Traditionally, the Big Ten has had excellent quarterback play.
Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Brian Hoyer, Kyle Orton and Drew Stanton all threw for at least 1,700 yards in the NFL last season.
With Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and the Ohio State triumvirate, the Big Ten’s passing game is in good hands again in 2015.
In the East Division, at least. Out West? Not so much.
Despite six returning starters, the West Division of the Big Ten could be the worst collection of quarterbacks in the country this fall.
And it could cost this division any hope at a Playoff berth or Big Ten championship.
The seven projected starters in the Big Ten West combined for 71 touchdown passes and 46 interceptions last year, and the six returning starters averaged less than 1,600 yards passing. This division completed just 54.9 percent of their passes in 2014 (767-for-1397). (To be fair, the seven projected starters did run for 22 rushing touchdowns last fall.)
Just for reference purposes only, Marcus Mariota scored 57 total touchdowns, threw four interceptions, completed 68.3 percent of his passes and totaled 5,224 yards of offense. Only one returning B1G West quarterback completed more than 56.5 percent of his passes, only one topped 2,000 yards passing, only one threw for at least 20 touchdowns and only one topped 3,000 yards of total offense.
Is it fair to compare Joel Stave to a Heisman Trophy winner? Of course not. But to compete with the heavyweights from the East Division and push for a Big Ten title, someone in the West has to develop into more than just a mediocre quarterback.
Illinois’ Wes Lunt is probably the most gifted passer of the bunch and clearly produced the most last fall when on the field. He missed five full games but led the division at 220.4 yards per game. His 14:3 TD:INT ratio was also the best in the division as well, making him the best pure quarterback in the B1G West.
Unfortunately, he’s stuck in Champaign-Urbana without star receiver Mike Dudek.
As far as conference contenders go, Wisconsin and Nebraska don’t normally ask their quarterbacks to produce in a big way through the air. These programs have won a bunch of games on the back of a run-first identity. However, new head coaches Mike Riley and Paul Chryst are noted quarterback gurus who like to run pro-style offenses.
Does Tommy Armstrong fit Riley’s system? Can Stave be accurate enough to win the division? These are legitimate questions that are keeping the Huskers and Badgers from being mentioned as conference contenders this summer.
Armstrong’s experience and athletic ability likely gives him a chance at his best season and, with improved play, could make the Big Red the best team in the division. He's the division's returning total offense leader by a wide margin (3,400 yards), but is he good enough to master Riley’s complicated, pocket-oriented passing game and compete with the Ohio States of the world?
What about Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner or Iowa’s C.J. Beathard?
Both have some experience and both forced more touted individuals to transfer out of their respective programs. Both also enter summer camp surrounded by questions.
Leidner was a gamer last year, leading his team to some big wins over Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska. But he is wildly inaccurate and more of an athlete than a passer. Beathard has a big arm and Kirk Ferentz hopes his offense will be more dynamic with him under center. But he has one career start and has been banged up during his time on campus.
That leaves Northwestern and Purdue. Both quarterback situations are complicated at best and concerning at worst. Austin Appleby is likely to win the job for the Boilermakers after stealing the gig from Danny Etling a year ago. He completed just 52.9 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) and will have to hold off Etling this summer.
Sophomore Matt Alviti is the favorite to land the Wildcats' starting role in Evanston. He isn’t the thrower that big-bodied senior Zack Oliver is but is a much better athlete and commands the huddle well. Pat Fitzgerald has had a remarkable run of quarterbacks but, generally, they’ve had the ability to make things happen with their legs. This favors Alviti.
Needless to say, this isn’t a star-studded collection of quarterbacks. The Big Ten West has some great coaches and some great programs. But this division won’t be able to compete with the East Division much less the rest of the nation if it doesn’t do something about its signal-callers.
Proj. Big Ten West starting QBs '14 stats: