NORMAN, Okla. – So which of the three finalists for the Heisman Trophy really has been college football's best player this season? Check back with the Oklahoma Sooners after the Cotton Bowl and they could offer an educated opinion.
No. 12 Oklahoma (10-2) will complete a Heisman trifecta of sorts when the Sooners face No. 10 Texas A&M (10-2) in the Jan. 4 bowl game in Arlington, Texas. The Aggies are led by quarterback Johnny Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman this month and on Tuesday was named as the AP Player of the Year.
Oklahoma already has faced the other two players who finished in the top three in this season's Heisman balloting: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.
"Yeah, I've thought about that, believe me," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said Tuesday, addressing reporters for the first time since the Sooners closed the regular season with a 24-17 win over TCU. "They're excellent players, all of them. They're always a challenge."
Oklahoma will become the first team to face the top three finishers in the Heisman balloting since 1993, when Florida played Florida State and Heisman winner Charlie Ward, Tennessee and runner-up Heath Shuler and Alabama and third-place finisher David Palmer.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, a four-year starter for the Sooners, entered the season on most Heisman watch lists, but fell off with a couple of subpar early season performances. He never moved back into serious Heisman contention despite passing for 3,989 yards and 29 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Jones, who has a 39-10 career record as a starter, said he is curious about seeing the player dubbed "Johnny Football," but doesn't think he needs to measure himself against Manziel, who passed for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns with eight interceptions and rushed for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns.
"You play against so many good players throughout the year," Jones said. "I don't know if it's necessarily a chip on your shoulder. It's just more of a way where you want to go out and you want to compete the way you know you can compete. If he has a great game, he has a great game. I don't really have anything to do with his playing and what he'll do on Jan. 4."
Defensive tackle David King might, however, and said Manziel poses a different challenge to Oklahoma's defense than other quarterbacks, comparing him to last year's Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III of Baylor.
"We can't allow him to just run on us all day," King said. "Obviously, that's what he's been doing and he's been very successful. That's a lot of how he won the Heisman. He's a playmaker. If it's not there, he's going to just run and teams have had a hard time stopping him. We just have to have our best game of the season by far in containing him and not letting him do what he wants to do all night."
"He has a great knack, even on his blind side, for feeling people getting close," he said. "He'll spin a couple times and work his way out. It's something you have to work really hard at to contain him and keep him in (the pocket). Also, you don't want to be tentative and not rush. There's a fine line we'll work hard at trying to get pressure and keep him in there."
Texas A&M was in the Big 12 Conference with Oklahoma until this season, when the Aggies made the move to the Southeastern Conference under coach Kevin Sumlin, a former Stoops assistant at Oklahoma. The Aggies, using a spread offense similar to those popular in the Big 12, rank third in the Bowl Subdivision in both total offense and scoring offense.
That success should put to rest the notion that Big 12 offenses couldn't hold their own against SEC defenses, Stoops said.
"It's interesting to me . they seem to have done pretty well in that league offensively," Stoops said. "I think they lead that league in every single category and it hasn't hurt their winning. They won a bunch of games, too. They're doing pretty good against all those defenses."
Oklahoma's only two losses this season - both at home - came against teams with Heisman finalists. Te'o had a key interception and 11 tackles as Notre Dame beat the Sooners 30-13, while Klein passed for 149 yards and rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown to lead Kansas State to a 24-19 win. Getting a third chance to beat a Heisman finalist - indeed, the guy who won the trophy - is "extra motivation," King said.
"We have to sit around here for a month and watch ESPN and all they talk about is Johnny Football or Johnny Heisman or whatever they call him now," King said. "We sit around and we get tired of watching it. The whole national media is scrutinizing our defense and that we can't stop the run. We're underdogs in this game. We have a lot to prove and, on Jan. 4, we'll be ready to play."