The 2012 Heisman Trophy won't come down to Johnny Manziel vs. Manti Te'o. The trophy will go to one of those two, yes, but that's a detail, a plot twist in the bigger story that this balloting will tell.
Here's what the 2012 Heisman Trophy will come down to:
Best player in the country vs. best player on the best team.
Player of the year ... or MVP.
There is a difference -- sometimes. There wasn't a difference in 2010 when the best player in the country, the most valuable player in the country, the only logical candidate for the Heisman Trophy was Cam Newton of Auburn. His team went on to win the national championship. He broke unbreakable records. No brainer, that one.
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That year the Heisman Trophy made it easy on voters. This year, it was harder. It was so hard, in fact, that exit polls show a race that is too close to call. While our Chris Huston -- who runs the highly accurate Heisman Pundit blog -- has predicted a narrow victory for Manziel, the folks at USA Today won't do it. They polled 37 voters and concluded that it was a toss-up between Manziel and Te'o.
So this one's going to be close, because voters are confused.
Best player in the country? Or best player on the best team?
This year they are not the same, because Johnny Manziel is the best player in the country. It's not close. You know those unbreakable records that Cam Newton broke in 2010? Manziel broke Newton's records this year. Playing in the same conference. In two fewer games. He has thrown for 3,419 yards and run for 1,181.
The best player in the country is Johnny Manziel, his freshman status be damned. He was the biggest star in the biggest game of the season, Texas A&M's upset of Alabama on Nov. 10, when he passed for 253 yards and ran for 92. Manziel also had 576 yards of offense against Louisiana Tech, and 557 yards against Arkansas.
This season has had some great players putting up some great numbers. Marqise Lee of Southern California at receiver. Collin Klein of Kansas State and Geno Smith of West Virginia at quarterback. Kenjon Barner of Oregon at running back. And yes, Manti Te'o of Notre Dame at linebacker. But this season will be remembered as the season we discovered Johnny Football. He has defined college football in 2012. Best player in the country. Hands down.
But Te'o ...
The man wins. Notre Dame wins. And Notre Dame wins with its defense, with Te'o as its unquestioned leader. But it's not like he's the only great player on that side of the ball, lifting Notre Dame's defense to dominant levels by himself. The Irish have great defensive tackles, ends and (other) linebackers. The Irish have, in all probability, the best front seven in college football. And if it's not Notre Dame, it's Alabama.
And do you remember what Johnny Manziel did to Alabama?
But Te'o is stockpiling votes because some voters have decided the Heisman should go to the best player on the best team. They're lazy, these voters. And scared. Look, the easiest thing to do, as Mr. Voter defends his choice, is to point to the BCS title game and say, "My guy is in that game. Case closed."
That's what (some) voters have done with Te'o. They've turned the Heisman Trophy ballot into the American League MVP, scanning the AL East for the player with the best stats and giving the award to him. Now playing linebacker for the Fighting Irish ... David Ortiz.
But it happens. Look back at some of the most questionable Heisman winners of all-time. Gino Torretta tops the list. He wasn't the best player in his own huddle in 1992, but he played quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes, and Miami was undefeated at the time of the vote, so voters gave the trophy to him. It was awful. They owe an apology to runner-up Marshall Faulk.
In 2001 voters saw Eric Crouch playing quarterback for No. 2 Nebraska and gave it to him. In 2003 the preseason No. 1 team was Oklahoma, and the Sooners stayed atop the polls for most of the year. Heisman winner that year? Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, rather than the best player in college football, Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
In 2004 USC went undefeated and quarterback Matt Leinart went to the podium to pick up his award. In 2006 Ohio State reached the national title game and OSU quarterback Troy Smith won the Heisman. Same thing in 2008 with Oklahoma and OU quarterback Sam Bradford. And in 2009 with Alabama and running back Mark Ingram, who had the yards but wasn't the best running back on his own team (that was Trent Richardson).
Newton in 2010 made it easy on voters, and then last season voters had an epiphany and gave the trophy to the best player in college football, Robert Griffin III of Baylor, despite Baylor's three losses. How can the best player in the country be the best player in the country if his team loses three times?
Because football is a team sport.
It takes more than one player to win or lose a game. Robert Griffin III was the best player in college football because he was the best player in college football. He didn't play in the BCS title game because he didn't have enough great teammates. That was 2011.
And here in 2012 Johnny Manziel is the best player in college football because he's the best player in college football. He won't be playing in the BCS title game, but that's a detail. And not the most important detail. Not even a detail that matters a whole hell of a lot.
We'll see if voters figured that out.
Because more than anyone else, the 2012 Heisman Trophy will tell a story about them.