Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Offensive Position Rankings Around the Big Ten and How the Huskers Fare

July 04, 2021

July means barbecue and boating and the last little bit of preseason prognosticating before the new college football season begins its preseason in August. One of the most recognizable football prognosticators is Phil Steele, whose CFB Preview mag is one of the more anticipated pieces of sports literature to hit newsstands each summer. 

This year, Steele ranked the top 60 position groups across college football. I’ve got thoughts on the offensive side. 

Quarterback (sorted by Big Ten standing, with national rankings to follow): 

  1. Indiana, No. 18
  2. Wisconsin, No. 20
  3. Purdue, No. 29
  4. Nebraska, No. 30
  5. Ohio State No. 31
  6. Penn State, No. 33
  7. Minnesota, No. 42
  8. Northwestern, No. 48
  9. Michigan, No. 54
  10. Illinois, No. 55

Unranked: Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa, Rutgers

Seems a little rude to Noah Vedral and Taulia Tagovailoa but I digress. The real piece of interest is Nos. 2 through 5 as it relates to the Big Ten. 

We could do our own ranking of the Big Ten quarterbacks and my list would probably look a lot different in the top half, but increasingly I feel like it doesn’t necessarily matter where a guy ranks among his peers. Call it Mario Verduzco wearing off on me. Could you drop Michael Penix Jr., Indiana’s starting quarterback, onto the Huskers’ roster and still have the “best” quarterback in the Big Ten? 

Recently a local writer ranked redshirt freshman Buckeye quarterback CJ Stroud as the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten. The former 4-star prospect wasn’t runner-up to the title of “Best in the Big Ten” because of his one rushing attempt for 48 yards and zero pass attempts last season (I hope) but likely because he’s part of arguably the preeminent talent factory in the league. He’ll have two of the best wideouts in the country to throw to, a future NFL running back to hand it to, and an NFL offensive line to stand behind. Put Adrian Martinez in that situation and he’d throw for 4,000 yards. 

Could the Buckeyes have a third straight first-round quarterback in Stroud? Absolutely possible; we shouldn’t doubt that staff’s evaluation or development ability. But it probably is a little safer to err on the side of caution. 

Seeing Ohio State at No. 31 right behind Nebraska is curious. You’re splitting hairs deciding which is above the other, and without asking Steele, I’d guess Martinez’s seniority gives NU the edge in the toss-up. Still, that small a gap between a guy with nearly 7,500 yards of offense and a guy with 48 probably says something about the way Martinez is still being viewed. 

A quarterback who completed 71% of his passes last season and can get you yardage on the ground in bunches, but can’t protect the football makes for an all-or-nothing style of water-cooler debate. You’re either a junkie for the potential of what Martinez still can be or completely turned off by what he has been to this point. 

Still, the most veteran quarterback in the conference behind a Purdue quarterback duo that runs more hot and cold than Nebraska and 10 spots back from a Wisconsin quarterback who had two touchdowns against five picks in his last five games? Ouch. 

Martinez has his flaws as a quarterback, but his QBR was second in the league last season and he might have the most complete arsenal around him that he’s ever had. The fourth-year junior is in the “prove it” camp this year, which is fine. He might be undervalued. He might be properly rated. 

It probably doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Nebraska doesn’t really need him to be the best quarterback in the conference. It doesn’t need him to be better than Penix or Graham Mertz or anyone else. It really just needs him to be better than 2020 Adrian Martinez and 2019 Adrian Martinez. 

Running Back:

  1. Ohio State, No. 8
  2. Penn State, No. 12
  3. Wisconsin, No. 16
  4. Minnesota, No. 19
  5. Iowa, No. 35
  6. Michigan, No. 50

Unranked: Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Maryland, Northwestern, Indiana

Fair. 

Wide Receiver:

  1. Ohio State, No. 1 
  2. Penn State, No. 13
  3. Purdue, No. 22
  4. Indiana, No. 24
  5. Maryland, No. 25
  6. Michigan State, No. 46
  7. Michigan, No. 53
  8. Iowa, No. 55

Unranked: Rutgers, Northwestern, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska

What I’m about to say (write?) is more personal preference than quantifiable fact: Nebraska’s wideout group is too overlooked here while at the same time being exactly where they should be. 

