By Zac Ellis
On the heels of a BCS-busting campaign in which Northern Illinois earned a spot in the Orange Bowl, the Huskies are trying to keep the momentum going. On Monday, the school launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Jordan Lynch, unveiling JordanLynchfor6.com and a @Lynchfor6 Twitter handle.
Lynch finished seventh in Heisman voting after his first year as a starter in 2012. He entered last season as an unproven commodity, but the redshirt junior became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 3,000 yards (3,138) and rush for more than 1,500 yards (1,815) in single campaign. Lynch's rushing mark set an FBS record for quarterbacks and helped the Huskies rattle off 12 straight wins before their eventual 31-10 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Lynch's 2012 production put him in some elite company. His total of 1,815 rushing yards finished fourth in the nation -- not just among quarterbacks -- and eclipsed Heisman winner Johnny Manziel's mark by more than 400 yards. Lynch's average of 353.97 total yards per game also finished fourth nationally, behind only Manziel, Baylor's Nick Florence and Louisiana Tech's Colby Cameron.
With a year under his belt, Lynch could be poised to put up similarly gaudy stats in 2013. But given NIU's status, does he stand a realistic shot to win the Heisman?
As with last season, the biggest blow to Lynch's Heisman hopes will likely come from his MAC team's schedule. Only three of Northern Illinois' opponents in 2012 -- Florida State, Buffalo and Iowa -- cracked the top 50 in total defense, and the stingy Seminoles held the Huskies to 227 yards below their season average in the Orange Bowl. This year, the Hawkeyes are the only returning top-50 defense set to face Lynch and NIU in the regular season. So while Lynch's stats could be incredible, it's doubtful they'll help him garner the same level of respect that quarterbacks like Manziel, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Alabama's AJ McCarron will receive for picking apart major-conference defenses.
Comparing Lynch to another former non-AQ star could shed some light on his preseason odds. Former Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore turned in one of the most prolific careers in college football history, passing for 14,667 yards and 142 touchdowns with the Broncos. Despite his mid-major status, Moore finished among the top 10 in Heisman voting during each of his three final seasons, highlighted by a career-best fourth-place finish following his junior effort in 2010.
That year, Moore threw for 3,845 yards, 35 scores and only six interceptions. He completed 71.3 percent of his attempts and finished with a 182.6 passer rating. Yet voting isn't solely about stats: Moore tossed 43 touchdowns as a senior but dropped to eighth in Heisman voting.
For Lynch to have any sort of outside shot at the trophy, NIU has to go undefeated and earn a repeat BCS trip. Even then, hoisting the Heisman seems an unlikely proposition.
Moore's Boise State schedules were significantly tougher than Lynch's NIU slates: The Broncos notched high-profile wins against nationally ranked Virginia Tech, Oregon State and Utah squads in 2010, and they toppled Georgia and Arizona State in 2011. Lynch's Huskies don't enjoy that kind of exposure, with their opener at Iowa and their Sept. 28 trip to Purdue constituting their two most high-profile matchups. Lynch's schedule seems more comparable to Case Keenum's at Houston in 2011; the Cougars played just one regular-season AQ-conference foe (UCLA), and Keenum, who threw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns, finished seventh.
The one advantage that Lynch does hold over previous mid-major Heisman candidates is his ability to pass and run. Moore, Keenum and Hawaii's Colt Brennan were more traditional pro-style quarterbacks, while Lynch's mobility better fits the mold of the last three Heisman winners: Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton. Lynch won't have to wade through anonymity in the early stages of the season, but his lack of quality opponents puts a ceiling on his campaign. Barring a statistically unprecedented offensive effort from the quarterback, Northern Illinois' weaker schedule will likely be too tough a Heisman burden to overcome.