Plenty of characters played memorable roles in this season's Heisman race. USC quarterback Matt Barkley began the season as the presumptive favorite before eventually becoming the biggest name on an otherwise disappointing Trojans squad; Geno Smith's video-game-like stats turned the West Virginia passer into the Heisman favorite before a Week 7 loss to Kansas State sent the senior tumbling from contention; Collin Klein's K-State team upended Smith's Mountaineers to all but assure Klein's lock on the trophy until a stunning loss to Baylor.
But the brightest star played in College Station. Texas A&M redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel has been the story of the season, and ever since the Aggies upset No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10, Johnny Football has been the Heisman leader. On Dec. 8, Manziel is poised to become the first freshman to take home the award in its 78-year history.
Expectedly, supporters of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o flooded the Watchman's inbox with passionate testimonials, and there are arguments to be made for Teo's candidacy. The senior finished the season ranked second in the country with seven interceptions, all from the middle linebacker position, and led the unbeaten, BCS-bound Irish in tackles (103), passes broken up (11) and fumble recoveries (2).
But how important was Te'o to Notre Dame's defense when compared to other defensive players who attracted Heisman chatter? In one game less than Te'o, Georgia's Jarvis Jones bested the Irish linebacker with a whopping 11 more sacks (12.5) and 17 more tackles for loss (22.5) in helping the Bulldogs reach the SEC title game. Likewise, in 11 games South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney overshadowed Te'o in those same categories (21.5 TFLs and 13 sacks) on a 10-2 Gamecocks squad. Unfortunately for Te'o, it's difficult to quantify his highly touted intangibles, and the statistical gap between Te'o and players like Jones and Clowney is not wide enough to coronate Te'o as the Heisman winner.
In contrast, no one can deny Manziel's importance to the Texas A&M offense.
That's where the eye test was the true game-changer in this Heisman race. Fair or not, Manziel had more opportunities to impress because of his role as an offensive player. The quarterback touches the ball on every play, and Manziel consistently dazzled with his dual-threat repertoire while putting up tremendous stats against SEC competition. The freshman's 4,600 total offensive yards broke Cam Newton's SEC record of 4,327 yards set during Newton's own Heisman-winning season in 2010. Manziel became the first freshman and fifth player ever to register a 3,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season. Perhaps most impressively, Manziel accounted for 69.4 percent of the Aggies' offense, a higher percentage than the last three Heisman-winning quarterbacks: Robert Griffin III, Newton and Sam Bradford.
And keep in mind: Manziel did this all with a new coach, a new system and a new conference. Even with the Notre Dame brand in tow, Te'o never wowed on defense more than Manziel did on offense. And that's what will define the freshman's victory.
Before jumping into the Watchman's ballot, here's a look at how things stacked up last week. Also, let your voice be heard by casting your own vote in SI.com's annual People's Heisman poll and check back Friday for the final results.
Season (12 games): 273-of-400 passing for 3,419 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions; 184 rushes for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Watchman's take: Detractors will look at Manziel's 1-2 record in the Aggies' three biggest games of the year, against Florida, LSU and Alabama. But take a closer look at the numbers: Manziel averaged 293.7 yards of total offense against those three teams, who all finished the season in the top 10 in total defense. His upset of the top-ranked Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa will be remembered as the defining moment of his Heisman campaign, and it was also the moment when SEC fans began taking A&M seriously. Adrian Peterson's 2004 Heisman finalist run was the most successful by a freshman to date, as the Oklahoma running back garnered 997 votes to finish second behind USC's Matt Leinart. Manziel should have little trouble breaking that barrier.
Heisman moment of the year: Manziel's first-quarter touchdown versus Alabama gave the Aggies a 14-0 lead and displayed the freshman's improvisational skills.
Season (12 games): 103 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, seven interceptions, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
Watchman's take: For any player, picking off seven passes in a season is a noteworthy accomplishment. And among Te'o supporters, a favorite argument is that the senior has great leadership qualities both on and off the field. Te'o famously learned the name of every walk-on on the Irish roster in order to cultivate an atmosphere of unity, and his ability to play through adversity cemented him as a fan favorite. Ultimately, though, Te'o's status as a defensive player was the biggest anchor to his candidacy, as the Heisman race has never produced a winner who played exclusively on defense. Manziel will have an easier time beating the freshman barrier than Te'o will overcoming the defense-only barrier.
Heisman moment of the year: Te'o's late interception of Oklahoma's Landry Jones cemented Notre Dame's win over the Sooners and helped the Irish remain unbeaten.
Last week: 8-of-14 for 184 yards, one touchdown and one interception; 23 rushes for 103 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-24 win over Texas.
Season (12 games): 180-of-272 passing for 2,490 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions; 194 rushes for 890 yards and 22 touchdowns.
Watchman's take: The Heisman was Klein's to lose before the walls came crumbling down with No.1 Kansas State's crushing loss to Baylor on Nov. 11. Klein was the only one of the Watchman's top three candidates to play on Championship Weekend, but his three-touchdown outing against Texas didn't inject enough life into his deflated candidacy. Overall, Manziel had better late-season luck but also bested Klein on the stat sheet: The freshman scored six more total touchdowns and recorded just more than 1,200 more yards of total offense on the season.
Heisman moment of the year: One week before losing to Baylor, Klein's 34-yard touchdown run against TCU helped Kansas State stay unbeaten at 10-0. It also got Gus Johnson's attention.