There's a world of possibility for Johnny Manziel on a football field.
In a conference deemed the all-encompassing defensive capitol of the college football world, the New York City of shutouts, there are times when it seems Texas A&M's freshman quarterback has found an abandoned amusement park in some rural Texas town, allowed his pick of the litter for every ride because no one is there to stop him.
Those possibilities was almost realized outside of College Station — a tricky notion to contemplate after all the Lonestar product has given his state to be proud of. But he was almost a Duck. He was even committed , at one point, to Chip Kelly and Oregon. Imagine that: a dual-threat phenom orchestrating the most impressive, high-octane offensive system in the country. It shouldn't be tough. Just turn on your TV as Saturday evening begins to expire on the East coast, and there you have it.
Johnny Football is not alone.
On the West Coast, Kelly and his staff found a match for Manziel, a Hawaiian product sans the Scooby-Doo affinity. Marcus Mariota. Get to know both names, use flashcards if need be — they could easily be on Heisman ballots for years to come.
Manziel leads the SEC in rushing all while breaking the conference's single-game total offense not once but twice this season. His 3,449 yards and 31 touchdowns both rank in the top-three nationally. Mariota, for his part, has produced a similar resume, acting as a conductor for Oregon's seemingly unstoppable train (let this Alabama matchup happen, football gods), posting 26 total touchdowns.
So this all begs the question: Which player is the best freshman quarterback in the country? And yes, at this point, it's a two-horse race. The rest of the field didn't hear the gun go off.
For now, Manziel has the more impressive numbers and nickname, which is perhaps the quickest way to get ahead in life (See:Nyjer Morgan, Shawn Carter and/or Doug Martin). But if he struggles again this weekend in Tuscaloosa — Who doesn't these days? — it will be Mariota's race to lose. He's torched solid competition this season, not shying away from primetime moments. He put on a clinic versus USC last week. Manziel did the same against Mississippi State.
Which begs an even better question: Who cares which guy is better?
Instead of worrying about trivial, subjective things — of course, for the record, my money is on Mariota — football fans need to put together a plan to keep these two redshirt freshmen in college past next season. Two masterful seasons will not be enough. Some things are meant to be put on hold.
Manziel and Mariota, Texan and Hawaiian, imitating one another from 2,000 miles away. Some things are meant to last.
STIFF ARM SUSPECTS
The Suspects does not acknowledge name recognition, positional bias, team affiliation or media favorites for its weekly Heisman update. Players earn a spot based on production – and production alone – against quality opponents. This week sees little change in the Top Suspects, but a Duck speedster is closing in.
Collin Klein, Kansas State, QB: Klein could be entering a danger zone, as he is banged up heading into this weekend. Chances are he plays — though coach Bill Snyder is being coy — but it's rare a Heisman winner misses a game (only two past winners have pulled it off). All that said, Kansas State is undefeated and the senior quarterback ranks in the top-10 for total touchdowns. Consistent winning and scoring is a pretty good route to the big ceremony. Next game: TCU
Kenjon Barner, Oregon, RB: The Suspects has been on the Barner Train for weeks now — ruling out Oregon's Heisman favorite, De'Anthony Thomas — and it finally paid off against rival USC. The 195-pound running back broke school records with his 321-yard, five-touchdown explosion. It was his fifth straight 100-yard game and he's now in the top three nationally in both rushing yards and touchdowns. Looks like he'll be the second Duck in New York in the past three years. Next game: California
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, LB: The Year of the Linebacker stayed on track this weekend, with the Irish's ever-present talent logging 5.5 tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass breakup in a survival-mode clash against Pittsburgh. Staying undefeated always helps. Te'o is tied for second nationally in interceptions (five) and top-25 in tackles per game (9.67). To recycle the joke: That's averaging nine more than Rudy. Next game: Boston College
Raising Suspicion: Marqise Lee (USC); Braxton Miller (Ohio State); Jarvis Jones (Georgia); Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M); Geno Smith (West Virginia); Damontre Moore (Texas A&M); Colby Cameron (Louisiana Tech)
THE FIFTH WATCH
The Watch is your weekly slate of top games, plus one highly-ranked team that needs to be on high alert. This week sees three undefeated teams challenged and impending danger in Palo Alto.
