give him the most important trophy in college football.
After all, it's not like the other two Heisman finalists are anything to sneeze at. Manti Te'o of Notre Dame and Collin Klein of Kansas State have impressive résumés. Te'o has 103 tackles and seven interceptions this season. He led Notre Dame to an undefeated season that no one expected, and he'd be the first truly defense-only player to win a Heisman. Klein has scored a rushing TD in each of his last 11 games — an incredible feat for a QB. And just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the 2012 season, Klein looked like the Heisman favorite. So what happened? Just one game: Johnny Football versus Alabama.
If the buzz, straw polls, and hype are right, Manziel will win. But picking him means giving precedence to a single season — even a single game — over a full and lauded career. We have become a nation of short-attention-spanned, spontaneous, quick deciders. But this time, let's not be too swayed by a few exciting hours from a 19-year-old kid.