College football embraces change as eagerly as the Michelin Man would a cactus, but in the last few years the sport has undergone major overhauls nonetheless. The oft-maligned BCS is finally on the way out, with a four-team playoff scheduled to take its place in 2014. Realignment has dramatically altered the conference landscape, and rivalries that once defined teams' seasons have become roadkill on the superconference highway.
On Dec. 8 yet another seismic event could rock the sport's foundation: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is poised to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy in its 77-year existence. And he deserves it. Simply put, he's the most outstanding player in the country.
Forget about tradition. Toss out the notion that a player who has yet to establish himself over time can't gain access to sports' most prestigious fraternity. Ignore the idea that he can just win the award next year, that being invited to the award ceremony in New York City is enough for Manziel because it helps him become the front-runner for 2013.
Now examine the numbers. Manziel hasn't been good; he's been historic. In racking up 439 total yards and five touchdowns in last Saturday's 59--29 rout of Missouri, he broke Cam Newton's single-season SEC record for total yards (4,600)—in two fewer games than Newton played for Auburn in 2010.
Manziel has accounted for 69.4% of the Aggies' offense, a higher percentage than Baylor's Robert Griffin III (65.4%), Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (62.2%) and Newton (61.9%) did during their Heisman seasons. He has accounted for 43 touchdowns and become one of only five players in FBS history—and the first freshman—to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 in a single year. And he's done it all while leading Texas A&M to a 10--2 record and a 6--2 mark in the SEC—a feat that would have seemed laughable when the program announced its move from the Big 12 in Sept. 2011.
Of course, it helps that the Heisman field lacks another go-to candidate. Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, the presumptive favorite for much of the season, has accounted for 1,500 fewer yards and nine fewer touchdowns (in one less game). Notre Dame's Manti Te'o has a more difficult to quantify impact as a defensive player. Oregon running back Kenjon Barner (1,624 yards, 21 TDs), Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (3,310 total yards, 28 TDs) and USC receiver Marqise Lee (112 catches, 1,680 yards) have been good. Manziel has simply been better. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd (4,042 total yards, 43 TDs) is the only one who's even close.
But it goes beyond mere statistical superiority. On Nov. 10, with A&M leading top-ranked Alabama 7--0 in Tuscaloosa, Manziel faced third-and-goal. He took the snap, cut right and ran into his own lineman, watching as the ball popped loose. He snatched it out of the air, wheeled and uncorked a 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Swope. More than 100,000 fans shook their heads in disbelief, while countless others bellowed in approval from their living rooms. The Aggies then pulled off the season's biggest upset, 29--24, with Manziel accounting for 345 yards.
Two things became clear: Manziel can do things the other contenders can't. And in an era of change, it's time to recognize a freshman—the one called Johnny Football—as the season's most outstanding player.