Perception, crowded ballot could keep Lynch out

There are a couple of things that figure to keep Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch from the Heisman Trophy ceremony at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York next month.

Perception is one. A bunch of other quarterbacks posting eye-popping numbers is the other.

If it doesn’t happen, it will be through no fault on the part of Lynch. All he’s done is produce — and, most importantly, win — in driving No. 15 Northern Illinois to a 10-0 start. He’s probably not the best player in college football, but he very much belongs in any discussion about its most valuable and consistent.

With two and maybe three games left, whether Lynch needs a tuxedo and a plane ticket to New York City is likely in the hands of voters and those perceptions. The numbers say Lynch stacks up with just about any quarterback nationally, and the question will be whether voters think he’s been as good as his counterparts in BCS conferences who consistently play better competition have been.

All Lynch can do is what he’s been doing, which is not limited to spinning off tackles, completing 65.5 percent of his passes for more than 2,100 yards on the season, finishing drives with touchdowns and making the spectacular play when necessary. With a national audience watching Wednesday night, Lynch went 26-of-32 passing for 345 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for 123 yards and two scores in a win over Ball State. There will be another national TV audience next Wednesday night when Lynch and the Huskies play at Toledo with the Mid-American Conference West division title and NIU’s hopes for a return trip to the BCS at stake.

Expect Lynch to show up, and to produce three or four touchdowns, minimum. With 36 on the season, 21 passing and four games with multiple rushing touchdowns, he’s been consistently good. He’s fifth in the nation in total offense at 349 yards per game, 43 yards behind the 2013 numbers of last year’s Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel, but ahead of Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, who leads the nation’s top offense.  

If Lynch doesn’t end up a Heisman finalist, it will be no fault of his school or its sports information department, either. NIU launched a Heisman campaign last summer for Lynch by developing a website and sending promotional items to major media outlets and all 929 Heisman voters. The school developed a plan and put aside a few pennies for the stretch run in case Lynch produced huge numbers and led the Huskies to a bunch of wins for a second straight season, and that time has arrived. The best marketing, though comes from just having people watch Lynch avoid tacklers and make something out of what many quarterbacks would see as nothing the way he did against Ball State.

The lack of exposure and the level of competition are the only knocks against Lynch (6’0, 216), who certainly isn’t going to win the Heisman. He knows that and has known that; it’s just not realistic to think a MAC player could earn enough first-place votes. He’s played like a guy deserving of consideration and other votes, though, and he could become the first MAC player since 1999 (Chad Pennington) to get to the stage in New York. The highest finish ever in the Heisman voting by a MAC player is Randy Moss, who was fourth in 1997.

In any other year, a similar finish would see much more in reach for Lynch. But even if (when?) some of these other teams fall from the ranks of the unbeaten, he’ll still have to steal votes from Manziel, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and two other currently unbeaten quarterbacks who weren’t on most Heisman lists to start the year, Petty and Derek Carr at Fresno State. And that’s not the full list.

The Heisman usually goes to the most productive, well-known, player on a team that wins and wins on a big stage. The last three and six of the last seven winners have been quarterbacks; it’s 11 of the last 12 if you follow the NCAA’s lead and pretend Reggie Bush’s 2005 season didn’t exist. What’s working against Lynch besides his team’s schedule and low national profile is that six teams are still unbeaten nationally, and all six have quarterbacks producing big numbers. Of those six, all are upperclassmen except Winston, who’s probably the Heisman favorite at this point.

Winston has helped his case with big games against highly-ranked teams on Saturday night prime-time broadcasts twice in the last six weeks. Last Wednesday and next Wednesday mark Lynch’s only guaranteed national TV games all year.
 
When it comes to Heisman voting, the schedule doesn’t help but probably isn’t as detrimental to Lynch’s cause as who has — or more accurately, has not — been watching. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t played against anybody; neither has Derek Carr. Lynch is out-throwing those guys but has accounted for 36 total touchdowns, as many as Carr and 12 more than Bridgewater. Everybody’s chasing Manziel, who has 39 total touchdowns.  

Besides that signature game against Ball State and maybe two more chances (Toledo and the potential MAC title game), Lynch can point to his 275 passing yards and two touchdowns in the season opener at Iowa, which ranks 11th nationally in total defense and 12th against the pass. We’re far enough into the season that while numbers still occasionally lie, they don’t lie near as much as they sometimes do in September or October. He’s had other games with crazy numbers like the Ball State game (316 rushing yards at Central Michigan, five total touchdowns vs. Eastern Michigan), but so has the rest of the field.

Bridgewater has been really good, Manziel has been really good, Marcus Mariota of Oregon was great until last Thursday night (and still wasn’t bad), Carr has done what Lynch has done in a different but similarly successful way, people are just starting to notice Petty and even Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, considered a preseason Heisman contender before missing three games due to injury, has been good enough lately to think he’ll get some second and third-place votes if the Buckeyes keep winning big.

It’s just crowded.

For Lynch and Northern Illinois and the whole #MACtion movement, the last 15 or so months have been great — and they’ve been about great timing. Lynch led the way as the Huskies crashed the BCS last year, and in the last 23 games he’s won all but one. Nine times in that stretch, he has thrown for more than 200 yards and run for more than 100 in the same game. The wins kept coming last year as did the right things Northern Illinois needed to happen to make the Orange Bowl, and coming into this season the thought of Lynch getting to New York wasn’t entirely crazy.

It’s still not, it just doesn’t seem like a kid from the MAC will get the benefit of the doubt against blue-chip NFL Draft prospects and legit national championship contenders. All Lynch can do is continue to play at a high level and hope he pushes his team to another MAC title. Maybe He can take the Huskies to the Fiesta Bowl if Fresno State slips or the voters and computers end up rating Northern Illinois higher than the Bulldogs.

In either case, Lynch is certainly worth watching the rest of the way.