There were so many entrenched and established names a season ago in the Big Ten. Call this a transitional year, maybe. Perhaps as many as nine programs could have a different starting quarterback in Week 1 than the guy they had this time a year ago. Yes, you should probably add Nebraska to the list.
Because Scott Frost and the Huskers are one of a number of situations in which the season is going to be made or broken by quarterback play. Frost needs to show improvement once again, but just a single game in the win column—as was the case in 2019—might not be enough. If Adrian Martinez takes a step forward, Nebraska could be dangerous offensively. If he idles like he did last season, he might not have the job much longer. (We could enter into a world where two McCaffrey brothers are starting for Big Ten programs at the same time. What a world that would be.)
Nebraska has loads of potential in its quarterback room overall, though. Lots of Big Ten teams do. A conference known for its running game and rugged defenses has started producing high-end quarterback talent for a few years now. Let’s power rank this year’s crop, and since the loss of spring ball leaves so much up in the air, this is room and not singular projected starter.
No. 1: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Room: Gunnar Hoak (SR), Justin Fields (JR), JP Andrade (SO), Jagger LaRoe (SO), CJ Stroud (FR), Jack Miller (FR)
The Buckeyes are No. 1 because of their singular returning starter. Justin Fields went from “how good can he actually be?” to legitimately one of the top quarterbacks in the country. Every single question anyone had about him, his game, and his ability to jump into the Big Ten and the Buckeye offense and take off right away was answered in the best possible way. As a sophomore, he threw for a B1G-best 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns, along with 484 rushing yards and 10 scores on the ground. He was picked off three times in 354 passing attempts. It kinda doesn’t matter what’s behind Fields; Ohio State is going to be excellent once again if Fields has another season like 2019.
No. 2: Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Room: Tanner Morgan (JR), Zack Annexstad (SO), Cole Kramer (rFR), Jacob Clark (rFR)
There’s a case to be made for putting Minnesota at No. 1. Tanner Morgan’s 2019 season by the numbers: first in yards per attempt (10.2), second in yards (3,253), second in passer rating (178.7), second in touchdowns thrown (30), fourth in completion rate (66%). No returning quarterback had a better passer rating when scrambling. Morgan was a bomber who didn’t kill his team with turnovers. We don’t talk enough about how good he was in 2019. And, really, had Annexstad not gotten hurt before the season, he might not have begun the year as the starter. Annexstad feels a more-than-capable backup, though barring something unforeseen, Minnesota won’t need him outside of the fourth quarter.
No. 3: Wisconsin Badgers
The Room: Jack Coan (SR), Danny Vanden Boom (JR), Chase Wolf (SO), Graham Mertz (rFR)
The criticism is that Jack Coan is a game manager and not the kind of quarterback to put the game on his shoulders and watch him win it for you. But the Badgers keep trotting out quarterbacks more “manager” than “destroyer” and things seem to keep working out fine. In replacing running back Jonathan Taylor, the Badgers might ask for more from the quarterback in 2020, but there’s the dynamic, crazy high ceiling thrower that is Graham Mertz waiting in the wings. No one completed a higher percentage of their throws in the Big Ten than Coan a season ago, though, who posted a 69.6% clip. With 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions, Coan showed a command of things. If the known is cool with coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers will roll with an experienced Coan and probably lean on another running game/defense combo to 10 wins because they are inevitable in the Big Ten. If Chryst wants some dynamism, and Mertz is ready for it, he’s got that option too. Good spot to be in.
No. 4: Penn State Nittany Lions
The Room: Sean Clifford (JR), Will Levis (SO), TaQuan Roberson (rFR), Michael Johnson Jr. (rFR)
It’s always tough replacing a longtime starter and fan favorite. Trace Sorley was part of some of the best Penn State moments of recent memory. But Sean Clifford went 11-2 in his first season of starting full-time. A strong ground game helped. Clifford needs to hone the accuracy (59.2% clip last year) and the decision-making. He’s still a returning starter to an offense that averaged 35 points a game a season ago (second in the league). With three guys behind him who’ve all been around, the room looks in good shape.
No. 5: Indiana Hoosiers
The Room: Michael Penix Jr. (SO), Jack Tuttle (SO), Grant Gremel (rFR), Will Jontz (rFR), Zack Merrill (rFR), Dexter Williams II (FR)
Some would have Indiana higher. In six starts last season for the Hoosiers, Penix completed 69% of his throws for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns against four picks. He also ran for 119 yards and two scores on 22 carries. But injury ended Penix’s season in November, the second straight year he’s suffered a season-ending injury. Staying healthy is an ability and Penix will have to prove he possesses it in 2020. The potential is there, but the safety net is gone. When Penix got hurt, Indiana turned back to Peyton Ramsey, who is now at Northwestern.
No. 6: Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Room: Adrian Martinez (JR), Luke McCaffrey (rFR), Logan Smothers (FR)
Health was a major underlying issue last season. Because Nebraska doesn’t disclose injury information unless it’s season-ending, no one publicly knows the extent of Martinez’s shoulder problems last year. Suffice it to say it was an issue NU’d rather not deal with again. So many factors contributed to an offensive stall in 2019, but Martinez has to be better in 2020 if Nebraska is to be better. His completion rate dipped under 60% after a strong first year, the turnovers continued at a problematic pace (10 touchdowns, nine picks), and the decision-making was off at times. Like Penix above him, Martinez has had injury problems two years in a row now and whether that’s a him thing or a usage thing, Nebraska needs its quarterback upright for a full season. If McCaffrey blows peoples’ socks off in fall camp, he could edge out Martinez, but we’ll have to see McCaffrey throw a little more before getting too excited. If Martinez approaches this fall camp with a little more urgency and shows he’s still the guy who gives NU the best chance to win, he’ll retain the job. Nebraska’s in a good spot with its quarterback room all things considered. Each guy, including true freshman Logan Smothers, offers a high ceiling. Gotta start maximizing potential, though.
