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Minnesota Football: In Defense of Mitch Leidner

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Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine that you're a fan of a college football team, and one of the talking heads at ESPN predicts that your team's starting quarterback has a chance at being drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft a year from now. Quite the compliment, right? Says a lot about the outside perception of your team's program, the type of players the coaches are bringing in, and the ability of your staff to develop those players and prepare them for the next level. It'd feel pretty good, right?

Not if you're a fan of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

I invite you to head on over to Twitter and simply search for mentions of "Mitch Leidner." Please, take a few minutes to scroll through the mentions. I'll wait. It is well worth it. Just this week, Todd McShay had the audacity to suggest that Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner could be drafted in the first round next year. The reactions were more "Mitch sucks" than "Good for Mitch," and as a proud member of #LeidnerIsland, I have a problem with that.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I'd like to use this post to make the case that a couple of them are wrong. Particularly the ones that have Leidner pegged as the scourge of Golden Gopher football.

Fiction: Mitch Leidner is the worst quarterback in all of college football.

Fact: I hate to be the bearer of bad (or good?) news, but Leidner is nowhere close to being the worst quarterback in all of college football. Out of 128 eligible quarterbacks last season, Leidner ranked 52nd in total quarterback rating. If he was in fact the worst quarterback in all of college football, I would imagine he'd be closer to 128th, but I digress. Out of 530 quarterbacks, Leidner ranked 48th in total passing yards last season. He ranked 75th in touchdowns (14), but Minnesota isn't known for airing out the ball and hasn't had a quarterback throw more than 9 touchdowns in a season since Adam Weber graduated in 2010 (Leidner being the exception in 2014 and 2015).

The biggest knock against Leidner is his completion percentage, and it is a fair criticism. Last season, Mitch ranked 69th out of 124 eligible quarterbacks, with a 59.5% completion percentage on the year. He improved from a 51.5% completion percentage in 2014, but he'll need to take another big step next season to improve that aspect of his game. For comparison, the most accurate passer in the Big Ten a year ago was Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock, with a completion percentage of 64%. So Leidner was 4.5 percentage points from being the most accurate quarterback in his conference a season ago. But remember, he is the worst quarterback in all of college football.

Fiction: Mitch Leidner is the one player preventing the Gophers from being competitive the Big Ten.

Fact: This is a ridiculous statement considering the Gophers were one win over Wisconsin in 2014 from playing for a Big Ten Championship. And who was the starting quarterback that season? Mitch Leidner. Now, I know what you're going to say next: "We would've won that game if Mitch wasn't under center. We went 8-5 that season in spite of Mitch. Imagine how good we could've been with a decent quarterback." I'd also like to remind you that Minnesota hasn't beaten Wisconsin since 2003, and Leidner has been quarterback for two of the Gophers' 12 straight losses to the Badgers. But please, continue to tell me that Leidner is the reason Minnesota can't beat Wisconsin.

Granted, much of the credit for the Gophers' success in 2014 belongs to the record-breaking performance of running back David Cobb, but you can't credit Cobb with all of the wins and blame all of the losses on Leidner. That isn't how reality works.

When the Gophers endured that brutal four-game losing streak against Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, and Iowa last season, Leidner's stat line was 88 completions, 144 attempts, 1,158 passing yards, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He also rushed for 3 touchdowns during that stretch, and threw for 317 yards against Michigan, the top-ranked defense in the nation at the time. And in all four games, he threw for more yards than the quarterback on the opposite sideline, three of whom belonged to Top 25 teams. But remember, when the Gophers lose, it is because of Leidner.

In his career, out of the eight Big Ten teams he has faced as a starter, Leidner has beaten six of them at least once, with Ohio State and Wisconsin being the outliers. That means wins over Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, and Purdue. Next year will be his first chance to collect wins against Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers. But again, the Gophers beat all of those conference opponents in spite of Leidner.

Fiction: Mitch Leidner can't throw a spiral.

Fact: The video production staff at Minnesota had their work cut out for them when tasked with assembling a highlight video for a quarterback who, according to sources on social media, can't throw a spiral. Somehow, they got it done. I'll let you decide whether the video footage has been doctored or not.

Fiction: Mitch Leidner is a great quarterback.

Fact: Leidner is not a great quarterback. But he is a good quarterback. He is far from perfect. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated with his play at times. He misses throws. He forces ones that end up as interceptions. He has had trouble holding onto the football. The passing game hasn't been what most would consider a strength for a number of years, and has probably cost us a game or two. But you have to take the good with the bad, and Leidner has delivered a fair share of good over the last three years (a lot of which I've kindly laid out for you here). And he has done so behind a disastrous offensive line in 2015 and with an uninspiring receiving corps outside of Maxx Williams in 2014.

Leidner has accomplished a lot in his career as a Gopher -- and has another season to do even more -- and I feel bad that he'll never get the appreciation he deserves unless the Gophers win the Big Ten next year. And even then, who knows, maybe it'll have been "in spite of Mitch." I understand the back-up quarterback is always the fans' favorite player, and I look forward to when Demry Croft or Seth Green is under center, but for right now, I for one am happy to have Leidner back at the helm next season.

Will he have a slow start to the season? Probably.

Will he miss a few throws and force a few bad ones? Probably.

Will he have a bad game? Probably.

But he also gives the Gophers the best chance to win, and has proven himself over and over again. Have I even mentioned his knack for leading game-winning drives? Or the fact that he has road wins over Michigan and Nebraska? Or that he has missed all of one game despite being hobbled with injuries the last two years? Or that he passed for over 2,500 yards last year when most fans struggled to comprehend him passing for 1,500? The guy is far from a bad quarterback. He can absolutely be frustrating at times, but what quarterback isn't? I've stated my case. All I'm saying is that maybe Mitch Leidner isn't as bad as you might think.

Who knows. You might actually miss him when he is gone.