Heisman Watch: Manti Te’o, AJ McCarron emerge as Collin Klein’s main competitors

Collin Klein is still the Heisman Trophy favorite.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is still a distant runner-up.

But that’s about all that stayed the same in the Heisman race last week. Behind the top two contenders, everyone else bounced up and down the public-perception rankings like ping pong balls.

ESPN currently ranks Oregon running back Kenjon Barner third, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron fourth and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller fifth.

HeismanPundit.com ranks USC receiver Marquis Lee third, while West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and Miller are tied for fourth.

What do these differing opinions mean for Klein at the top of the award hunt? Not much – yet. But with Te’o going up against soft opponents the next three games, this is everyone else’s chance to move into position for a late charge. Oregon, USC, K-State and Alabama all play in primetime tonight. This could be a big day for more Heisman movement.

ESPN Heisman expert Joe Tessitore says it will be hard for anyone to catch Klein. He thinks Te’o can do it — “He’s not going away” — but it would take a phenomenal final game against USC, better than the one he had against Oklahoma. Everyone else needs to keep winning, keep putting up big numbers and hope Klein has an off day. That seems to be the only thing that can truly open up the Heisman race.

“Even though Klein has built up this big lead you don’t want to see him have his down game late,” Tessitore said. “You never want to give voters an excuse to look elsewhere right before they vote.

“Heisman voting works a lot like the top 25 polls now. Based on outcomes of any given week, you can be looking pretty and then be down in the dumps.”

Tessitore only has to go back one year to come up with an example.

“On the third week of November last year, the leader in the Heisman poll was Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State,” Tessitore said. “He was two games away from playing for the national championship. He had Iowa State and Oklahoma left, and Oklahoma State lost to Iowa State. He went from first in the poll to seventh.

“The masses were waiting on that one error to jump on. Collin Klein can’t have that. He can’t give them reason to take their support elsewhere. Now, Iowa State was a much bigger upset than if Texas or Oklahoma State beats Kansas State. And I think Collin Klein is on much firmer ground than Brandon Weeden ever was.

“He inherited the lead in the poll. But my point is: the night after he lost to Iowa State Robert Griffin III upset Oklahoma on ABC. Weeden was done. Here is your new leader.”

I’m not sure Klein is vulnerable to that type of swing. He would have to play horribly in a blowout loss, the same way Smith did. Even then, I think he would have some wiggle room. Remember, people didn’t start writing Smith off until West Virginia lost badly in back-to-back games.

Te’o will remain a threat as long as Notre Dame stays undefeated. That’s what happens when you play for Notre Dame. But it’s so hard for defensive players to beat out offensive playmakers.

A more viable outside candidate appears to be McCarron. Though he isn’t the best player on his team, he plays for top-ranked Alabama. That always helps. And he does have an impressive stat by his side: zero interceptions.

“What you have to worry about if you’re Collin Klein is a guy like AJ McCarron,” Tessitore said. “It’s the lazy man’s lobster of Heisman voting. The default vote goes to the quarterback on the best team. McCarron is now fourth in the polls. There is nothing attractive about McCarron. He’s not dynamic. He’s not exciting and their offense is a power-run game. When you watch Alabama play, you don’t say, ‘Wow, McCarron is carrying his team to victory.’ But here he is.

“If he does something extraordinary over the next few weeks, and has a signature moment you will see Heisman voters to try and justify ways to move McCarron up.”

In other words, keep an eye on tonight’s game between Alabama and LSU. If McCarron has a big game, he might move up to second in the Heisman race tomorrow.

For now, though, it’s Klein’s award to lose.

“Collin Klein is in good shape,” Tessitore said. “But there is still a lot to be done.”

This will be my fourth straight year as a Heisman voter. Here is how I would vote today:

1. Collin Klein – 1,630 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, 634 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.

2. Manti Te’o – 78 tackles, five interceptions.

3. Braxton Miller – 1,527 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, 1,093 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.