USC was going to win the national championship, and Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley was going to make a pre-Christmas flight from Los Angeles to New York to do some shopping and be presented with the Heisman trophy.
Barkley had held a press conference after the 2011 campaign to announce he would forego the NFL draft and return for his senior year, making the announcement by giving USC coach Lane Kiffin a homemade Christmas ornament with the phrase “one more year” embossed on it.
Barkley later used the phrase "unfinished business" to describe his decision to return, choosing to stay to be on a team aiming for the BCS championship after a two-year postseason ban.
Um, about that
The Trojans were ranked No.1 in the preseason AP poll, and Barkley was +300 to win the Heisman.
Wisconsin running back Montee Ball was +400, Michigan running back Denard Robinson +500 and Oklahoma quarterback (and converted running back) Landry Jones +600.
AJ McCarron, fresh off leading the Alabama Crimson Tide to a national championship, but with the label game manager already attached to him, started the season +2000, though he got down to +450 by late in the season.
Johnny Manziel? There were no odds for Manziel, chiefly because he was a virtual unknown. But as you’ll know from watching Untold: Johnny Football on Netflix, that was going to change.
A loss to #21 Stanford knocked USC from the top of the poll, followed by four more losses, including the first to UCLA in six years, a loss in which Barkley separated his shoulder, effectively ending his college football career.
Vegas liked Barkley for a while, though. He was +100 after big wins over Hawaii and Syracuse, but fell to +1000 as the losses started to pile up, and there was to be no trip to the Downtown Athletic Club for Matt Barkley.
Kiffin was fired a couple of weeks into the following season.
Meanwhile, in College Station, the Texas A&M Aggies went to camp with questions at quarterback.
Ryan Tannehill had left for the NFL but Manziel, a three-star recruit who had redshirted the previous year, looked good during spring ball and fall practices and won the starting job over two guys you probably haven’t heard of.
His debut was originally to be against Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, but a hurricane postponed that game, so Manziel started his first game at home in maybe the loudest stadium in the country, Kyle Field, against the Florida Gators.
ESPN’s game story on Florida’s 20-17 win doesn’t mention Manziel until the 17th paragraph.
“Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel threw for 173 yards and ran for 60 more, but he couldn't move A&M’s offense after halftime.”
It was the Aggies first game in the SEC, and let’s just say it didn’t put the Heisman Trophy in anyone’s mind.
But, and this is a big BUT, Manziel’s performance against Arkansas changed everything. An excellent way to gain attention is to break the record for total yards that had been held for 43 years by Peyton and Eli Manning’s dad Archie.
Johnny Football accounted for 557 yards of total offense, breaking Manning's record of 540. Two weeks later, Manziel surpassed his own record for total offense with 576 yards against Louisiana Tech.
That made him the first player in SEC history to have two total offense games of more than 500 yards in one season, and it’s worth noting that he had been in the SEC for six weeks.
Following a home loss to LSU and a dominating win on the road at Auburn, in which he passed for three touchdowns and ran for two while playing just over a half of football, Manziel started to show up in national Heisman Watch lists.
However, he was still just +2500, while Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, who led the Wildcats to a 10-0 start, had become the clear favorite and sat at -150, while there were five other players considered better bets than Manziel to win the Heisman.
Then it happened.
Texas A&M went to Tuscaloosa to face the unbeaten, untied and unreal Alabama Crimson Tide, and this was the day Johnny Football introduced himself to the nation.
Johnny Football vs 'Bama
While it is of course impossible for one man to win a football game, Manziel came close that day in Bryant-Denny Stadium, accounting for 345 of A&M’s 418 yards of offense, including two passing touchdowns, in a 29–24 stunner.
That week, Texas A&M and the Manziel family filed paperwork to copyright the term Johnny Football.
Also that week, the Aggies QB became the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy in most national watch lists, as his performance combined with other Heisman frontrunners faltering.
By the time A&M improved to 10-2 with a home win over Missouri, in which Manziel broke the SEC’s single-season record for offensive production with 4,600 yards, surpassing Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, (good college players, you might have heard), Manziel was -300 to win the Heisman.
Klein was +250 and Teo +400.
Manziel was named SEC Freshman of the Year Award and won the College Football Performance National Freshman of the Year Award, then took the Davey O'Brien Award on December 6.
Two days later, on the morning of the Heisman Trophy presentation, Manziel was -1000, Teo +250 and Klein +5000 (free trip to New York and a nice hotel, though).
Manziel became the first freshman winner of the Heisman, a record that lasted one year until Jameis Winston of Florida State duplicated the feat the following December.