The Big Ten isn’t particularly deep at quarterback this season, but there’s plenty to like at the top.
Ohio State’s Braxton Miller takes the No. 1 spot in the quarterback rankings, and the senior is expected to be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2014. Miller threw for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores in 12 games. The Buckeyes will feature a deep group of receivers and running backs to help Miller, but the departure of four starters on the line is a concern for coach Urban Meyer.
After Miller, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg and Michigan State’s Connor Cook take the next two spots. Hackenberg was outstanding as a freshman in 2013, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 scores. He also completed 58.9 percent of his throws and should thrive under new coach James Franklin. The Spartans entered last season with uncertainty under center, but Cook eventually claimed the top spot over Andrew Maxwell. Cook threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan State’s Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.
Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld/Tre Roberson are other intriguing names to watch in 2014. Gardner has a new coordinator (Doug Nussmeier), but for the Wolverines’ passing game to take a step forward, the offensive line has to develop after struggling in 2014.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the rankings that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Ranking the Big Ten's Starting Quarterbacks for 2014
1. Braxton Miller, Ohio State (SR)
There is no doubt about Miller’s overall talent. He is explosive, versatile, accurate, tough and always seems to make the big play when Ohio State has needed one. The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year enters his final season with eyes on finally winning a conference title after going 24-0 as a starter in the regular season the last two years. Miller has thrown for 5,292 yards, rushed for 3,054 yards and scored 84 total touchdowns (52 pass, 32 rush) in 36 career games. He needs to prove he can stay healthy, as Ohio State is a national title contender with No. 5 under center. But without him, the Buckeyes wouldn't be the favorite to win the division.
2. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (SO)
From a pure NFL talent perspective, only Jameis Winston is in the same category as Hackenberg. As a true freshman, he set all types of Penn State passing records and will only continue to get better as his career progresses. The Virginia native lost QB guru Bill O'Brien and star safety blanket Allen Robinson at receiver, but gained uber-coach James Franklin and has an elite collection of tight ends and running backs at his disposal. The offensive line will be a concern, but Hackenberg should easily improve on his freshman statline of 2,955 yards, 20 TDs, 10 INTs.
3. Connor Cook, Michigan State (JR)
Michigan State opened last season with major question marks under center, as Andrew Maxwell entered his second year as the tentative starter. By the third week of the season, Cook had wrestled the starting job from all other contenders by throwing four touchdowns and 202 yards in an easy win over Youngstown State. Cook lost only once in his first year as Michigan State’s No. 1 quarterback and finished with a sterling 2,755-yard, 22-TD, 6-INT statline. And he saved his best for the biggest stage, throwing for over 300 yards in both the Big Ten Championship game win over Ohio State and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. Cook has the chance to mix the talent of Drew Stanton with the leadership and poise of Kirk Cousins — a scary combination for the rest of the league.
4. Devin Gardner, Michigan (SR)
Gardner is perhaps the toughest quarterback to rank in the Big Ten for 2014. While Gardner didn’t meet the lofty preseason expectations, his numbers in conference play weren’t bad. In eight Big Ten games, Gardner led the conference by averaging 269.9 passing yards per contest. He also threw only three interceptions in Big Ten contests last year. Gardner finished the year on a high note by throwing for 451 yards and four touchdowns against rival Ohio State but missed the bowl game due to injury. While Gardner had his share of struggles, he wasn’t exactly awful. But in order for the Michigan native to take the next step in his development, Gardner needs more help from a struggling supporting cast.
5. Nate Sudfeld (JR)/Tre Roberson (JR), Indiana
Normally, only one name is supposed to be listed here, but Kevin Wilson has talked openly about using a two-quarterback system. And since the Hoosiers' duo complements each other so well, both make the list. Roberson is the better athlete who can make things happen outside of the pocket with the ball in his hands. Sudfeld is the accomplished pocket passer with better over accuracy and touch. Wilson ran the Big Ten's top passing offense a year ago and the league's No. 2 overall unit, so no one can really doubt what is normally a very questionable strategy under center.
6. C.J. Brown, Maryland (SR)
Heading into 2013, no Terrapin had passed for more than 1,700 yards since 2010. However, that was until Brown finally proved he could stay relatively healthy (he still missed two games). He finished with 2,242 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, making his 135.90 passer rating the highest for a Maryland starter since Chris Turner in 2007. While his arm was better than anticipated, his real value was on the ground as he rushed for 576 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. A repeat of that performance would make him one of the more productive players in the Big Ten in 2014.
7. Jake Rudock, Iowa (JR)
Prior to last season, Rudock had yet to take a snap in a regular season game in an Iowa uniform. However, the Florida native quietly had a solid debut, throwing for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns on 204 completions. Rudock tossed 13 picks but completed 59 percent of his throws and added 218 yards and five scores on the ground. Helping Rudock’s cause in 2014 will be a strong offensive line, three steady options at running back, and the return of No. 1 receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. Rudock won’t post huge numbers in Iowa’s offensive scheme, but the junior is due to improve on the stat sheet in 2014 and could approach 3,000 passing yards.
8. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska (SO)
Armstrong was placed into a difficult role last year, taking over as Nebraska’s starting quarterback after Taylor Martinez was lost for the year due to a foot injury. Despite the lack of experience and difficult circumstances, Armstrong held up relatively well in his first taste of FBS action. The Texas native completed 68 of 131 passes for 966 yards and nine touchdowns. He also added 202 yards and two scores on the ground. With the starting job in hand this offseason, Armstrong will benefit from the opportunity to work with the No. 1 offense in preseason practices. A completion percentage of 51.9 is a potential trouble spot, but Armstrong should be more comfortable in his second year under center. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he will have potential All-Big Ten candidates in receiver Kenny Bell and running back Ameer Abdullah returning in 2014.
9. Joel Stave, Wisconsin (JR)
Stave is coming off a solid 2013 campaign, throwing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns on 208 completions. However, his spot on the top of Wisconsin’s depth chart is far from certain. The junior suffered a shoulder injury in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and was shut down for the final week of spring practice to allow him time to rehab for the fall. But even if Stave returns at full strength, he isn’t guaranteed to take the first snap of the year against LSU. Junior college recruit Tanner McEvoy had a solid spring and is expected to push Stave again in the fall. McEvoy started his career at South Carolina but transferred to Arizona Western College to play in 2012. McEvoy played some snaps at safety last season but is moving back to quarterback. Wisconsin ranked No. 8 last year in the Big Ten (conference-only games) in passing offense, so whether it’s Stave or McEvoy under center, the Badgers need more out of the passing attack. If we knew who the starter was, they would probably rank a little higher on this list.
10. Wes Lunt, Illinois (SO)
The Illinois’ coaching staff won’t hand out the official starter designation until the fall, but all signs point to Lunt as the No. 1 quarterback. In 2012, Lunt threw for 1,108 yards and six touchdowns on 81 completions at Oklahoma State. The Illinois native transferred from Stillwater after 2012 and spent last season as a redshirt for the Fighting Illini. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, Lunt has all of the physical tools necessary to succeed under center. But with less than a season of experience under his belt, Lunt will have a few growing pains at Illinois. However, as a four-star prospect, the future looks bright for Lunt, and with a struggling defense, he could be forced to win plenty of shootouts for the Fighting Illini this year.
11. Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (SR)
Siemian has shared the quarterback duties over the last two years with Kain Colter, but the Florida native is set to assume the No. 1 spot on the depth chart this season. Over the last two years, Siemian has thrown for 3,461 yards and 17 touchdowns and tossed 12 picks. In the season finale against Illinois in 2013, Siemian torched the Fighting Illini defense for 414 yards and four scores. And he also threw for 308 yards against Indiana in 2012. Perhaps dropping the two-quarterback system and allowing Siemian to take all of the snaps will help Northwestern’s offense, especially since he won’t have to look over his shoulder waiting to be removed from the game or wonder when the next snap may happen. Siemian has plenty of talent to work with and should help Northwestern rebound into a bowl in 2014.
12. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota (SO)
With Philip Nelson transferring to Rutgers, Leidner will take control of the Minnesota offense. Although losing a starting quarterback is always a setback, the Golden Gophers’ offense shouldn’t suffer much of a drop in production with Leidner under center. Last season, the Minnesota native completed 43 of 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns. Leidner also added 407 yards and seven scores on the ground last year. Considering coach Jerry Kill’s background at Northern Illinois and how Minnesota used Nelson over the last two years, it’s safe to say Leidner could approach 700 rushing yards this season. But the bigger concerns for coaching staff are improving the passing attack, which averaged only 148.1 yards per game last year. If he develops as a passer, Leidner should move up this list by the end of the season.
13. Danny Etling, Purdue (SO)
The Boilermakers struggled mightily in Darrell Hazell’s first season, finishing 1-11 with its only victory coming against FCS opponent Indiana State. You have to look hard to find bright spots in a one-win season, but Etling was one of the few promising players for Hazell to build around in 2014. The Indiana native finished 2013 with 1,690 yards and 10 touchdowns and completed 55.8 percent of his throws. Etling closed the year on a high note by throwing for 485 yards and four scores against rival Indiana. Although Etling has to make strides as a passer, he also needs more help from his supporting cast. Of the four players that caught at least 25 passes in 2013, only one averaged more than 11.5 yards per catch. The Boilermakers also allowed a whopping 32 sacks in eight Big Ten contests. Etling certainly has upside and should improve with a full offseason to work as the No. 1. However, his upside will be limited until Hazell improves the supporting cast through recruiting or player development.
14. Gary Nova, Rutgers (SR)
Nova threw for fewer yards (2,159), fewer touchdowns (18), a lower completion percentage (54.5%) and nearly as many interceptions (14) in 2013 as he did in 2012 (2,695 yards, 22 TDs, 57.0%, 16 INTs). He was benched for the final three games of 2013 and will need to hold onto the job throughout the offseason if he wants to have the chance to reverse the concerning trend in his production. If he's not going to produce on the ground — Nova has minus-251 career rushing yards and has never had more than minus-44 yards in a season — he has to be excellent through the air. Although the numbers so far are concerning for coach Kyle Flood, the addition of play-caller Ralph Friedgen should help Nova’s development in 2014.