What do Russell Wilson, Dan Persa, Daryll Clark, Chad Henne, Kirk Cousins and Troy Smith have in common?
They have all won All-Conference awards for quarterbacking in the Big Ten over the past few seasons. These quarterbacks also share a commonality in that all were true threats in the passing game. When opposing defenses prepared for these quarterbacks, learning how to disrupt the passing game was difficult if not impossible.
Wilson is starting in the NFL this season as a rookie. Smith has seen some playing time for the Ravens at the next level. The only two Heisman Trophies won by Big Ten schools in the last decade were quarterbacks (Troy Smith in 2006 and Eric Crouch in 2001).
While the conference has a well-earned reputation and history of being led by running backs, there have been some great quarterbacks over the past few seasons.
However, trying to figure out which of the current starting quarterbacks in 2012 is the best is a real challenge. Furthermore, many of the best quarterbacks in the league are known more for running ability, like Taylor Martinez, Braxton Miller and Denard Robinson.
So that begs the question: Where have all the elite quarterbacks gone? Has the Big Ten lost out on every top passing quarterback to the more wide-open passing games in the Big 12 and the Pac-12? Or is 2012 just a blip on the map?
Let's start with the leaders in 2012.
Of the nine quarterbacks who started in 2011, as well as this season, only one of them passed for a respectable 3,000 yards (James Vandenberg). The only other three quarterbacks who exceeded 2,000 yards were Denard Robinson (2,173), Nathan Scheelhaase (2,110) and Taylor Martinez (2,089). As a result, Vandenberg is the default answer for most when polled as to the best true throwing quarterback in the conference this season.
But is the bear hunter from Iowa City really an elite quarterback who belongs with the list of All-Conference quarterbacks at the top of this article? That's a hard bargain to sell. While Vandenberg has been able to put up good season-long numbers once, he struggled mightily against the better defenses on the schedule last year.
With a lack of a healthy running game, Vandenberg will also be forced into a lot of situations with defenses sitting all over the pass. The recipe is there for disaster in 2012 when Big Ten defenses get a hold of the Iowa quarterback.
That means Vandenberg is no guarantee to put up 3,000 yards and good passing numbers again in 2012.
But there does not appear to be any likely successors to that throne of the best passer in the conference. If no quarterback throws for more than 2,500 or 2,600 yards, is this a position of strength anymore for the Big Ten?
Taking the next three quarterbacks in passing numbers from a season ago, Taylor Martinez had the brightest start in Week 1. However, he has had good games before and then has gone right back to awful Taylor Martinez a week or two later. Martinez has a long way to go before we can trust his consistency.
Denard Robinson was dinged up and looked like he had regressed against Alabama. It is hard to imagine that Robinson will stay healthy all year and be significantly better than last year. Nathan Scheelhaase also got knocked out of the opening game this season and probably will have trouble staying healthy all year despite becoming more of a pocket quarterback.
Other returning starters with a chance to jump in numbers significantly include Braxton Miller and Matt McGloin, both of whom are thriving already in new offenses with more balanced or pass-heavy attacks. Of course, Miller will probably get more attention thanks to his running ability and the better overall team in Columbus, but that also renders him subject to injuries and missed time.
Caleb TerBush is apparently a solid starter at Purdue if he can win his job back after the effort Robert Marve put up in the opening game, but he is not on the same level as these other quarterbacks, let alone an elite quarterback. Tre Roberson and MarQueis Gray would need to shock the world to become prolific passers.
Then there are the new starting quarterbacks: Danny O'Brien at Wisconsin was efficient in Week 1, but will not be the primary focus of the Wisconsin offense. Kain Colter has already dealt with the injury bug in 2012 and will struggle to reach the levels Dan Persa was at for Northwestern. Andrew Maxwell did more to hurt his Michigan State team than help the team in the narrow win over Boise State. None of these guys will jump to the head of the class in the first year as starter.
Which brings us back to the likes of Vandenberg, and possibly Martinez and Miller. If Vandenberg struggles, then there will simply be no elite passing quarterback in this conference. That is a sad state of affairs that will need to change if the Big Ten is to jump back into the national championship picture once again.
Looking toward the future, Miller is only a sophomore and could become another player with good circumstances on his side like Troy Smith was in 2006. The two-deep at many of the Big Ten schools does not reveal many sure-fire passing superstars, but perhaps the most likely backups to make an impact in 2013 will be Curt Phillips as Wisconsin, if he is finally healthy, Paul Jones of Penn State and Devin Gardner of Michigan.
At this point, the future looks pretty bleak compared to the passing icons of the past decade in Big Ten football. In order for the conference to shed the "too slow" and "outdated" monikers caused by over-reliance on rushing attacks, some of these quarterbacks will need to become the next Andrew Luck or the next Robert Griffin.
Only then will the Big Ten take its place among the college football elite once again.
In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, save us, bear hunter Vandenberg. You're our only hope (in 2012).
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