Four months ago, Florida coach Will Muschamp held his weekly news conference before the Texas A&M game and couldn't help but mention the Aggies' new starting quarterback, Johnny Manziel. He talked about his athleticism, his speed, his ability to run and throw, and said he'd already warned his players this was a guy they needed to focus on.
At the time, it sounded like the usual coachspeak. Turns out, Muschamp knew what the rest of the country would learn as the season progressed: Manziel is one of the nation's top players.
Tonight Manziel joins fellow finalists Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o and Kansas State senior quarterback Collin Klein at the 78th Heisman Trophy Award ceremony, hoping to become the first freshman to win the nation's most prestigious college football award.
"It's something that you dream about as a kid," Manziel said. "When you're sitting there playing all these NCAA (video) games as a kid and you create a player and you win the Heisman as a freshman because you just put up crazy numbers, it's something you can only sit back and dream about. It's the biggest, most prestigious award in college football, so it would definitely be a dream come true."
Klein is the poster child for how fickle the Heisman race can be throughout a season. With two games remaining in the regular season, K-State was No. 1 in the BCS standings and Klein was called the Heisman favorite, but a three-interception game and a loss to Baylor dropped him back in the pack with many voters.
"I'm just honored with this opportunity that the Lord has provided me," Klein said. "I'm so proud to represent K-State in this, because I feel like my road is very synonymous and in line with the K-State way. It's been a process; it's been a journey. There have been a lot of ups and downs as well as a lot of hard times and growing pains through it."
For Te'o, who at one point pondered whether to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, this week has been a whirlwind. He has won the Butkus and Bronko Nagurski awards, but the idea of being in New York as one of three Heisman finalists caps a season that has surpassed his expectations.
"I definitely was surprised," Te'o said. "It's something that … I don't think anybody could anticipate or expect. It's always a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just didn't think that it would be to this magnitude, and I'm just very grateful to be in this situation and to represent my team."
Te'o's teammates consider him a pillar of strength and leadership, particularly after he played through the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend this season.
The Heisman race could be one of the closest on record — or a landslide in Manziel's favor — depending on whom you ask. The closest race was in 2009 when Alabama running back Mark Ingram won with 28 more points than Stanford's Toby Gerhart.
If Te'o or Klein wins, he would be the first senior to win since Troy Smith at Ohio State in 2006. Te'o would be the first defensive player to win since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.
"He's passionate about the game," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of Te'o. "He's 21 years old, and he acts like that. When he walks into a room, there's an energy and a passion for what he does, and that will (rub off) on everybody.
"He raises the level of accountability amongst his teammates, and when you have that kind of energy and that kind of personality, it rubs off on everybody. He's a college football player that loves the game, and he elevates the play of others around him."