So you've probably noticed it's almost July. Hard not to with the crazy hot weather (we in Minnesota can finally put away our parkas, mitts and "toques" or winter hats. Or did I just jinx it?), thunderstorms, bugs, and a complete lack of sports on right now. I realize we're less than 2 months away from "Fall" practices starting in August, but June always feels like the absolute deadest (a word? Probably not but we'll roll with it) time of the year. To get my football fix I'm watching world football, "The Euro" as the Brits like to call it, on a day off. The atmosphere and intensity reminds me of our beloved college football, but as far as watching the actual games, college football it is not.
So to take my mind off of how long we still have to wait until practices even begin, let's have some arbitrary ranking fun and talk Big Ten QB's shall we? Or as they'd say in Friday Night Lights, "QB1". 2012 promises to be a very interesting season in the B1G if for no other reason than there seems to be so much uncertainty at so many schools at QB1. The past two seasons have seen some incredibly strong play across the league, but we lose three of the best to graduation. Gone are Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, and Dan Persa, easily the three best passing QB's of 2011. Left in their wake is one clear-cut front runner as the best QB in the conference, and 11 other teams with some question marks for their 2012 signal callers.
The Minnesota Gophers have zero questions about who their starter is, as senior MarQueis Gray will take the reigns in his final season in Dinkytown. The former #2 rated dual-threat QB from the class of 2008, "Q" as Coach Kill likes to call him spent his first two seasons "Brewstering" around at receiver, and basically as a dummy-QB. Nothing that would actually help him, you know, develop his marvelous gifts into an excellent Big Ten starting QB. Last year it started to change, albeit slowly as Gray received real, actual coaching from a staff that he knew would be around awhile, and by season's end he was starting to look like a real quarterback.
Because Brew decided not to redshirt him (those runs up the gut once or twice a game were just too valuable to sit him. ****ing Brewster), we'll never see his maximum potential realized because there's just not enough time. Quarterback is a position that needs reps, and Gray's were few and far between before Kill and Co. got on campus. But what's his ceiling as a senior? Could he be one of the three best QB's in the B1G? 5? 7? Coming off back-to-back 3 win seasons that both included wins over Iowa (Floyd says hello to everyone in Hawkeye land. He does not miss you), we're expecting an improvement for 2012. The ceiling is six or seven wins (no USC on the non-con schedule this year), and if that happens, Gray is going to play a huge part. If he does that, then he's in the running for an all-conference QB spot.
But you could say the same for just about every other B1G school, as there's not a lot of experienced QB's this year, but there is plenty of talent. Everybody, well, ok not everybody, but most everybody, has the right to believe their team and their quarterback (or if you're Purdue any one of your three starters) has a chance to be excellent this year. It's anybody's guess how things shake out, but in late June here's my best guess. Let's start at the bottom and work our way up...
12. Indiana- ???
Tall order for the Hoosiers last year, as they not only had to replace a very good QB in Ben Chappell, but they had to do it with a bunch of young kids in a brand new system. IU started three different QB's as Edwin Wright-Baker, Tre Roberson and Dusty Kiel all got looks and were somewhat effective, as the Hoosiers had the fifth most passing yards in the B1G at 199.4 yards per game. They have some work to do on efficiency though as they ranked 10th in the B1G. Wright-Baker was the most effective passer completing 59% of his passes for a QB efficiency of 119 but appeared in just six games while Roberson was a dual threat and gave them best blend of a running and passing threat. IU looked to have their QB problems solved when 5 star recruit Gunner Kiel made a shocking commitment to play in Bloomington with brother Dusty, but he changed his mind a month later switching to LSU...and then changed his mind again switching to Notre Dame. Still, the Hoosiers have three solid and now experienced options, and we'll see who wins the race come September (check out The Crimson Quarry for the latest on the Hoosier QB race).
