Only one – ONE – Big Ten quarterback threw for over 3,000 yards in 2013. By comparison, six QBs from the PAC-12 and five from the SEC eclipsed that mark. And the one Big Ten gunslinger who accomplished the feat was former Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who is now gone. How much that statistic is due to the quality of the quarterbacks and how much it reflects the tendencies of Big Ten offenses can be debated, but quarterback play in the conference was below par last season.
However, an uptick figures to be on the horizon in 2014. Scheelhaase is the only full-time starter who departs (unless you count the injury-plagued Taylor Martinez), and there are a handful of returnees who should take big steps forward. There is though still plenty of uncertainty.
Also, just a quick note. Whereas other positional rankings will factor in depth to a certain degree, these rankings are almost solely based on projected starters.
1. Ohio State – Given the threat he poses on the ground, Braxton Miller is the cream of the signal caller crop in the Big Ten. He’s led the Buckeyes to two straight undefeated regular seasons, and should he do it again, he could be a Heisman candidate.
2. Michigan State – Every quarterback debate hinges on one’s valuation of "winning." That’s a major reason that Connor Cook and Michigan State are ranked No. 2. Cook isn’t the talent that Miller is, and his stats don’t jump off the page at you, but he took care of the ball last year and proved his mettle in leading Sparty to Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships.
3. Penn State – Christian Hackenberg, who started as a true freshman last season and had moderate success, is being touted for big things. The problem is we don’t quite know when those big things will come. He very well could be at the top of this list by season’s end, but he could also be much lower.
4. Michigan – Statistically, Devin Gardner was pretty darn good in 2013. Among full-time starters, his QB rating was second to only Miller’s, and like Miller, he’s a capable rusher as well. But all the success was overshadowed by a handful of crucial mistakes. If Gardner can cut down on those mistakes, he’ll ascend to the top 3.
5. Indiana – The Hoosiers might have been as high as 2nd on this list had dual-threat QB Tre Roberson not decided to transfer. Last season, IU used both Roberson and pocket-passer Nate Sudfeld to great effect, similarly to how Northwestern has used the 2-QB system in recent years. Now, the onus is entirely on Sudfeld.
6. Northwestern – There’s a noticeable drop off after the top 5, which seems pretty clear-cut. But after that, you could make an argument for at least five quarterbacks to occupy the sixth spot. I, though, will make the argument for Trevor Siemian. Admittedly, NU’s pocket passer didn’t do much last season to aid the argument, but this is about projecting for 2014. I believe this is the year that Siemian finally plays up to his potential. The heel injury not only hampered him physically last year, but also mentally, especially playing behind a leaky offensive line, and even for a non-running QB, mobility is extremely important. Plus, looking back at the past few years, in Siemian I see one of the top arms in the Big Ten – not consistently, which is why he’s somewhat of a wild card here, but he has it. With full command of the offense, he could thrive.
7. Wisconsin – Wisconsin is a running team – (almost) always has been, always will be. But while flying under the radar a bit, Joel Stave actually had a pretty good season in 2013. He finished fourth in the conference in passer rating among QBs with over 300 attempts, and his completion percentage was second among the same group. However, he’s unspectacular, and was inconsistent last year. This ranking expects mild improvement, and the occasional contribution from converted safety Tanner McEvoy, but nothing more.
8. Iowa – Jake Rudock was solid last year as a sophomore, and should be better in 2014. He’s also more mobile than you might think. But he has to cut down on the interceptions (13 a year ago), especially with a good offense around him.
9. Maryland – There’s certainly a strong case for C.J. Brown, now a 6th-year senior, to be much higher in these rankings. He’s been around College Park since 2009, and is a veteran of all veterans. However, two things hold him back. One is injuries, which have brutally marred his career. The other is the move to the Big Ten, where defenses should pose a stiffer test than the ones he faced last year in the ACC. He’s also somewhat a product of two outstanding playmakers at wide receiver.
10. Illinois – The Illini are perhaps the biggest unknown on this list. The assumption is that there’ll be a quarterback battle in camp, with the candidates being true sophomore Aaron Bailey and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. Lunt is the more intriguing prospect. He actually began his freshman season as OSU’s starting QB, but lost the job due to injury. The talent is reportedly there, but he’s clearly unproven, as is Bailey.
11. Nebraska – Taylor Martinez’s departure -- we’re not even going to mention that other guy -- likely leaves the starting job to Tommy Armstrong, a dual-threat sophomore who saw limited action in 2013. He completed just 51.9 percent of his passes, and threw 8 interceptions in just 131 attempts, so he’s got a ways to go as a passer. He will be a threat with his legs though.
12. Purdue – True freshman Danny Etling took over the starting job midway through last season and was serviceable behind an atrocious offensive line. He looks to be a decent talent, and could have an impactful career in West Lafayette, but he hasn’t arrived just yet.
13. Minnesota – Considering the Gophers won eight games last year, the QB position was about as turbulent as it could’ve possibly been. Even when they were winning, nobody really knew who the starting quarterback would be the following weekend. With Phillip Nelson now gone, the job is Mitch Leidner’s in 2014, but his performances last season were unpredictable to say the least.
14. Rutgers – Senior Gary Nova has loads of experience under his belt, and enters the season as the starter. But he does so more due to a lack of viable alternatives than his talent or past production. Nova threw 10 interceptions in his final five games last season prior to being benched for the last three. But coach Kyle Flood doesn’t have much choice but to go back to him.
Why Northwestern should be higher: I’ve actually slotted Siemian about as high as one could rationally argue for him to be. But could he finish the season as one of the top five QBs in the conference? It's not out of the question. The reality is, we have no idea what this offense is going to look like. If it does revert back to what it was for parts of last decade, and if Siemian exhibits a secure grasp of it, there’s no reason he can’t throw for 3,500 yards and 20-plus touchdowns.
Why Northwestern should be lower: Based on what he did last year, and based on worries about his ability to be ‘the guy,’ Siemian could be as low as 10th in these rankings. From the second half of the Ohio State game to the Michigan State game, he truly was awful last year. During that span, he threw 7 picks and just 2 touchdowns – TWO. There were a number of contributing factors to that, but who’s to say those factors won’t reemerge again this season?
Second thoughts: Maybe a bit too high. What I've done is projected Siemian pretty close to his ceiling, and while I do believe that's where he'll get this season, perhaps it's unfair to rank him this high before we've actually seen it from him.