Power Ranking Every Big Ten Quarterback, Post-Spring Practice
There's still several months to go before the start of the 2014 college football season, but that doesn't mean we don't have a clearer picture of the quarterback situation in the Big Ten. Most teams have the starting spot locked up, which means the inevitable comparisons can begin.
The Heisman Trophy isn't handed out in May, but if it was, the Big Ten would have a few compelling candidates. Not least among them is Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Despite a disappointing end to 2013, the Buckeyes are poised for another run at the Big Ten title in 2014—and a likely berth in the College Football Playoff that comes with it.
Can Miller lead his Buckeyes to a long overdue Big Ten title? Is Miller the undisputed top quarterback in the conference? If so, where do the other starters rank behind him?
We'll answer all of those questions in our Big Ten quarterback power rankings, post-spring practice edition.
T-No. 12: Purdue
We'll start with a trio of teams that haven't quite figured things out yet, at least when it comes to who will start at quarterback. There might be some real gems among the group of names we're about to throw at you, but in fairness to the guys who have locked up their spots as starters, we're putting these not-quite-starters at the back of Big Ten quarterback pack—for now.
We'll get started with Purdue. The Boilermakers put together an absolutely abysmal season in 2013, finishing 1-11 (with that lone six-point win coming against an FCS program that was also 1-11, with it's lone win coming against a 2-9 Division II program). Such a poor performance doesn't rest solely on the quarterbacks, but the fact still remains that Purdue averaged just 215 passing yards per game. On top of that, the Boilers' quarterbacks threw just 15 touchdown passes all season compared to 13 interceptions.
So how is 2014 shaping up? Well, it's telling that we haven't heard any word from head coach Darrell Hazell on his choice to start next fall, despite the return of part-time starter Danny Etling.
Hazell probably wants time to fully analyze Austin Appleby and freshman David Blough before making a solid decision. But regardless of the direction he takes, we're not holding out much hope of a miraculously resurgent Purdue in 2014.
T-No. 12: Illinois
Former Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt has served his season of football exile after transferring to Illinois. Whether or not he will actually secure the starting position, however, is still an open question.
Lunt is up against Aaron Bailey, a returning sophomore, as well as senior Reilly O'Toole. The difference between Lunt and the other two is experience. Bailey and O'Toole had a combined 21 pass attempts in 2013 (14-of-21 for 145 yards, two touchdowns and one interception combined), while Lunt was 81-of-131 for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions the last time he took the field (2012 for Oklahoma State).
So, who does head coach Tim Beckman tap as his starter in 2014? We might not know until opening weekend.
T-No. 12: Indiana
Of perhaps any college football team in the nation yet to name its starting quarterback for 2014, Indiana probably has the best "worst decision." Head coach Kevin Wilson is likely to make a choice to go with either Nate Sudfeld or Tre Roberson as the starter for 2014, but he hasn't announced any concrete decisions quite yet.
Here's what makes this decision such an interesting problem: Both guys are tremendous options and would be an excellent choice as starter.
Roberson is more of a run-and-gun quarterback, a quarterback at home in this new age of quarterbacks that can beat you on the ground just as easily through the air. Sudfeld, on the other hand, is more of a prototypical passer who can put up big numbers on even the best defenses the nation has to offer (210.3 passing yards per game, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2013).
So, which way does Wilson go? Dual threat or a deadly aerial assault?
Like everyone else, we don't know. But once we do, don't expect Indiana's quarterback ranking to stay at No. 12.
No. 11: Gary Nova, Rutgers
With probably the best quarterback name of the 2014 season, Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova continued his progression as a player this spring with a particularly strong performance in the Scarlet Knights' spring game.
Spring games, however, are just spring games.
In the particularly weak American Athletic Conference last season, Nova finished seventh among quarterbacks in passing yards per game (214.9) and passing touchdowns (18) while ranking dead last in the AAC in completion percentage among quarterbacks who made it into more than eight games.
There's also those 14 interceptions he threw as a junior in 2013—worst in the AAC.
And just in case you're wondering, no, Nova doesn't make up for a weak passing performance with some particularly strong rushing numbers (50 credited rushes, minus-93 yards, one touchdown). Clearly, he can't be called a top-tier quarterback in the AAC—and especially not in the Big Ten.
It is worth mentioning that Nova, while the presumptive starter, doesn't officially have the job locked up just yet. He was benched last season in favor of Chas Dodd (who has since graduated) and is still battling two others for the starting gig at Rutgers in 2014.
The rest of the quarterback depth chart, however, has a grand total of zero collegiate snaps, which bodes well for Nova's chances—at least in the short run.
