It goes without saying that you need a good quarterback in order to be a successful college football team. While it may not wholly determine a team’s success each season if they have a quality signal-caller behind center, one doesn’t become a consistent winner without a quarterback making all the throws and executing the right decisions on offense.
That’s why the position is so important across college football and a big reason why each quarterback matchup is highlighted on the schedule each week of the season. Heading into 2017, a strong group of returning starters and a handful of big-time transfers across the country make for some extremely enticing meetings that are worth circling on the calendar. We made life a little easy on you and did just that for most major conferences so you know just what to watch for when teams hit the field this year.
Few conferences can boast of the depth at the position quite like the Big Ten can so here are the top 10 quarterback matchups involving the conference’s teams for 2017:
1. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) – Sept. 9 (Columbus, Ohio)
It goes without saying that this rematch from last year will be one of the early games of the season and will likely come up prominently when discussing who’s in the College Football Playoff later in the season. Barrett got the better of the matchup when he threw for four touchdowns and ran for 74 yards in 2016, but don’t discount Mayfield, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, stealing the show in Columbus for this year’s meeting.
2. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) – Oct. 28 (Columbus, Ohio)
McSorley came out of nowhere last season to lead the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title and is no doubt set on keeping the team on the top of the conference standings in 2017. While last year’s meeting between the two teams was thrilling, it wasn’t exactly a showcase for either signal-caller. With all eyes on the pair this time around, something says that kind of repeat performance won’t be the case when two of the Big Ten’s best battle it out at the Horseshoe.
3. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Oct. 21 (University Park, Pa.)
The offensive systems of Michigan and Penn State are an interesting study in contrasts but both need a good quarterback who can make all the throws in order to operate effectively. In McSorley and Speight, each team has a signal-caller who can do just that, which makes this a fascinating matchup in one of the Big Ten’s best games on the conference slate.
4. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Nov. 25 (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
The annual rivalry game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines is always a must-watch no matter what part of the country you’re from and last year’s double-overtime thriller certainly showcased why. That hard-fought battle between two great defenses didn’t leave a ton of room for these two quarterbacks to show what they can do but this season’s edition could very well be a major exhibit for the two veterans in yet another must-see matchup.
5. David Blough (Purdue) vs. Lamar Jackson (Louisville) – Sept. 2 (Indianapolis)
This opener in Indianapolis probably gets overlooked by most in that compelling slate of Week 1 games but discount it at your peril because of the intriguing quarterback battle and numerous storylines involved. On one side lies Jackson trying to top last year’s Heisman Trophy-winning effort. On the other lies Blough, who put up some quality numbers despite being on a bad team in 2016 and should benefit immensely from the tutelage of new head coach (and former Louisville star) Jeff Brohm and his offensive system.
6. Alex Hornibrook (Wisconsin) vs. BYU (Tanner Mangum) – Sept. 16 (Provo, Utah)
Hornibrook played a key role in the Badgers’ march to the Cotton Bowl a season ago and should be primed to make a big leap as a redshirt sophomore and full-time starter this year. He’ll travel west to take on BYU and a similarly big-armed quarterback in Mangum who always has his team in the game right down to the final few seconds.
7. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. Clayton Thorson (Northwestern) – Oct. 7 (Evanston, Ill.)
McSorley blossomed into one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks last season as the Nittany Lions rode his hot streak to the conference title. While he’s set to be even better after an offseason of work, the same could be said of his opposite number on the Wildcats in Thorson, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and had 22 touchdowns to propel the Northwestern offense. You might overlook both if you were to run into them on the street but you won’t when they meet on the gridiron in 2017.
8. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. Max Browne (Pitt) – Sept. 9 (University Park, Pa.)
The return of this rivalry series to Beaver Stadium should be absolutely electric for those in the state of Pennsylvania and McSorley will no doubt be looking to make up for his late interception that stopped a thrilling fourth-quarter rally in a close loss to the Panthers last year. He’ll be battling a new face on the opposite sideline for this year’s matchup, as Browne, the former five-star recruit and ex-USC starter, likely takes over at Pitt and will be looking to leave an early impression with his new team.
9. Tanner Lee (Nebraska) vs. Justin Herbert (Oregon) – Sept. 9 (Eugene, Ore.)
Mike Riley returns to Eugene for the first time in years since leaving rival Oregon State but this time he’ll be doing so in very different colors as the head coach of Nebraska. What will be familiar to Ducks fans is him bringing with him a strong-armed quarterback in presumed starter Lee. The Tulane transfer should provide a much-needed shot in the arm for the Cornhuskers’ passing game and presents a juicy matchup with the talented Herbert, who is transitioning himself to a new offensive scheme under a new coaching staff.
10. Clayton Thorson (Northwestern) vs. Tanner Lee (Nebraska) – Nov. 4 (Lincoln, Neb.)
Maybe not the juiciest two names on this slate but in terms of being intriguing quarterback talents, but Northwestern’s early November trip to Lincoln certainly qualifies. Thorson turned a lot of heads as the Wildcats’ young starter and he could battle Lee as a contender to move up into the next echelon of Big Ten signal-callers.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.