The college football season is still over two months away, which means we are now in the opening stages of the 2021 college football preview season. Magazines are hitting the shelves weekly, prognostications are being made, September Heismans are being forged, and projections are being argued about.
It’s really a wonderful time of year.
I enjoy this time of year, both partaking in the magazines and arguing with people, as well as prognosticating various things about the season and then also arguing about them.
Which brings me to today. Beginning way back in 2011, I began doing an annual series previewing each position group in each Big Ten division. I would rank the quarterback rooms in the Legends and Leaders divisions, then the running backs, then receivers, and so on. At the end of all of these position previews — including a ranking of ease of schedule and the head coach — I then tally up the scores, and the teams in each division with the lowest tallies are my picks for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Over the years, only once have I failed to get at least one team correct. And only twice have I gotten both teams correct, but who’s counting. I did not have time to do one in 2015 and I didn’t do one last year because there were just too many variables — including the possible cancelation of the season. But here’s how my picks have ended up over the years.
[Teams marked with an asterisk (*) played in the Big Ten Championship Game.]
2011: Leaders – Ohio State (Some ratings were done pre-Tressel firing), Legends – Michigan State*
2012: Leaders – Wisconsin*, Legends – Michigan State
2013: Leaders – Ohio State*, Legends – Michigan State*
2014: East – Michigan State, West – Wisconsin*
2015: n/a (Busy writing a book, but rest assured, it would have been Michigan State and Iowa.)
2016: East – Ohio State, West – Iowa
2017: East – Ohio State*, West – Wisconsin*
2018: East – Ohio State*, West – Wisconsin
2019: East – Ohio State*, West – Iowa
2020: n/a (Pandemic.)
(By the way, I’m not sure if two is a trend, but the two times I did not pick Ohio State to win their division they either went undefeated or won a national title. I’ll be interested to see how the tally shakes out this year, but I can’t make any promises.)
So now the time comes to embark on the 2021 edition of my annual Big Ten Ratings. First it will be quarterbacks, then running backs, then pass catchers, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary, special teams, then schedules, and then coaches. The final piece in the series will be a tally of everything and a layout of how every team finished, which then includes my pick for the Big Ten Championship Game (Sat. December 4, 8:00 pm, FOX).
We will begin where everything begins — with the quarterbacks. And we’ll start in the East where Ohio State is the only team that doesn’t return a quarterback with starting experience.
1. Indiana Hoosiers
Last year’s starting quarterback Michael Penix, Jr. tore his ACL on November 28, but is expected to be cleared by the time the Hoosiers open in Iowa City on September 4. Penix led the Big Ten with 274.2 yards passing per game last year, but his .564 completion percentage was only good for 11th in the conference. Penix has spent each of his three offseasons at Indiana rehabbing from an injury. This is the second time in his career he’s torn his right ACL. He may not be ready for camp, which would normally be a disaster, but the Hoosiers have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the Big Ten in Jack Tuttle. Tuttle went 1-1 in starts last year, winning at Wisconsin and losing the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
It seems counter-intuitive to put the Buckeyes this high considering none of their quarterbacks have ever thrown a pass in a college game. But considering it has been nearly a decade since Ohio State didn’t have a difference maker at quarterback, it’s hard to imagine one of CJ Stroud, Jack Miller, or Kyle McCord coming up short. McCord and Stroud are two of the three highest-rated QB recruits in the B1G East. Combine that with what Ohio State has done at quarterback of late and it’s not a stretch to put the Buckeyes at the top of this list. All three got good work in the spring and it won’t surprise anybody when OSU’s eventual starter ends up as the Big Ten’s best quarterback this year.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
Starting quarterback Sean Clifford returns, which means Penn State has experience at the position, but the quality and consistency has been lacking. New quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich should help matters quite a bit, however. Clifford was fine as a redshirt sophomore, throwing for 2,654 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2019. His passer efficiency (148.54) ranked fourth in the Big Ten, but his .592 completion percentage was lower than Adrian Martinez’s of Nebraska. Clifford raised it to .606 last year, but threw nine interceptions in nine games. Behind him is redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson who has played in just two games.
4. Michigan Wolverines
Redshirt sophomore Cade McNamara was the most-experienced quarterback in the spring. He played in four games last year, starting once (the 27-17 loss to Penn State). He completed 43 of 71 passes last year for 425 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. Five-star quarterback JJ McCarthy enrolled early and competed for the job in the spring. The feeling is that he’ll eventually start at some point this year. That is also the case for Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman, who arrives this summer. Bowman has 16 career starts and has thrown for 5,260 yards and 33 touchdowns with 17 interceptions as a Red Raider. First-time quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss hasn’t worked with QBs since 2017.
5. Maryland Terrapins
The most polite way to describe Maryland’s quarterback situation since the Terrapins have joined the Big Ten is to simply change the subject and mention the weather. However, the weather may be changing thanks to redshirt sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa, who threw for 1,011 yards in four games last year with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He started all four of those games before missing the season finale against Rutgers due to a positive COVID test. He had his ups and downs, but when you go weeks at a time between games, that tends to happen. Tagovailoa needs to stay healthy because if he doesn’t, the Terps will struggle. Being a Maryland QB, however, means he will likely miss games.
6. Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State has two quarterbacks with starting experience. Of course, that starting experience features one start by Payton Thorne as a redshirt freshman last year, and 24 career starts by graduate transfer Anthony Russo. All of Russo’s starts came at Temple. Russo started three games last year and threw six interceptions before injuring his shoulder and missing the rest of the season. Russo threw for 2,563 yards as a redshirt sophomore and 2,861 yards as a redshirt junior. He has 44 career touchdowns and 32 career interceptions in 31 games played. Thorne left the spring as the presumed leader based on media reports, but Russo believes he can eventually overtake the redshirt sophomore.
7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Two years ago, quarterback Johnny Langan started eight games. Today, he’s a short-yardage quarterback they are hoping to develop into a better thrower in those situations. He’s not even necessarily vying for the backup quarterback job behind incumbent Noah Vedral, which is a sign of the increased overall talent at Rutgers. For Vedral, he started seven of Rutgers’ nine games last year, missing two due to injury. He completed 61.5% of his passes for 1,253 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s also a running threat, gaining at least 35 yards in five of his seven starts before sacks took both him and his rushing numbers back down to earth. Vedral can make plays, he just needs to add some consistency.
[Cade McNamara header photo courtesy of MGoBlue.com.]