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Matt Johnson: Heisman Trophy Candidate or Just Another System Guy?

Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson is on pace for a history-making season statistically, but will it be enough to get him in the Heisman conversation?

Michael Hickey/Getty Images

First off, in full disclosure mode, I have to admit that I do not think Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson will win the 2015 Heisman Trophy Award, nor will he be a finalist and make an appearance at the New York Athletic Club on December 12.

My discourse here is simply to make the case for why Johnson should at least be in the discussion for the award as a non-Power 5 conference player.  After all, there are examples of players from a smaller school actually winning the award.  Andre Ware of Houston (1989) and Ty Detmer of Brigham Young (1990) both won the award playing at a smaller school.

Plus, the list of small school players who received votes for the award in the past are too numerous to mention.  In fact, the Mid-American Conference has its own history of players that have been represented in the balloting for the award.

Since its inception in 1935, here is a list of MAC players that have placed in the voting for the Heisman Trophy Award:

2013       Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois, (3rd)
2012       Jordan Lynch, QB, Northern Illinois, (7th)
2008       Nate Davis, QB, Ball State (8th)
2003       Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (9th)
1999       Chad Pennington, QB, Marshall (5th)
1997       Randy Moss, WR, Marshall (4th)
1993       LeShonn Johnson, RB, Northern Illinois (6th)
1985       Brian McClure, QB, Bowling Green (10th)
1975       Gene Swick, QB, Toledo (10th)
1971       Chuck Ealey, QB, Toledo (8th)

So now that we have established its possible, let's look at Johnson's resume.  The first thing that jumps out at are the numbers.  Johnson's numbers this year aren't great.  Calling them great would be an insult.  Connor Cook for Michigan State has great numbers but if you doubled them, Johnson's numbers would still be right there with him.  Plus, Cook is doing it with four and five-star recruits.  Johnson is doing it with...well let's just say with players that the bigger schools missed on.

Through eight games, Johnson leads the nation in passing yards (3,321), passing yards per game (415), total offense per game (434), and passing touchdowns (29).  He is also second in completions per game average (30.25), second in points responsible for (192), fourth in passing efficiency (177), fifth in completion percentage (.701), and seventh in yards per passing attempt (9.63).

Amazingly, Johnson has attempted 345 passes so far this year and only three have been intercepted.  Truth be told, two of those interceptions were passes that bounced off a receivers hands and were caught by a defender.  So one could surmise that an overthrow in the Purdue game that was intercepted has been the only bad throw he's made this season.

In addition to his 29 passing touchdowns, Johnson has also rushed for another three scores, meaning he has been responsible for 32 touchdowns this year.  Those are numbers most quarterbacks would be thrilled to have for an entire season.  And Johnson still has four regular season games to play and most likely the Mid-American Conference Championship Game and a bowl game.  If he were to finish the last six games at his current pace, Johnson would be flirting with several NCAA all-time passing records.

So from a statistical standpoint its clear Johnson has a strong case to be in the Heisman discussion.  Can you imagine if a quarterback from the SEC, Big Ten or any other Power 5 conference had put up those numbers this year?  Leonard Fournette would be chasing him.

The naysayers are always quick to dismiss these type of off-the-chart numbers from a quarterback by using the "S" word...system.  The spread offense that is predicated on throwing the ball often is viewed as the system or scheme is more important to success than the players executing it.  While I think there is some grain of truth in that thought process, Johnson is different.

If you watch Johnson play, you have to come away impressed.  He has the uncanny ability to make the right decision of where to go with the football.  That often includes going to his second or third option, or extending the play with legs long enough until a receiver comes open.  Head coach Dino Babers calls him a "gym rat" which is a testament to the time he spends watching film and preparing for games.

Listed at 6'0" and 219 pounds, Johnson doesn't have great size but he does have a great arm. We've seen him roll to one side and then throw the ball all the way across the field to the other side, which speaks to his arm strength.  And throwing the deep ball may be the best part of his game.  He also always seems to put the ball on the money nearly every time, where his receiver can catch it and the defender can't.

So let's recap.  Good decision maker, strong arm, accurate and hard worker.  That sounds like a skillset that would translate at the next level.  But that's another discussion for another day.  For now, we're talking Heisman Trophy and the year's best college football player.

Another common criticism of players from so-called smaller colleges is the level of competition they face.  But, you can hardly argue with the schedule Johnson and the Falcons have faced so far this year.  Against Tennessee in the season opener he threw for 424 yards and two scores.  In a win at Maryland he went for 491 yards and six touchdowns.  Against Memphis, we threw for 443 and four touchdowns while running for another.  In a second win over the Big Ten at Purdue, he threw for 402 yards and a touchdown.  So that "system" we were talking about seemed to work pretty good against an SEC team, two Big Ten teams and the current #16 ranked team in the country.

In 2013, Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch made the trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony and eventually ended up third in the balloting.  I see Johnson being a very similar candidate.  In my opinion, Johnson is the better quarterback between the two.  He is a much better passer while Lynch was the much better runner.  Lynch accounted for 47 touchdowns in 2013 and Johnson has 32 this season already with most likely six games remaining.

The thing that probably sets Lynch apart from Johnson in the voter's minds is the fact he played on better teams with the Huskies.  In 2012, Northern Illinois went 12-2 and played Florida State in the Orange Bowl after ending up #15 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.  In 2013, the Huskies went undefeated in the regular season and were again ranked in the Top 20 at the end of the season.

Ironically enough, it was Johnson and Bowling Green that denied Lynch an undefeated season and a return trip to a BCS bowl game.  Johnson threw for 393 yards and five touchdowns while being named the game's MVP in the 2013 MAC Championship Game against the Huskies.  Bowling Green won the game going away, 47-21.

But Johnson isn't battling Lynch this time.  In this year's Heisman race he's facing the likes of Fournette (LSU), Trevone Boykin (TCU), Christian McCaffrey (Stanford), and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State).   All great players in their own right, but Matt Johnson should take a back seat to none of them when it comes to what each means to his team.

The envelope please...