No. 10: Mitch Leidner, Minnesota
With all due respect to Mitch Leidner, we just don't have enough information on him yet to make a solid prediction about where he'll end up when the dust settles in 2014. We do know he completed 43 of his 78 pass attempts last season (55.1 percent) for 619 yards and three touchdowns.
We also know he only threw one interception in 2013, which is pretty good when compared to all the other part-time quarterbacks out there. But with Philip Nelson transferring, Leidner is now head coach Jerry Kill's full-time guy.
Can Leidner grow into a passing role? Or will he rely too much on his admittedly solid ground skills (407 yards and seven touchdowns on 102 carries in 2013)? Will he be the missing link between Minnesota's resurgence in 2013 and a run at the West Division title in 2014?
We simply don't know—which, again, is why Leidner is stuck in no man's land at No. 10.
No. 9: Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Is anyone surprised Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong is in the bottom half of our list? Anyone?
Okay, so he isn't that terrible, but he still has a long way to go before he can join the ranks of the top quarterbacks in the conference. His first job this summer should be to work on his passing accuracy.
Last season, Armstrong completed just 51.9 percent of his 131 pass attempts for 966 yards. He also threw eight interceptions compared to just nine touchdowns. Pretty bad numbers, to be sure, but we don't expect a repeat performance in 2014.
For starters, he never really settled into the role of starter last season. He often looked uncomfortable and pensive—two things he didn't show this spring. With several months still to prepare for 2014, we expect to see a much more mature Armstrong come the fall.
If not, it could be a long year for Huskers fans and head coach Bo Pelini may be staring his seventh straight four-loss season squarely in the face.
No. 8: Joel Stave, Wisconsin
At first glance, putting Joel Stave at No. 8 might seem to be a bit of an insult. But in reality, it's a reflection of his team's typical game plan. Stave is actually a very good quarterback and might very well belong higher up our list—if only his potential was being exploited by the Wisconsin coaching staff.
Last season, Stave was third in the Big Ten with a 61.9 completion percentage. His 2,494 passing yards ranked sixth in the conference and his 22 passing touchdowns tied for second.
His 13 interceptions, however, were worst among all starters in the Big Ten in 2013. He is also not a gifted runner, as we might expect a Wisconsin quarterback to be (minus-24 yards and one touchdown on 38 carries in 2013).
All in all, Stave is doing exactly what he need to do at Wisconsin; he's accurate enough to take some pressure off of the lethal rushing attack, allowing the Badgers to put up some big numbers on the ground.
But his decisions in the pocket need to continue to improve in order for him to make a big impact this season during what could be seen as a rebuilding year in Madison. Just don't mention the "R" word around head coach Gary Andersen.
No. 7: Trevor Siemian, Northwestern
When spring practices started, it might have been OK to view Trevor Siemian's position as Northwestern's starting quarterback tenuous. Fast forward a few weeks and it appears the job is now Siemian's to lose.
And we don't expect him to lose it.
Sure, there's the on-field results we can see from last season. He was 177-of-296 for 2,143 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Not spectacular numbers, but he's the only quarterback remaining on the Northwestern roster to have actually completed a pass (Zach Oliver attempted two passes in 2013, one of which was intercepted).
Siemian is also been making the media rounds away from the field. He has been outspoken in his opposition to the proposed players' union at Northwestern—not good news for those pushing players to support unionization.
Siemian is the on-field leader of the team, and for better or worse, it will be very interesting to see if his teammates follow his lead off the field.
No. 6: Devin Gardner, Michigan
Never mind all the naysayers out there, Devin Gardner is a quarterback who can put up some pretty hefty numbers if given the chance. The question is whether or not he'll be given the chance in 2014.
Last season, believe it or not, Gardner finished with the second-most passing yards per game in the Big Ten with 246.7. You can thank massive games against Notre Dame, Indiana and Ohio State for that. But his up-and-down performance (97 and 98 passing yards against UConn and Iowa, respectively) didn't buy him too many supporters come spring practices.
In fact, Gardner found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend his role as starter against upstart Shane Morris and junior Russell Bellomy.
Add in a pretty poor showing at Michigan's spring game, and the quiet murmurs are starting to become open questions. OK, so Gardner wasn't quite back to 100 percent after breaking his foot against Ohio State. And maybe it was just a spring game, so who really cares?
Well, you can believe the Michigan coaching staff cares, and so should Wolverines fans. Gardner is unquestionably an outstanding athlete, but like his predecessor, Denard Robinson, he doesn't always look comfortable taking the snaps.
