Heisman Watch: Optimus Klein vs. Johnny Football

Two quarterbacks. Two nicknames. One Heisman Trophy.

That’s what the race for the most prestigious individual award in college football comes down to at the moment.

Matt Barkley and Geno Smith had their time at the top, Manti Te’o played brilliantly at Oklahoma and Kenjon Barner torched USC, but they have all fallen back to earth. They are all chasing the two quarterbacks on top of the race.

Kansas State senior Collin Klein (aka Optimus Klein) has been in the lead for a few weeks, and unless the No. 1 Wildcats lose one of their final two games it will be difficult for anyone to catch him. But Texas A&M freshman Johnny Manziel (aka Johnny Football) has the best chance.

Manziel is red hot with Heisman voters coming off the Aggies’ wild victory over previously unbeaten Alabama. He threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 92 yards and often made plays out of nothing. It was impressive stuff, and he surged comfortably into second place. He earned a few first-place votes in some straw polls and convinced Clay Travis of Outkick the Coverage to write the following:

Put simply, Manziel has played tougher competition and dominated those opponents, while Klein has played weaker competition and been the fifth best statistical quarterback in his conference.

The lazy response, i.e. the Kansas State fan response, will be, “Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” Okay, then what’s the the historical value of the performance? History has to matter, right? How do you stack up against past greats?

Two SEC quarterbacks have won the Heisman trophy in the past six years. Both of these players, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton, put up mind-blowing numbers. Manziel is on pace to break their total yardage records. That is, Manziel is on pace to post the best statisical season for any quarterback in SEC history.

Ever!

While it’s true Manziel’s stats (2,780 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, 1,014 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns) are superior to Klein’s (2,020 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, 748 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns) there isn’t a big enough difference there to make up for the fact that K-State is undefeated and Texas A&M has two losses.

Especially when you consider Manziel has attempted 128 more passes and carried the ball eight more times than Klein. In Texas A&M’s up-tempo offense, he has had more opportunities to gain yards. His stats inherently should be better. Though Klein holds the advantage with a 69.7 percent completion rate and only three interceptions.

It is all part of the Heisman criteria. Players with tremendous stats get attention regardless of their team. Players on tremendous teams get attention regardless of their stats. But those who put up good stats on an undefeated get the most attention. Always have.

Cam Newton played for a team that went undefeated and won a national title. Combined with his stats, practically everyone voted for him. Tim Tebow won the Heisman in a year when the national champion had two losses. Florida didn’t need to win all its games to keep him relevant.

Manziel faces a different challenge. His team has two losses. Klein’s has zero. That’s a lot to overcome. A freshman has also never won the Heisman. Unless he is a slam-dunk choice, it will be hard for some traditional voters to break that trend.

Besides, there are a lot of different ways to look at stats. K-State fans are quick to point out that Manziel had a three-interception game against LSU, which Texas A&M lost. Klein’s worst game came last week against TCU (less than 200 yards of offense, two touchdowns and an interception) and K-State still led 23-0 in the fourth quarter.

Now, LSU is better than TCU. And Manziel’s finest game trumps Klein’s. Beating Alabama on the road isn’t easy. Both players can make a case for the award, and Texas A&M started a marketing push for Manziel on Thursday.

That could help his chances, but what he really needs is for K-State to suffer a loss. Texas A&M closes with Sam Houston State and Missouri. Few will be paying attention to those games on the national level. The Aggies’ final game is also on Nov. 24. His last chance to impress voters will come a week earlier than most. That could seriously damage his hopes.

K-State closes against Baylor and surging Texas on Dec. 1. The Bears are weak defensively, and the Longhorns have had trouble stopping teams, as well. Klein will have the chance to put up impressive stats and win a game the week before the Heisman ceremony.

Manziel has made things interesting, but Klein is still the favorite. As long as K-State stays No. 1 in the BCS standings, that is unlikely to change.

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

1. Collin Klein – 2,020 yards passing and 12 touchdowns, 748 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns.

2. Johnny Manziel – 2,780 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, 1,014 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.

3. Manti Te’o – 90 tackles and six interceptions.