MANHATTAN — Whenever two Heisman Trophy contenders face off, hype can build to the point where it transcends the game.
That might be the case Saturday evening when a national TV audience watches Collin Klein and Geno Smith meet at Milan Puskar Stadium. Though a matchup between No. 4 Kansas State and No. 17 West Virginia is intriguing because of Big 12 and national championship implications, the fascinating quarterback battle makes it a must-see game.
“It’s the most significant Heisman game of the year so far,” said Chris Huston, the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com.
He should know. Huston has been analyzing the Heisman Trophy race on his website for years. He consults Heisman voters regularly and uses their opinions to predict a frontrunner weekly during the season.
Right now, he sees three legitimate candidates: Smith, Klein and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
Smith was his runaway favorite last week, but only holds a narrow lead after West Virginia’s loss to Texas Tech. Klein entered the season as a darkhorse candidate, but has risen to second as K-State’s MVP. Miller is holding steady in third.
With No. 1 going toe-to-toe with No. 2, this weekend could go a long way toward determining who wins the Heisman.
“The schedule sets up for all of them,” Huston said. “So whoever emerges from this Saturday is definitely in the pole position and will have the chance to hold it from there.”
Regardless, Klein vs. Smith should be an interesting showcase of quarterback talent. For as skilled as they both are, they are drastically different players.
Smith has a strong arm, and is the leader of one of the most explosive offenses. The senior has led the Mountaineers to 70 points in two of their past seven games, and he looked unstoppable before falling 49-14 at Texas Tech last week. Smith’s numbers — 2,274 passing yards and 25 touchdowns — stand out, but what makes him special is an ability to create highlight plays without making mistakes.
He has attempted 260 passes and hasn’t thrown an interception. During a 70-63 victory over Baylor, he threw more touchdowns (8) than incompletions (6).
“The guy can throw the ball,” K-State backup quarterback Daniel Sams said. “He has video-game numbers. No interceptions? That’s amazing, especially in the league we play in. That doesn’t sound right.”
This won’t be the first time the Wildcats have faced a Heisman candidate. They defeated Baylor, led by Robert Griffin III, last year at home.
“When you go back and look at film, you see that a lot of things Geno Smith does compare to what RG3 did,” K-State safety Jarard Milo said. “He’s a real good quarterback and a great passer.”
Smith is trying to win the Heisman Trophy the same way Griffin did last year. Baylor wasn’t in the national title hunt, and he played poorly in losses to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. But he was sensational in victories over Texas, Oklahoma and TCU, which gave voters signature moments and highlights.
His numbers were also eye-popping like Smith’s are now.
“His appeal is that he is on pace to have an incredible season,” Huston said of Smith. “But the more his team loses, the better his numbers have to be. He doesn’t have to beat Kansas State. I think his team can lose two games and he can still win the Heisman. But he has to have incredible numbers.”
Klein’s Heisman chances rest in the opposite approach.
The senior dual-threat quarterback cares less about his stats than an offensive lineman. He values team success over individual achievements and relies on toughness, patience and his leadership to win games. Though he has thrown for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 510 yards and 10 touchdowns, that’s not why voters like him.
He appeals to them as the “best player on the best team.” Many national experts have said no single player means more to his team than Klein, and they might be right. He isn’t flashy and he never says anything controversial, but he is always running for tough yards and making plays with the game on the line.
That could be enough for him to win the Heisman, but there is no room for error.
“Collin Klein’s best chance of winning is to lead Kansas State to a Cinderella undefeated season,” Huston said. “It’s hard to win if you don’t have blowout numbers, but if they go undefeated, that makes up for that. He becomes the MVP guy. If they don’t go undefeated he could still win, but it’s a much more remote chance.”
Smith and Klein are similar in one way: Neither seems interested in the Heisman hype that surrounds them.
When asked earlier this week if he thought his individual matchup with Klein could be more important than the game, Smith rolled his eyes.
“No, it’s going to be West Virginia’s offense versus Kansas State’s defense and vice versa,” Smith said. “That’s all it really comes down to.”
When Klein was asked a similar question, he chuckled and gave the same answer he always does when the Heisman comes up. He’s grateful to be considered for a national honor and admires Smith, but his concentration remains with his team.
“My main focus is just making sure our team is successful,” Klein said. “Whatever my piece of that puzzle looks like I will be happy with.”
That’s not hyperbole, either.
“Half of the time he didn’t even know he was in the Heisman race,” Sams said. “We told him, ‘You know you were picked No. 1.’ He was like, ‘Oh yeah?’ It was like it didn’t even mean anything to him. He keeps it all between the white lines.”
K-State coach Bill Snyder respects both for having that quality.
“Like Collin, he shows humility,” Snyder said of Smith. “Having all the numbers that he has, he pays tribute to his teammates. It’s just those values that I appreciate.”
What values do Heisman voters appreciate?
Playing well on a big stage against another Heisman contender ranks near the top.
“Once you get on the national radar and start performing well, that’s when people take notice,” Huston said. “That’s what happened with Klein beating Oklahoma and that’s what happened with Smith beating Baylor. That’s why this game is so interesting. Smith can separate himself, but Klein has the chance to take control of the race, too.”