11. Matt McGloin, Penn State
I'll try to take it easy on the folks at Penn State because of everything happening there, so we'll leave it at this- the good news is your top two QB's from 2011 return. The bad news is your top two QB's from 2011 return. I know what you're thinking- this season will be different! They have Bill O'Brien! He was instrumental in all the success New England's offense had! The man worked with Tom Brady! He'll turn our starters into the next Tom Brady! That's just dandy except for the small fact that everyone who leaves Bill Belichek can't seem to duplicate their success. Or come even remotely close- well unless you count being the head coach at Kansas success. Yeah me neither. Anyway, Josh McDaniels and Charlie Weis ring a bell? The Golden Boy McDaniels left NE to be the Denver Broncos head coach, and lasted barely two years before he was fired, then was the offensive coordinator in St Louis for one lousy season before he returning to New England. The smug and smarmy Weis flamed out at Notre Dame, then as OC in Kansas City, then Florida, and is now the head coach at...Kansas?!? Couldn't happen to a bigger D-bag (both figuratively and literally) and shows, along with guys like Romeo Crennell and Eric Not-A-Mangenius, that whatever worked for you with The Hoody doesn't work when you leave him.
I know the story line is that O'Brien's going to modernize the Nitts offense, but it's not like it was bad with the Spread HD a few years back with a good QB like Daryll Clark running the show. The problem is I don't think Penn State has a good QB ready to go. Rob Bolden was a heralded recruit but has been unable to beat out walk-on Matt "I-Got-Punched-In-the-Face-by-my-receiver" McGloin, who's statistically been one of of the worst QB's in the conference the past two seasons, and is apparently not so popular with the guys he's throwing to. It's not McGloin's fault per se (well the getting punched in the face part is), but he showed little to no improvement from his first to second season as a starter, and with a new offense and without top receiver Derek Moye we're expecting a huge improvement why, again? Really not trying to pile on the NIttany Lions in this difficult time, it just seems like it could be a long year for their passing game.
Ok so these next five could really go in any order. I was going to go with a five-way tie for 6th but that's lame and nobody likes ties.
10. Nate Scheelhaase, Illinois
This time last year I had Scheelhaase pegged as a darkhorse all-conference candidate. Shame on me for forgetting The Zooker was still his coach, as the Illini failed in spectacular fashion losing their final six games including, yes, their second loss in as many seasons to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Scheelhaase had a down year throwing the ball, although he was the team's leading rusher, but with just 624 yards at 3.3 per carry, that's probably not a good thing. 2012 brings a new coach and new hope, but also a brand new offense to learn, and he won't be able to lean on departed 1st round pick AJ Jenkins (not to be confused with Leeroy Jenkins), who had a whopping 90 catches last year (next closest guy had 26. Um yeah). Who knows, maybe Scheelhaase was just a year late in becoming that all-conference dark horse candidate, but I'm saying not.
9. Kain Colter, Northwestern
Colter has impressive potential, and is coming off a solid 2011 season as a part-time starter. He led the team in rushing with 658 yards and 9 scores on 4.9 per carry, and also completed an impressive 67% of his passes for 8 TD's. Of course, he attempted all of 82 passes, so it'll get a little tougher to replicate those numbers as the full-time guy, and he'll have to do without one of the most productive receivers the school has ever had in Jeremy Ebert. NU has a pretty good recent history of quality quarterback play and there's no doubt it will continue with Colter at the helm, but to expect anything close to what Persa did is setting the bar too high. As I do every season- and will every season for the rest of eternity, I'm not expecting much from Northwestern this season because its Northwestern. Not that it's stopped them from usually exceeding those expectations, and Colter is certainly capable of it, but we'll slot him here to start the season.
8. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota
Gray and Colter have pretty similar skill sets as uber-athletes who need to improve on their throwing. I'm putting Gray ahead of Colter 1) because I want to and 2) because he's had a full year as a starter under his belt already. I also see a Year 2 improvement coming that has happened at every place Jerry Kill has been, and with not only Gray's talent but his work-ethic, here's at least hoping he's in for a big year. For me at least, this is a conservative place to start him on the list, but I think- and hope- he'll end up much higher by year's end.
7. Robert Marve or Rob Henry or Caleb Terbush, Purdue
Can you start three quarterbacks at the same time? Are we sure? Because Danny Hope and Purdue would probably like to try. BoilerTMill over at Hammer and Rails will have the inside scoop on who has the inside track to start, but right now it's probably the former wonderboy Marve. Unless it's Terbush who was pretty good last year. But it could also be Rob Henry who had a good season two years ago. Of course, with the injury curse hanging over the Boiler program (and athletic department as a whole. Anyone have a good ACL they can lend Robby Hummel?) there could be two or three other candidates who have to step up when all three of these guys go down with injury again. Maybe instead of three QB's starting at the same time, Coach Hope and his gorgeous stache would just like one healthy starter for an entire season. If that happens, and any of these three guys are fully healed from their maladies, Purdue could be a real sleeper in the B1G East division.
