Uncertainty is the best way to describe the Big Ten and its group of quarterbacks for 2016. Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Iowa’s C.J. Beathard are the league’s best returning signal-callers, but the question marks begin after No. 2. Will Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong cut down on his interceptions in 2016? Or will Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner or Illinois’ Wes Lunt close out their career with a huge senior season? How should new quarterbacks at Michigan State and Michigan be ranked?
With fall practice starting for all 128 teams, Athlon is updating its quarterback rankings from earlier this year. Here’s an updated look at how the projected starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten rank for 2016:
To help compile the rankings, there was some projection involved for 2016. This was not a ranking of quarterbacks only based on accomplishments so far or pro potential. All factors - pure talent, supporting cast, 2016 projection and scheme changes (just to name a few) - were considered and projected to rank the quarterbacks in the Big Ten for 2016.
Big Ten 2016 Preseason QB Rankings
14. Perry Hills, Maryland
Walt Bell was one of the Big Ten’s top coordinator hires for 2016, and the first-year play-caller should make a difference for a unit that averaged only 24.7 points a game last fall. Five quarterbacks are set to battle for the starting nod in fall practice, with Hills the frontrunner after ending spring camp at No. 1. The Terrapins used four quarterbacks last season and led the Big Ten with 29 interceptions. Hills seems to have the best balance of run/pass ability to fit Bell’s scheme and has a good group of receivers at his disposal. True freshman Tyrell Pigrome’s progress is worth monitoring in fall practice.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2016
13. Chris Laviano, Rutgers
Laviano (2,247 passing yards and16 TDs in 2015) is listed as Rutgers’ projected starter here, but the No. 1 spot is up for grabs this spring. New coordinator Drew Mehringer is looking for more mobility and rushing potential out of the starting quarterback, and the offense needs more overall consistency after the Scarlet Knights averaged only 21.3 points in Big Ten games last year. Laviano will be pushed for time by TCU graduate transfer Zach Allen, true freshman Tylin Oden and junior Hayden Rettig.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big Ten Preview
12. Richard Lagow, Indiana
Kevin Wilson is one of the Big Ten’s top offensive-minded coaches, but he will have his hands full in replacing Nate Sudfeld this fall. Junior college recruit (and former UConn and Oklahoma State signal-caller) Richard Lagow left spring with an edge over Danny Cameron and Zander Diamont for the starting nod. Lagow threw for 2,285 yards and 21 touchdowns at Cisco Community College in 2015.
11. David Blough, Purdue
Marked improvement in the win column is unlikely for the Boilermakers in 2016, but with 16 returning starters in place, coach Darrell Hazell’s team could be more competitive in Big Ten action this fall. Hazell needs better play from his quarterbacks to help an offense that averaged only 25.1 points a game in 2015. Blough showed promise in his first season, throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 scores. In Purdue’s 55-45 upset win over Nebraska, Blough threw for four scores and 274 yards. There’s potential here, but Blough could be pushed for time by redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar.
10. Bart Houston, Wisconsin
Paul Chryst has a good track record of finding and developing quarterbacks throughout his coaching career. How quickly will the second-year coach find the right answer in 2016? With Joel Stave expiring his eligibility, Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are competing for the starting job. Houston is considered the favorite, but Hornibrook seemed to close the gap late in spring practice. Even though he’s a senior, Houston hasn’t played much in his career. In seven games last fall, Houston completed 27 of 47 passes for 281 yards and three scores. This group is a question mark, but the guess here is Chryst finds the right answer during the 2016 season.
9. Trace McSorley, Penn State
Penn State’s offense has struggled during James Franklin’s two seasons in Happy Valley, but there’s optimism for this group to improve in 2016. New play-caller Joe Moorhead is one of the nation’s top coordinator hires, the Nittany Lions are loaded at receiver and return standout running back Saquon Barkley. McSorley is the favorite over Tommy Stevens to replace Christian Hackenberg under center this fall and showed promise in last year’s TaxSlayer Bowl. Even though the Nittany Lions fell short, McSorley played well in the second half and completed 14 of 27 throws for 142 yards and two scores. The sophomore could have a breakout year under Moorhead’s direction this fall.