A brief aside: Paul George, a wing for the Los Angeles Clippers and a legitimate MVP candidate a few seasons ago, is one of the most incredible viewing experiences in the NBA. He’s a player who, on his best night, can be absolutely unflappable. He can control the game and dominate the man in front of him on either end. Think Indiana Paul George vs. Miami Heat LeBron, No. 24 Paul George, that guy. Or Game 5 Paul George from earlier this week where he scored 41 points facing elimination. 

And yet on his worst night, Paul George is Pandemic P. He’s Wayoff P. He’s hitting the side of the backboard and making your best friend laugh so hard he lets out a little pee. 

The variance is drastic and jarring. He can be one of the best in the game, and the next night one of the most confounding. 

I think Nebraska’s wideout group this season could be the Paul George of wideout groups. 

We know absolutely nothing substantive about what we will see from them, right? And yet they’re so damn enticing. Sign me up for the 6-foot-3 Samori Toure Slot Experience. If Omar Manning is on the field, he can absolutely live up to the billing. If a couple of young guys take that next step in their game, the group gets deep and multi-faceted. If Oliver Martin is the athletic wild card his winter testing displayed he could be, Nebraska could have as competent a starting threesome as any non-Buckeye Big Ten squad. 

But… The entire room had less than 1,000 receiving yards combined last year and only 40% of what they did have is returning. The entire room had less than 100 catches last year and only 38% of what they did have is returning. The entire room produced four touchdowns last year and one of them was a fly sweep that was effectively a run but technically a pop pass. 

Hard to argue, but it’s also hard not to if you’re deep into the weeds. 

Offensive Line: 

  1. Ohio State, No. 2
  2. Minnesota, No. 11
  3. Wisconsin, No. 13
  4. Michigan, No. 42
  5. Penn State, No. 47
  6. Iowa, No. 53
  7. Illinois, No. 55

Unranked: Purdue, Michigan State, Rutgers, Maryland, Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana

The only one that seems like a miss. 

Nebraska’s line was 36th last year in line yards, a FootballOutsiders.com metric that credits the line with a portion of running yardage gained. It was 13th in opportunity rate, another FO number that tracks the rate 4 yards are gained when 4 yards are made available. It was 31st in power success rate (short yardage running) and top-50 in sack rate allowed.

There are only two ways to knock the group: Brenden Jaimes is gone after serving 76 years as NU’s left tackle, and Cam Jurgens has been iffy with his snapping at a rate that’s higher than you’d like to see.

If freshmen (redshirt or otherwise) skill players who have yet to play a substantive role are boosted by surrounding and high school achievements, Turner Corcoran should be on the list of most interesting men in the Big Ten. The Huskers seem poised to turn him loose at left tackle in Jaimes’ stead and early spring indications were positive. Corcoran played well in spot duty as a first-year player last season. 

And Jurgens’ problem, if you want to call it that, is probably one made by a little over-analyzing. 

I talked to Rob Zatechka, a highly decorated former Husker lineman, for a piece on Jurgens last year and something he said sticks with me to this day. 

“A turnover can be a game-changer. One bad snap can be a game-changer. One hold at an inopportune time can be a game-changer. One muffed punt can be a game-changer. That’s the bigger issue for this Nebraska team, the fact they have zero margin for error,” he said. “But that’s also a measure of how far they have to go. Good teams have margins of error. Nebraska right now does not.

“There’s a difference in your ability to make up for these miscues, and that’s the problem with Jurgens’ snapping. It’s not so much the fact that Jurgens is not a good center, it’s not so much the fact that his snaps are the reason Nebraska’s not winning games, there’s probably too much emphasis on him and his snapping alone. The bigger issue is the fact that this is a Nebraska team that to win games they can’t afford any mistakes.”

If, as discussed above, the arsenal Nebraska could have actually materializes on offense, you’d figure the Huskers’ margin for error becomes greater. If one little miscue doesn’t immediately doom a drive, there’s less attention paid to that miscue. If Jurgens has a bad snap once a game, but Nebraska is scoring 37 and not 23 each time out, few will care. 

If Corcoran is legit (I think he can be eventually, we’ll see for the immediate future) and Jurgens is improved, like he says he is, Nebraska’s offensive line can be a strength rather than a force that holds the larger offense back. 

Still, getting into the top 60 means you’re just about inside the 50th percentile for all FBS teams. Nebraska’s offensive line belongs in that.

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