Is it possible Hoke would be brave enough to move Gardner somewhere else in the formation and give young Mr. Morris the starting position? In Week 1, that's doubtful. But if Michigan stumbles early...
As an athlete, Gardner is a top-tier candidate. As a quarterback, not so much.
No. 5: C.J. Brown, Maryland
There were plenty of big names in the ACC last season at quarterback. Tajh Boyd, Anthony Boone, Stephen Morris and, of course, Heisman winner Jameis Winston. But at Maryland, a reliable and steady, if not flashy, quarterback managed to put together a pretty efficient campaign while averaging north of 200 passing yards per game.
C.J. Brown is back for yet another season at Maryland, and if it seems like he's been hanging around campus since the Carter Administration, there's a good reason. Brown will be a sixth-year senior in 2014 after receiving a medical waiver last spring in the wake on an injury that cause him to miss 2012.
Consistency may be exactly what Maryland needs heading into 2014. The Terrapins could be one of the great unknowns in the East Division this fall. While we don't expect Maryland to make a legit run at the division crown, the more traditional members of the Big Ten shouldn't sleep on the Terps, either.
Brown will need to improve his accuracy a bit, and his 13 touchdowns to seven interceptions will also need a bit of an upgrade to be competitive. Still, 2,242 passing yards in 11 games isn't anything to shake a stick at, and Big Ten fans may find Maryland fairly well equipped at quarterback right out of the gate.
No. 4: Jake Rudock, Iowa
Iowa's Jake Rudock makes his appearance at No. 4 on our list. Last season, Rudock had solid, yet unimpressive stats, passing for just under 2,400 yards with 18 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. But he added five additional touchdowns in the ground last season, giving him a boost in not only our power rankings, but our expectations for 2014 as well.
Rudock is exactly the kind of quarterback you'd expect at Iowa: big, tough and gritty. But if Iowa ever hopes to crawl back out of the ranks of "the rest of the conference" and into the limelight, he is going to have to do something a little more spectacular, perhaps even unexpected this fall.
A good start to improving on Iowa's 5-3 conference record from 2013 would be for Rudock to improve his accuracy numbers to north of 60 percent in 2014 (58.9 percent in 2013). With some big names coming back at receiver for the Hawkeyes, 60-plus percent is certainly a possibility.
No. 3: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Penn State's spring game may have been all about new head coach James Franklin, but don't think that anyone will, for one minute, forget the kind of quarterback Penn State has returning for 2014.
Christian Hackenberg put together one of the best freshman performances in the Big Ten last season, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns in the Nittany Lions' 12 games. His 246.3 passing yards per game ranks him second in terms of returning quarterbacks for 2014, and we can only imagine how good this kid is going to be with a year's worth of experience under his belt.
Penn State still has plenty of issues to work through, and the Nittany Lions are a decent distance from looking like an East Division contender. But with Franklin leading the program into a new era and Hackenberg still with three full years of eligibility, expect Penn State to start climbing the conference standings before too much longer.
No. 2: Connor Cook, Michigan State
At the start of last season, few people outside of East Lansing knew much about Connor Cook. Even after the first few weeks, there wasn't any reason to create a buzz about him.
Michigan State's offense struggled mightily early in 2013, and after a close but stinging loss on the road to rival Notre Dame, no one would have blamed anyone in thinking the Spartans might be headed for another mediocre season.
Almost as if on cue, Michigan State's offense—led by Cook—began improving from each week to the next. By the time MSU squared off against arch nemesis Michigan, Sparty was in fine form and had an offense that could put up enough points on its own to ensure victory behind a suffocating defense.
Cook ended up leading Michigan State to a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl Game title, all while capturing MVP honors in both games. In 2014, he returns as the Spartans' starter—and this time, he (hopefully) won't need a month to get warmed up.
No. 1: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Let the race begin.
Braxton Miller appears at No. 1 on our list for one simple reason: As of now, he's the only Big Ten quarterback who's being mentioned as having a realistic shot at winning the coveted Heisman Trophy in 2014. While it's admittedly very early to be thinking about the Heisman race, we can't ignore the fact that Miller seems to be drawing more attention and fanfare than the rest of the conference's quarterbacks—combined.
A lot can still happen between now and December, and it usually does. What if Michigan State's Connor Cook continues his meteoric rise? What if Devin Gardner finally finds his footing under center? What if Christian Hackenberg manages to improve upon last season's stellar freshman performance?
Those are all great questions, but they all start with "what if." So, as a final question, we'll ask this: What if Miller performs as expected?
Quite simply, he'll be the best quarterback in the Big Ten—and quite possibly the nation.
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