No. 7: Northwestern Wildcats
The Room: Peyton Ramsey (SR), Aiden Smith (SR), Andrew Marty (JR), Hunter Johnson (JR), Jason Whittaker (SO), Carl Richardson (FR)
Ramsey is a career 66% passer and a graduate transfer quarterback with all kinds of Big Ten experience. Smith is technically a returning starter. Johnson is technically still a former 5-star quarterback. Northwestern was real bad in 2019 in large part because it got real bad quarterback play. There’s a chance that’s not the case again.
No. 8: Illinois Fighting Illini
The Room: Brandon Peters (SR), MJ Rivers II (SO), Drake Davis (SO), Matt Robinson (SO), Coran Taylor (SO)
Plenty of options for coach Lovie Smith, but a senior in Peters who showed promise in 2019 should once again have the reins in 2020. He completed just 55% of his throws for 1,884 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. Illinois went to a bowl game a season ago, though, and continuing that upward momentum seems well within Illinois’ grasp. Peters has his three favorite targets back to throw to.
No. 9: Michigan Wolverines
The Room: Dylan McCaffrey (JR), Joe Milton (SO), Cade McNamara (rFR), Dan Villari (FR)
Coach Jim Harbaugh got his much-sought-after quarterback in Shea Patterson a few seasons ago, and then in 2019 there were clamorings for McCaffrey (huh). Now, with Patterson having graduated, McCaffrey has a chance to win the spot. We’ve reached the end of the known quarterback commodities, Michigan is in the midst of a quarterback competition. Joe Milton has a real shot to win it, a kid with a cannon for an arm. McCaffrey may have an edge in experience, but he only threw 20 times last season, completing 10 for 116 yards and a score.
No. 10: Purdue Boilermakers
The Room: Austin Burton (SR), Aidan O’Connell (JR), Jack Plummer (SO), Paul Piferi (rFR), Michael Alaimo (FR)
Elijah Sindelar has retired from football. Coach Jeff Brohm is in the market for a new full-time starter at QB. Plummer led Brohm’s bunch last fall with 1,603 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions over nine games (six starts), while Aidan O'Connell started three (six appearances) and threw for 1,101 yards, eight scores and four picks. Both averaged 6.7 yards per throw. O’Connell had the better completion rate. Plummer has breakout potential, and he’s probably the guy who will get first crack at the job, but really all you have to do in this offense is give Rondale Moore and David Bell the ball.
No. 11: Iowa Hawkeyes
The Room: Samson Evans (JR), Spencer Petras (SO), Connor Kapisak (SO), Alex Padilla (FR)
Indications from Iowa City are that Petras is the guy. Coach Kirk Ferentz spoke highly of the 6-foot-5, 231-pound quarterback late last season, and with Nate Stanley off to the NFL, Iowa has a chance to upgrade its quarterback play. With serious weapons at the skill positions, Petras has stuff to work with, it’ll just be a matter of whether he’s ready or not.
No. 12: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Room: Noah Vedral (JR), Artur Sitkowski (SO), Johnny Langan (SO), Cole Snyder (rFR), Peyton Powell (rFR), Evan Simon (FR)
New coach Greg Schiano came in and was tasked with modernizing an offense that had been outscored 355-51 last season. Johnny Langan and Artur Sitkowski are both back from that group, but Schiano went out and got one of the better quarterbacks on the transfer market to come in and run his spread system in Noah Vedral. In a backup role in 2017 at UCF and 2019 at Nebraska, Vedral completed 56-of-81 throwing the ball (69.1%) for 694 yards and a score. He’s only been picked off once in 90 career pass attempts. Nebraska was a roller coaster ride, so now he’s at Rutgers. In 2018, he wasn’t immediately eligible to play, and took a redshirt year, then in 2019 he started twice in place of an injured Adrian Martinez. With the loss of spring ball, though, Vedral wanted a place he could win the job. Rutgers provided that. He should get his first real shot in 2020.
No. 13: Maryland Terrapins
The Room: Josh Jackson (SR), Taulia Tagovailoa (SO), Tyler DeSue (SO), Lance Legendre (rFR)
The Virginia Tech transfer, Josh Jackson, was not good in 2019. Among the qualified starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten, he was dead last in completion rate at a grotesque 47.3%. He had 12 touchdowns, though. Seven came in the first two weeks against the Howard and Syracuse defenses. Coach Mike Locksley is likely hoping Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa is granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. If not, it might be LeGendre, who threw all of three passes last season.
No. 14: Michigan State Spartans
The Room: Rocky Lombardi (JR), Theo Day (SO), Payton Thorne (rFR)
First-year head coach Mel Tucker has a decision on his hands. In 2018, Lombardi played in eight games and threw 154 times, but he completed 44.2% of his throws and tossed an interception for every touchdown (three each). Mark Dantonio seemed to keep going back to a less-than-100% Brian Lewerke. In 2019, Michigan State’s offense struggled for the second year in a row, and Lombardi threw only 21 times in eight appearances (completing seven). Which way do you go? It’ll be an open competition, and Day has a shot, but no one has really seen much of him at the college level. The flip side is that what we’ve seen from Lombardi isn’t very convincing. Tucker’s trying to get Sparty back up and running after back-to-back 7-6 campaigns, so he could make the long play and go with Day, or opt for the guy with more experience under his belt in the hopes of better managing the waters ahead.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.