Who had a better freshman season: Jameis Winston or Johnny Manziel?
When Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel won the 2012 Heisman Trophy, it was hailed as a seminal moment in the award's 78-year history. A freshman had finally defied precedent and been named the most outstanding player in the country. The dynamic, dual-threat quarterback did so by leading the Aggies to a top-10 spot in the AP Poll in their first season in the SEC, beating No. 1 Alabama on the road and delivering a record-setting campaign of rare caliber for a first-year player.
So, of course, just one season later, another redshirt freshman is set to claim the Heisman.
Florida State's Jameis Winston -- a former five-star recruit from Hueytown, Ala. -- entered this season with far more hype than Manziel did in 2012. (Johnny Football was not even expected to start for the Aggies until a few weeks before last season.) The buzz for Famous Jameis began escalating in the spring, when the two-sport standout pitched and played outfield for the Seminoles' baseball team. But things amplified when he delivered a dazzling performance in Florida State's spring football game. In fact, there were early premonitions he might follow in Manziel's Heisman footsteps.
Still, Winston defied even the loftiest expectations in his first career start on Labor Day in Pittsburgh. He broke the school single-game record for completion percentage by connecting on 25-of-27 passes (92.6 percent) for 356 yards and four touchdowns, and running for another score in a 41-13 Seminoles' victory.
Thus began a Heisman run in which Winston finished the season as the nation's top-rated passer and led Florida State to its first BCS National Championship Game in 13 years.
Much like last season, there's little mystery surrounding who will take home the trophy on Saturday night in New York. So why not explore a more intriguing question: Which redshirt freshman had the more impressive campaign, Manziel (2012) or Winston ('13)? Here's an analysis, broken down into seven categories.
While Manziel's Heisman campaign is remembered more for his spectacular runs, he was a pretty decent passer, too. He completed 68.3 percent of his throws for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns, with eight interceptions, during the regular season. His final pass efficiency rating of 155.32 (which includes the Cotton Bowl) ranked 16th nationally.
However, Winston's passing performance this year was one of the best we've ever seen from any quarterback, let alone a freshman. At first glance, some of his stats seem fairly similar: a completion percentage of 67.9, 3,820 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. But Winston attempted 85 fewer passes than Manziel despite playing 13 games instead of 12, in part because he sat out the fourth quarter (and sometimes most of the third quarter) in so many of the Seminoles' blowout victories. Winston's passer rating of 190.0 is not only the best in the country this season, but it is just a hair short of Russell Wilson's FBS record (191.8 in 2011). Winston averaged 10.9 yards per attempt compared with Manziel's average of 8.5. Advantage: Winston.
Manziel's single-most impressive selling point as a Heisman candidate was his overall production. In 2010, Auburn's Cam Newton set a then SEC record for total offense with 3,998 yards at the time of the Heisman ceremony. Manziel shattered that mark while playing in one fewer game, with 4,600 yards and 43 total touchdowns before he even played in his bowl game. He rushed for 1,181 yards on 184 attempts.
While Winston is far from a statue, he is a more traditional drop-back passer who doesn't freestyle, unlike Manziel. Of Winston's 4,013 total yards in 2013, he ran for only a modest 193 yards on 77 carries. Advantage: Manziel.
Manziel all but locked up the Heisman on Nov. 10, 2012, when led A&M into Bryant-Denny Stadium and knocked off eventual national champion Alabama 29-24. While he registered more gaudy stats in other games, it's hard to argue this wasn't his signature performance, especially given the caliber of his opponent. Manziel completed 24-of-31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, while rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries.
Winston's biggest win and biggest performance came on the same night, on Oct. 19 at Clemson, when the 'Noles routed the then third-ranked Tigers 51-14. Winston completed 22-of-34 passes for a staggering 444 yards and three touchdowns, with a pick. Statistically, he had the better night. But Manziel's performance came against a Crimson Tide team that would finish the regular season ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings and No. 1 in total defense. Clemson finished this season No. 12 in the BCS and No. 21 in total defense. Advantage: Manziel.
Manziel's defining play was his fumbled-snap-turned-touchdown pass against Alabama, though he also had many other memorable scrambles, improbable escapes and across-the-body throws. Yet nothing he did can top Winston's Hail Mary against Boston College on Sept. 28. After the ball was snapped to him with one second remaining before the half, he eluded three near-sacks, changed direction and uncorked a 55-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kenny Shaw. Advantage: Winston.
Manziel faced three top-10 defenses (Alabama, Florida, LSU) in 2012, though two of those were responsible for his two worst games. He also played two FCS foes and Louisiana Tech's 116th-ranked unit. Winston's toughest opposing defense in '13 was Clemson (ranked No. 21), but he played the same number of top-25 (three) and top-50 (five) defenses. Push.
Winston led Florida State to a perfect 13-0 regular season, while Manziel's 2012 Aggies went 10-2. Case closed for Winston, right? Not necessarily.
Record alone is too simplistic to measure a quarterback's impact, as he's still dependent, in large part, on his supporting cast. That's evidenced by Texax A&M's regression to 8-4 this season with an improved Manziel but a depleted defense. Better to compare how each offense performed the year before Winston or Manziel entered the lineup to the year in which each player took over.
Interestingly, both quarterbacks succeeded first-round NFL draft picks (Ryan Tannehill at A&M, EJ Manuel at Florida State) yet led their teams to marked improvements. The Seminoles' offense improved from an already impressive average of 7.0 yards per play to 7.8. But A&M's average went up even more, from 6.1 to 7.1. Advantage: Manziel.
If Florida State beats Auburn next month, Winston will become not only the Heisman winner, but also a national champion -- the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to that pinnacle since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985. That would certainly trump Manziel's greatest accomplishments, but we're not there yet.
At his Heisman coronation on Saturday, Winston will be the redshirt freshman whose near-flawless performance as a passer helped lift the reigning ACC and Orange Bowl champion to the BCS title game. But Manziel was the redshirt freshman whose record-breaking year helped transform a long-irrelevant program into a national power.
Both players' seasons were sensational. It's splitting hairs. But for all the reasons above, Manziel's Heisman campaign was just a little bit more special.