If you asked any "expert" before the 2013 season for a list of their Top Five quarterbacks in the Big Ten, chances are names like Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez, Devin Gardner and Kain Colter would've been on just about every list.
The one name no one would've had there? Nathan Scheelhaase.
Yet, through five weeks of the 2013 season he very well could be the best quarterback in the Big Ten.
The numbers sure bare that out.
He leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game at 290.5 and also leads the Big Ten in passer efficiency with a rating of 174.8.
Additionally, Scheelhaase has completed 67.2 percent of his passes (behind only Kenny Guiton in the Big Ten) for a Big Ten best 1,162 yards. He also has 12 touchdown passes to just three interceptions on the season so far.
If those numbers weren't enough to convince you, the Chicago Sun-Times gave us these eye-popping numbers to help hammer the point home:
- Scheelhaase has thrown for 709 yards and six touchdowns—on first down alone.
- He has had three streaks of at least 10 consecutive completions. No other Illini quarterback since 1994 has had even one such streak.
- Scheelhaase’s five TD passes in the first half against Miami (Ohio) last Saturday bettered his 2012 season total by one.
To put it all into perspective, Scheelhaase's best passing total on a season was in 2011 when he went for 2,110 yards through the air, but had just 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions. His best total for touchdowns was his freshman season, when he threw for 17 TDs, but also had eight interceptions.
Right now Scheelhaase is on pace for a ridiculous total of 3,486 yards and 36 touchdown passes for the season.
Of course, those are projected totals and there's a big difference between playing Miami (OH) and taking on Ohio State or Wisconsin, but there's no question the numbers have been better this season.
It's also not just Scheelhaase's personal totals that point to him possibly being the best quarterback in the Big Ten this season, the team totals are also staggering to date (h/t Chicago Sun Times):
The offense has improved from 296.7 yards per game (ranked 119th nationally) in 2012 to 478.5 (35th) in 2013, with a school-record 161 points through four games.
Critics of Scheelhaase and the numbers he has put up will point to the one "tough game" they played against Washington, and they do have a point—it was his worst game of the season, passing for just 156 yards and completing just 36 percent of his passes in the loss.
However, on the flip side you could point to the game the week before against a very tough Cincinnati defense (one that gives up just 15.3 points per game). In that game Scheelhaase passed for 312 yards, completed over 70 percent of his passes and had four touchdowns with no interceptions.
The game against the Bearcats is more the norm, rather than the exception for Scheelhaase so far this season, and that's the important take away for me to date.
Let's also face facts, not a single Big Ten team played a really difficult schedule all season long, so stating Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's best quarterback isn't a stretch at all.
Then there is the whole winning football games thing to consider as well.
It's an amazing feat, considering last season's disaster—both in injuries and results for Scheelhaase and the Illini.
Things have already changed for the better for his team and for him personally, and a lot of it can be attributed to the hire of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit during the offseason.
He brought a new attitude along with a new offensive style to the team and Scheelhaase has taken to it all quite well.
That new attitude has provided actual structure to the offense on the field and to the team's expectations off of it as well. Scheelhaase told the Chicago Sun-Times the following:
It always helps to have a clear identity, to be clear in what you’re expected to do and how you’re expected to do that. There’s probably not many 18- to 22-year-olds who do real well with a ton of freedom on the football field.
So, as conference teams enter Big Ten play in earnest this weekend the biggest names at the quarterback position from this offseason have either failed to impress or been injured off-and-on and it's left the spotlight empty for someone else to claim.
Nathan Scheelhaase has sure stepped on that stage to claim the spotlight so far and he may not be giving it up anytime soon in 2013. What a final stanza to his career it would be, huh?
*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @andycoppens.