6. Danny O'Brien, WIsconsin
Repeat after me you drunken Sconnies- Danny O'Brien is NOT Russell Wilson. Danny O'Brien is NOT Russell Wilson. DANNY O'BRIEN IS NOT RUSSELL WILSON! Got it? Maybe repeat it a few more times after you sober up, and go over it with your new bff Patty Kane too.
Jon Budymar's Scott Tolzien's 2010 season was perhaps the best ever for a Badger QB. Wilson in 2011 blew that out of the water with not just the best season in Wisconsin history, but one of the best the B1G conference has ever seen, completing almost 73% of his passes for 3175 yards, 33 TD's and just 4 picks. OK so amazing, right? But it seems to have clouded the memories of what we're used to seeing from UW quarterbacks, which is mediocrity and average-ness. Instead of assuming the Badgers will have great quarterbacking from now on because of the past two seasons, I'm more inclined to think those were the exception and not the rule. Sconnie will always have barn-sized linemen and great tailbacks, but that doesn't guarantee great quarterbacking. What also won't help is the loss of Nick Toon, who was the go-to guy during that two year run of quarterbacking greatness. Jared Abbrederis is a fine player and a great story as a walk-on, but I struggle to think all 5'9 of him can be a go-to guy, especially when he's going to receive more attention than ever. So I'm not saying O'Brien and the passing game is going to be awful, it's just not guaranteed to be great. More like average.
5. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska
We know exactly what we're getting here: against mediocre to crappy competition Martinez will lead the Husker offense to a bloodbath against their overmatched opponent. He'll even look somewhat competent arm-puking the ball through the air to his receivers (I need to find a better term, but it seriously looks like his arm is throwing up when he tries to throw. I'd say he throws like a girl but that would be an insult to girls everywhere). But the three or four times this season when the Huskers face a good defense and Martinez and the Huskers can't rely on the running game and he's forced to throw, the results won't be pretty. In their losses to Wisconsin and Michigan he didn't complete more than 50% of his passes or throw for more than 180 yards, and threw just one TD against 3 picks. While they did beat the B1G's best defense in Michigan State, Martinez threw just 13 passes, completing just 7 for 80 yards, so he wasn't exactly a difference maker. The one exception was his incredible comeback against Ohio State where he led the Huskers back from down 27-6 with four consecutive TD's, including 2 TD passes, to win 34-27. In that game he completed a whopping 72% of his passes for 191 yards and those 2 scores while doing his usual damage running the ball with 102 yards and another score at 6 yards per carry. That game incapulates what "T-Magic" is capable of, but we just see it so seldom, especially last year as a second year starter.
His numbers were actually worse almost across the board from his freshman to his sophomore year, and while B1G fans would attribute that to Nebraska seeing better defenses than they faced in the Big 12 (well duh), it's also a bit troubling that he trended the wrong way. Not to say he can't show improvement in 2012, as his talented young receivers gained experience last year and should be better served to help him out, and an always good O-line and 19th year senior Rex Burkhead (was he or was he not on the 1997 national title team? Or in 1994 when they beat Florida? Can we be sure?) will help the Huskers pile up yards and points against most opponents, but I'm not optimistic we're going to see a big improvement from him when it matters most.
4. James Vandenberg, Iowa
Despite a disappointing Hawkeye season that included yet another loss to the Gophers (hey on the bright side they did beat Northwestern for the first time in forever. So they've got that going for them), Vandenberg quietly had a solid season replacing Captain America himself. While he completed only 58% of his passes, he still attempted over 400 passes for 3025 yards and 25 TD's. Losing Marvin McNutt will hurt his prospects for 2012, as will the Hawks inability to keep scholarship running backs on the roster, but Iowa always has a good o-line and even if the running game sucks yet again (dead last in the B1G in 2011) Vandenberg as a senior should still be one of the better QB's in the Big Ten.
3. Andrew Maxwell, Michigan State
Perhaps it's too much to expect Maxwell to fill the shoes of Cousins, who was one of the best quarterbacks ever to play in East Lansing. