An NFL draft light on great quarterbacks is good news for college football fans: The 2013 season is loaded with talented and accomplished players at the most important position in sports. So throughout the rest of the summer, we're counting down the top 10 quarterbacks in college football, one per week until the season kicks off. These rankings are based on college ability, not necessarily NFL potential. This week, Northern Illinois senior Jordan Lynch checks in at No. 8.
8. Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois
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Jordan Lynch will not win the Heisman Trophy in December. This is neither a profound statement nor a negative response to the Northern Illinois athletic department's active campaign on behalf of its star quarterback. Barring some new level of statistical success, it's simply reality, and everyone knows this. It also doesn't matter: Lynch, Northern Illinois and the MAC should fight for all the attention they can get, despite the long odds.
In a college football world full of arms races and 24/7 hype, the unpretentious, entertaining Mid-American Conference is always worth taking a moment to celebrate. So here we celebrate its best player.
Most of the time Lynch took the field last year, he was the best player on either side of the ball. He has emerged as the exception on a field of mostly two- and three-star recruits who lived up to their billing -- good, competent players who may lack the combination of size, speed and overall athletic ability that populate the rosters of the game's best teams. Lynch was once a peer, but through a combination of his talent and the Huskies' system, he's leapt past them into another stratosphere where he can be recognized for his individual talent on the national level. Few MAC players really ever get to that point. Lynch is one of them, Kent State all-purpose back Dri Archer another. Guys like Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack are worth putting in that conversation too. But historically speaking, there aren't many Randy Mosses or Ben Roethlisbergers or, at NIU, Michael Turners.
A sport made up of 18- to -23-year-olds is ripe for domination by a select few; the gap between strong and weak is more vast than the professional level, meaning the dominance of a top athlete -- say Reggie Bush or LaVar Arrington or Jadeveon Clowney or Johnny Manziel or Vince Young -- is so easy to identify and often stupefying to watch. The problem, of course, with evaluating a player like Lynch and quantifying his success is that he operates on a different plane than Manziel and Clowney. Those guys are embarrassing the rest of the SEC and making it look easy. They will go down as two of the most dominant college football players ever.
Lynch will not, because he is playing with MAC players against MAC players. When he's played with those MAC players against name opponents, he has fallen flat, going 6-for-16 for 54 yards in his debut as starter (he did run for 119 yards), a one-point loss to Iowa, and finishing with 176 passing yards and a season-low 44 rushing yards against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. He's not considered much of a pro prospect either.
"He's terrible," Florida State linebacker Vince Williams said, in response to pregame comments from Lynch about how the Seminoles hadn't seen an offense like the Huskies. "I can't believe they tried us like that. They tried our life, man. ... He's not good at all."
But then, this is obviously not true either.
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|Tim Tebow, 2008||Johnny Manziel, 2012||Jordan Lynch, 2012|
We are in the midst of a golden era of MAC football. The conference has rattled the Big Ten's cage with some upsets, and it has garnered favor thanks to its thrilling shootouts on those lowly Tuesdays and Wednesdays in November that had the audacity to be absent of football in the past. There is no dominant team, like Marshall around the turn of the century, but Northern Illinois currently carries the flag, and Lynch is the king of MACtion, even if he's never truly been involved in an example of MACtion at its finest*. In one midweek game last season, he threw for 407 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 162 yards in a 31-24 win over Toledo, which has to count for something.
*For reference, the true introduction to MACtion came when Northern Illinois beat Toledo 63-60 on a Tuesday in 2011. Lynch watched from the bench as his productive predecessor, Chandler Harnish, threw for 265 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 133 yards. Harnish finished that season with 3,216 yards and 28 touchdowns passing and 1,379 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, meaning he wasn't all that different from Lynch, just not nearly as nationally recognizable.
Lynch is a prolific passer and an even better runner. He can obliterate defensive backs like a fullback:
And if you appreciate versatility, he can even punt 63 yards:
For the season, his first as starter, he shattered records and led Northern Illinois to the first BCS appearance by any MAC team. In 14 games, he became the first FBS player to run for more than 1,500 yards and pass for more than 3,000 yards; he also set records for rushing yards and 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback. He led the conference in both passing and rushing. These are staggering numbers, on any level, against any opponent.
All of which begs the question: What does it mean to be the best player in the MAC, especially without the expected NFL future of a guy like Roethlisberger or Byron Leftwich?
Say Lynch replaced Jeff Driskel -- at this point, a middle-of-the-road SEC quarterback -- as the starter at Florida. What would he do against Florida State, while playing with good SEC teammates? Florida's defense carried it to an 11-2 record. Would Lynch have helped the Gators do even better? Would they have done worse?
It's an elusive hypothetical, one we can't begin to answer unless a mid-major star like Lynch takes advantage of the fifth-year transfer rule and tries to move up from the MAC or the Sun Belt to the Big Ten or the SEC. Instead of Lynch, it's head coach Dave Doeren who will ride the success to a bigger job at N.C. State. All of those schools overlooked Lynch as a recruit, though, and he will stay in the MAC, continuing to quarterback a Huskies team that got to a BCS bowl before Doeren's new team in Raleigh did.
Argue all you want about whether Northern Illinois deserved an Orange Bowl bid, and whether Lynch deserved to be in the Heisman conversation, but within the parameters of an absurd system Lynch and the Huskies did what they had to do to get there. Most players can't say that, but then again most players aren't as good as Lynch.
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In 1993, running back LeShon Johnson ran for 1,976 yards and 12 touchdowns. He did that on a 4-7 Northern Illinois team playing its first of three seasons in the Big West -- they left the MAC and became independent in 1986, only to rejoin in 1997 -- which makes it even more remarkable that he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, one spot ahead of Lynch's seventh place.
Twenty years later, Lynch has many advantages that Johnson didn't: People know his name after one big season already; he led Northern Illinois to an 12-2 record and an Orange Bowl bid; a segment of the population has fallen in love with MACtion; Northern Illinois frequently appears on television.
The MAC is and will always remain a second-tier conference in the FBS power structure, one in which coaches like Doeren will easily leave an Orange Bowl team for an ACC program with one double-digit win season in its history (after Jerry Kill left for Minnesota two years earlier). But the brand is stronger and more stable than ever thanks to its relatively untouched status during realignment and the rise of MACtion. This year, Northern Illinois plays Ball State and Toledo on back-to-back Wednesdays in November. Yes, you should set your DVR, and no, I'm not kidding. (You never know when you'll need an entertaining football fix in May.) They also play winnable road games at Iowa and Purdue in September, and while beating bottom-tier Big Ten teams wouldn't necessarily be a glamorous accomplishment, it's always a notable one for a league that's often seen as the Midwest's Triple-A to the major leagues.
Really, it doesn't matter much how Lynch compares to the rest of college football. While interesting to ponder, we don't need to linger on hypotheticals about Lynch in a Florida uniform. He's ranked eighth here among college quarterbacks. Maybe he should be higher. Maybe he should be lower. Whatever. All we know for sure is that Lynch plays fun football in a fun league, and he does it better than almost anyone ever has. In fact, nobody ever did what Lynch did last year as a dual threat. That should be more than enough to satisfy the college football observer.
MAC or not, it's hard not to be intrigued by the question of what comes next. Lynch won't win the Heisman, but if he repeats his individual performance of last year and gets to New York for the ceremony, don't say he's not deserving.
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