RELATED: Penn State Football Schedule 2016
8. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
As expected, Thorson had his share of up-and-down moments in 2015. The first-year starter threw for 1,522 yards and seven scores (with nine interceptions) and ranked second on the team with 397 rushing yards. While Thorson’s running ability is a valuable asset, he has to become a better passer in 2016. He only completed 50.8 percent of his throws and ranked near the bottom of the conference with just three completed passes of 40 yards or more. Thorson has potential to climb this list and will improve in his second season as the starter. However, the sophomore also needs help from a revamped receiving corps to spark the passing attack.
7. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota
There’s growing optimism about Leidner’s potential for 2016, especially after offseason foot surgery and a return to 100 percent. The Minnesota native has started 29 games in his career and is coming off career highs in passing yards (2,701), passing scores (14 TDs) and completion percentage (59.5 percent). Additionally, Leidner has recorded 23 rushing scores in three seasons with the Golden Gophers. Is Leidner ready to take the next step under new coordinator Jay Johnson and finish his career on a high note?
6. John O’Korn, Michigan
The Wolverines enter 2016 with uncertainty under center, but Jim Harbaugh is one of college football’s top quarterback gurus. While it may take a game or two, it’s safe to assume Harbaugh will figure things out under center. O’Korn transferred to Michigan after throwing for 4,068 yards and 34 scores in two seasons (2013-14) at Houston. But O’Korn isn’t guaranteed the job. Sophomore Wilton Speight is also in the mix and left spring locked into a tight battle with O’Korn for the No. 1 spot.
5. Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State
Connor Cook leaves big shoes to fill in East Lansing, but the Spartans have two capable candidates vying for the starting nod. O’Connor gets the advantage over Damion Terry as the starter and enters 2016 with 54 career pass attempts. The Ohio native received the most-extensive playing time in his career last fall, starting for an injured Connor Cook against Ohio State, leading the Spartans to a 17-14 upset victory. While O’Connor is largely unproven, the limited sample size is promising, and it’s safe to assume coach Mark Dantonio will prevent the passing game from suffering too much of a drop in production this year.
4. Wes Lunt, Illinois
Is this the year Lunt puts everything together and ranks as one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks? The senior has experienced his share of bad luck over the last two seasons with coaching changes and injuries, while top receiver Mike Dudek will miss his second consecutive year with a knee injury. After transferring from Oklahoma State, Lunt settled in as Illinois’ starter in 2014 and threw for 1,763 yards and 14 scores in eight appearances. He started all 12 games for the Fighting Illini last year and threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns. New coordinator Garrick McGee should help this offense take a step forward in 2016, allowing Lunt to end his career in Champaign on a high note.
3. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska
Another offseason to learn under coordinator Danny Langsdorf and coach Mike Riley should pay dividends for Armstrong. The Texas native ranked second among Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 285.8 total yards per game in 2015 and accounted for 29 overall scores. However, Armstrong’s biggest trouble spot was turnovers. He tossed 16 picks on 402 attempts and completed only 55.2 percent of his passes. Expect Armstrong to cut his mistakes and become a better overall player for the Cornhuskers in 2016.
2. C.J. Beathard, Iowa
Beathard’s emergence was a big reason why Iowa won the Big Ten’s West Division and nearly earned a spot in the College Football Playoff in 2015. In 14 appearances last year, Beathard threw for 2,809 yards and 17 scores and added 237 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. With Beathard at the helm, the Hawkeyes increased their plays of 40 yards or more from 12 in 2014 to 17 last fall. Beathard battled injuries last year but never missed a start and ranked third among Big Ten quarterbacks with a 61.6 completion percentage.
1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
After splitting time with Cardale Jones in 2015, Barrett is back as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Buckeyes. And now that Barrett is a full year removed from the leg injury that ended his 2014 campaign early, the junior is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks once again. As a redshirt freshman in 2014, Barrett accounted for 3,772 yards and 45 overall scores and finished fifth in the Heisman voting.