Every Big Ten West team returns quarterbacks with starting experience, though Northwestern’s likely starting quarterback hasn’t started a game since 2019 (and he did it at South Carolina).
There are realistically five different teams that could end up No. 1 on this list by the end of the season. And honestly, all five have an argument to be listed No. 1 right now. One day I will amend the rules to have ties, but until that day, there must be a one-through-seven.
Each of the teams in the West has flaws at quarterback, but there is also some potential. None of these quarterback rooms have flash, but there is plenty of substance.
1. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Tanner Morgan is back for his fourth year as the Gophers’ starting quarterback. Of course, in two of those years he started a combined 13 games, which is also the same number he started in 2019 alone. That’s the year he was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection. As a redshirt freshman, he started the final six games of the year, leading Minnesota to a 4-2 record. He is 18-8 as a starter with three of the eight losses by four points or less — with two of those being in overtime. Last year’s underwhelming stats are difficult to put much stock into given the pandemic, but in 2019 he was nearly fantastic, throwing for 3,253 yards with 30 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Zack Annexstad is still around. He was actually the starter before Morgan came into power.
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
Starter Spencer Petras returns at quarterback for the Hawkeyes. Last year was his first extensive action, starting all eight games for Iowa. He threw for 196 yards per game, completing 57.1% of his passes. Petras threw nine touchdowns and five interceptions. Not surprisingly, he played better as he gained more experience. After throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions in his first four games (and leading Iowa to a 2-2 record), he threw just one more interception over Iowa’s last four games, which were all wins. His four best games were arguably his last four, which is good news moving forward. Behind him are a pair of guys who may be sitting for a couple of years as Petras rounds into a very good QB.
3. Wisconsin Badgers
Graham Mertz had one of the great starting debuts in college football history last year, completing 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns against Illinois. The next week he threw two more touchdowns against Michigan. Over the next five games, however, he threw just one touchdown and completed more than 60% of his passes in a game just once. Head coach Paul Chryst has taken over playcalling this year after giving it up last year. This should help Mertz emerge as one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks. This is his third year on campus and expectations are as high as they’ve ever been for a Badger quarterback. Chase Wolf is the likely backup and is the kind of quarterback Wisconsin typically starts.
4. Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue has started multiple quarterbacks in each of Jeff Brohm’s first four years. There is no reason to expect that to change this year. The good news is that he has two experienced starters returning in Aidan O’Connell and Jack Plummer. O’Connell won the job last year but had his season shut down due to a foot injury after three games. Purdue went 2-1 in those games. Plummer came in for the final three starts and the Boilers went 0-3. All four of their losses were one-score games in the fourth quarter. O’Connell (916 yds passing, 7 TDs, 2 INTs) and Plummer (938 yds passing, 8 TDs, 2 INTs) produced almost identical numbers. There are a couple of other options as well, but everything here starts with the two vets.
5. Nebraska Cornhuskers
The Huskers have Adrian Martinez returning for his fourth year as the starter. Last year may have been his best, and not coincidentally it was also the least he was asked to throw the ball. It wasn’t much of a departure from 2019 in terms of attempts (25 to 24.5), but he raised his completion percentage from 59.4 to a career-high 71.5. Had he played a full season last year, he was on pace to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000. Reports in the spring were positive, but doubts will linger outside of Lincoln. Behind him there is talent in Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, but no experience. Smothers is a redshirt freshman with athleticism who fits what head coach Scott Frost likes to do on offense.
6. Northwestern Wildcats
For the third year in a row, Pat Fitgerald’s Wildcats are going to be relying on a transfer quarterback. It didn’t work well in 2019 with Hunter Johnson, but went much better last year with Peyton Ramsey. The guy this year is former South Carolina QB Ryan Hilinski, and the hope is that his impact is much more Ramsey than Johnson. Hilinski started 11 games as a true freshman in 2019, throwing for 2,357 yards with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. It was a performance that not a lot of true freshman could have pulled off. He lost the job in camp the following year, however. He has experience and he was on campus for spring ball. Johnson returns as well, but he needs to be much better than he was in 2019.
7. Illinois Fighting Illini
Things got a little less crowded in Bret Bielema’s quarterback room when Illinois moved Isaiah Williams to receiver. They got a little more crowded when Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski transferred in. Former Michigan transfer Brandon Peters is the incumbent, again. He has 16 starts the last two years at Illinois, including four wins in a row in 2019. Of course, he went 3-for-6 passing in one of those games, so let’s keep things in perspective here. Peters started five games last year, throwing for 429 yards while completing 48.8% of his passes. This means that Sitkowski could eventually take the job. He has 15 career starts, including two last year, but has 20 career interceptions and just eight touchdowns.
[Tanner Morgan header photo courtesy of gophersports.com.]
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Quarterbacks – East |