What happens Saturday evening when the Fighting Irish play Oklahoma in Norman could make the senior from Hawaii a legitimate candidate -- maybe even a favorite.
Or it could push him into the background. (Say, whatever happened to Geno Smith's runaway?)
Te'o has a lot of things going for him. First, he's been a model of consistency for a Notre Dame defense that is the biggest reason the Fighting Irish are undefeated and ranked No. 5 headed into the Oklahoma game. He leads Notre Dame with 69 tackles and four interceptions.
He's also known to be humble. And, of course, he has the Notre Dame brand -- and a powerful personal story -- that has helped nudge him into the national consciousness.
Te'o's girlfriend and grandmother passed away within days of each other in September, and Irish fans wore leis and roared their encouragement to him at an emotional rally about a week later that had him fighting back tears.
Brian Bosworth, who in 1986 became one of only two linebackers in recent history to be a Heisman finalist -- Marvin Jones of Florida State in 1992 was the other -- said he thought the personal losses Te'o experienced this season could help fuel his performance.
“They can use a football field for the aggressiveness, turn the volume up to a degree you didn't know you had because you reach into a well that is volcanic," Bosworth told the Chicago Tribune. "Now he's using what has happened in his past, along with what he already knows, to focus that energy.”
Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman in 1997, is the only modern-day winner who played mostly defense.
That defensive players are usually not even considered hurts the award's credibility, Bosworth said, "because it now looks like a stat or highlight award."
Oklahoma, which is ranked No. 8, has an offense that has been providing plenty of highlights, led by quarterback Landry Jones, himself a strong preseason Heisman candidate.
Since losing their third game of the season to Kansas State, the Sooners have put 156 points on the scoreboard in their last three games -- wins over Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas.
If Te'o and the Irish can slow the Sooners and stay undefeated, Notre Dame's national championship hopes become that much more real -- and so do Te'o's chances of beating the Heisman bias.