Oregon State at Stanford: Keep your head on a swivel, Cody Vaz. In a game pitting two stingy defenses against two offenses turning to backup quarterbacks, this could be a game that puts an emphasis on extended drives. And with Stanford's pass rush — first nationally in sacks per game (4.33) — the Beavers' Vaz will need to avoid third-and-long situations. Easier said than done. He was sacked six times last week versus Arizona State, so don't expect much to change. Pick: Stanford
Texas A&M at Alabama: Will AJ McCarron ever throw an interception? He's one of two (qualified) quarterbacks without a pick this season, and the Aggies do not pose much of a threat in that area. Texas A&M is one of the worst teams in the country in turnover margin (102nd), while the Crimson Tide rarely hurt themselves. If Manziel can not protect the ball — he struggled against LSU with three turnovers — this one could get out of hand. Pick: Alabama
Kansas State at TCU: You can add two things to that death-and-taxes cliché: Kansas State will not beat itself and TCU will stop the run. Well, something needs to give here, as TCU's eighth-ranked run defense will be tasked with stopping Klein, who is third nationally in rushing touchdowns. If Klein is injured, everything changes. He's college football's MVP. But until then, it's hard to pick a Horned Frogs team that has lost three conference games. Pick: Kansas State
Mississippi State at LSU: Let's not even sugarcoat it. This is a quiet weekend and Mississippi State is overrated, that's the only reason the Bulldogs find their way into The Watch. There might be a bit of an emotional letdown after the Alabama classic, but the Tigers are just too good. Mississippi State's offensive line is giving up less than one sack per game — that should change with Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo in attendance. Pick: LSU
ON WATCH: Louisville has flirted with ending its unbeaten streak multiple times — winning six of its games by a combined 32 points — and Syracuse poses a dangerous offense that can potentially keep up with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater's squad. Led by Ryan Nassib under center, Syracuse boasts the 26th-ranked offense. If Charlie Strong's Cardinals let Syracuse hang around, they could be driving back to Kentucky with a Big Orange loss.
THIS IS WHY…
Lane Kiffin is just the worst.
Earlier this season, Any Given Saturday gave Kiffin a quasi-reprieve by qualifying his monthly (daily?) childish antics with the excuse of necessity: Every plot needs a few villains; one of college football's resides in Los Angeles. He is needed. But, after the most recent story to come out of the Trojans' program, apologies must be made.
See, in a previous column, Kiffin was compared to Jay Electronica, all hype and promise without the results to match. But perhaps that was off-base. It's a rarity when J.E. makes headlines, and that's all Kiffin seems to do of late. And none of them are good. All negative, all the time. Let's review the past three months' highlights’:
1. Kiffin tabs the Trojans as the No. 1 team in the national coaches' poll, then lies about it afterwards. Of course USC has already lost three games this season.
2. Kiffin pulls an unnecessary switch-up of jersey numbers against the powerhouse that is Colorado (1-8), blatantly making a mockery of a minor NCAA rule. Good thing, those style points are going to be pivotal when it comes to an Alamo Bowl selection.
3. Kiffin bans opponents from using USC's home stadium, the Coliseum, for Friday walkthroughs because he's Lane Kiffin and petty things like this sound like game-changing ideas in his head.
4. Lastly, Kiffin and USC fired a team manager this week after the NCAA fined the Trojans for illegally deflating game balls against Oregon. Because team managers do things like that on a whim. And because Kiffin has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to competitive integrity.
This is why Jay Electronica did not deserve the comparison, but rather an apology. A story never leaked about him slipping opium into an opposing artist's drink before a rap battle (are those still popular?), and then publicly dismissing a groupie for the act. Did the USC coach know about the deflated balls? Does it even matter anymore?
This is why Kiffin continues to play his role to perfection.
Tomatoes, Lane. Tomatoes.