We talk a lot about narrative and its role in everything from the presentation to the discussion of sports. The steady drumbeat of a story creates its own momentum. While Johnny Manziel’s Heisman win on Saturday was hardly dramatic, his candidacy was noteworthy for being a relatively recent development. As recently as mid-October, when A&M was struggling to beat Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss and went dormant in the second half against LSU, Manziel was the walking definition of a novelty – an entertaining new quarterback in a new system whose coach was at a new school in its first season in a new conference.
It might be argued that Manziel won the Heisman in three games. That’s not true of course; he emerged as a special player from the opening week in a near-upset of Florida. But it did only take three games to turn novelty to narrative.
I remember driving back from Jacksonville to the beach listening to A&M-Auburn. Texts, calls, and tweets were flying as people marveled at the complete destruction going on at Jordan-Hare. It was 42-7 by halftime. We knew Auburn was bad, but this was the SEC’s version of the Oregon-Colorado score we were tracking during the WLOCP. The actual score soon took backseat to the image of an 85,000-seat stadium that had all but emptied early in the third quarter. Manziel’s five touchdowns got the buzz going again after A&M’s first laugher in a month after three nail-biters.
Beating up on Auburn and Arkansas was one thing, but the following week gave A&M a challenge they hadn’t done well with: beat a ranked team. Mississippi State was still in the top 20 after coming back to earth against Alabama. As we waited for a 3:30 Homecoming kickoff, it didn’t take long to see that 1) Mississippi State was still over-rated and 2) Manziel and A&M were on to something. For the second straight week, they had beaten and demoralized an SEC West opponent by halftime.
Suddenly the “A&M will give Alabama as much trouble as LSU” talk had some teeth. But even then the quarterback getting much of a Heisman push was McCarron. Alabama’s dramatic prime-time win at LSU was as big of a moment as there had been in college football in 2012, and McCarron was flawless on the game-winning drive.
Big performances in big games can win a player the Heisman. That’s nothing new. Often that turning point can even be a single play – like Cam Newton’s run against LSU in 2010 or Desmond Howard’s punt return against Ohio State. If you had to point to a single play that flipped the 2012 race, it was the early touchdown pass where Manziel was pressured, escaped, ran into his own guy, fumbled, caught the fumble in the air, and found a wide-open receiver in the endzone.
Between the A&M win an multiple interceptions by McCarron, the door had been opened for Manziel. That seemed to be the story of the season – one by one, players who seemed like reasonable Heisman candidates found it impossible to get traction and fell away. The emergence of Manziel and A&M that took place from the last week in October was perfectly-timed to fill this void, and all it needed to go over the top was knocking off the nation’s #1 team.
If you go to most any preseason Heisman list, you’ll find names like:
- Matt Barkley (Southern Cal): Started the year as the Heisman frontrunner and leader of the preseason #1 team. Yikes.
- Tyrann Mathieu (LSU): Remember him?
- Geno Smith (West Virginia): He was the frontrunner after September, and it wasn’t even close. Then he went to Lubbock.
- Denard Robinson (Michigan): Robinson was an electrifying player who didn’t quite fit in his offense, but he could have been a career-achievement type of winner with a strong season. His awful line vs. Alabama eliminated him in week 1.
- Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina): I don’t know if he was having a Heisman-type season before his injury, but he would have likely stolen some votes from Manziel in the South and mid-Atlantic and made the overall tally much more interesting.
- Landry Jones (Oklahoma): Like McCarron and A&M, Jones lost his shot when he faltered against Klein and Kansas St.
- Tyler Wilson (Arkansas): His chances were pretty much finished when Petrino flamed out. Like Barkley, coming back for that senior year didn’t quite turn out as expected. Wilson’s production was down only slightly, but his interceptions soared.
- Montee Ball (Wisc): Ball finished fourth last year and was the returning player with the most 2011 votes. Three September games with less than 100 yards took him out of the running early.
What the 2007 season was to the BCS, the 2012 season was to the Heisman. As the preseason and early-season favorites stumbled time and again, a freshman and a defensive player stood out as fairly consistent outstanding players. Manziel deserves his award. He was the best player left standing, and his performances were exciting to watch while having a real impact on the outcome of the 2012 season. Just as the circumstances that put a two-loss team through in 2007 don’t come around very often, the circumstances that led to this season’s finalists are fairly rare. There was no George Rogers to his Herschel Walker. It’s to a freshman’s credit that he was ready to make the most of the opportunity.