Manziel’s performance against Bama sets up a showdown with Heisman history

Fact: No freshman has won the Heisman Trophy in the 78 years of the award.

Fact: Only five freshmen have notched top-10 finishes.

Fact: Just three have made it to New York as Heisman finalists.

This is the history that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel must overcome if he is to mount a serious challenge for this year’s trophy. But if Saturday’s thrilling performance in his team’s 29-24 win over No. 1 Alabama is any indication, he might be on his way to doing something very special indeed.

Manziel threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns and picked up another 92 on the ground against the Crimson Tide. This kind of performance has become par for the course for the scintillating frosh. That it came against the nation’s top defense will no doubt convince many Heisman voters that he is for real, especially when taking his entire season’s body of work into account.

Keep in mind that the three previous freshmen finalists — Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson — each led their team to undefeated regular seasons. With two losses already on Texas A&M’s ledger, Manziel is trying to join this elite crew through the sheer weight of his numbers. And after 10 games, these numbers are starting to look pretty amazing.

Manziel has 2,780 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, plus 1,014 yards and 15 scores running the ball. With two games to play, he’s slated to become the first player in SEC history to pass for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000. Projecting his numbers out to the time of the Heisman vote, we’re looking at 3,336 passing yards, 1,248 rushing yards and 40 total touchdowns for the freshman against some of the country’s best defenses.

Barring a late-season collapse or injury, Manziel can claim the mantle of the “it” player on the nation’s “it” team. And then, there’s that nickname.

Heisman voters are reluctant to jump on freshman bandwagons, though. The thought might occur to some in the Heisman electorate that there will be plenty of opportunities to vote for Manziel in the next three seasons. Others might blanch at A&M’s two losses, and others will find the Collin Klein/Kansas State story more appealing. Still another factor that could come into play is Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s insistence on keeping Manziel off-limits to media.

One thing that could work in Manziel’s favor, though, is a point I brought up earlier in the season about West Virginia’sGeno Smith: While Manziel’s school is located physically in the Southwest region of the Heisman vote, he competes primarily against teams located in the South region, so he’s a very well-known quantity to a large cross-section of voters. In a close vote, this could make a huge difference. It also helps that Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron will now bow out of Heisman contention, clearing the way for Manziel as the SEC candidate.

Yes, things are looking up for Johnny Football. If I had to bet, I’d say he’s about to join some elite company by making that rare freshman trip to the Big Apple. Whether he ends up overturning 78 years of bias against first-year collegians depends on the sometimes fickle nature of the Heisman electorate — and on what Klein and Oregon running back Kenjon Barner do in the meantime.

FRESHMEN IN THE HEISMAN VOTE

Name, Finish, Year
Hershel Walker, 3rd, 1980*
Emmitt Smith, 9th, 1987
Marshall Faulk, 9th, 1991
Michael Vick, 3rd, 1999*
Adrian Peterson, 2nd, 2004*

* — Heisman finalist

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.
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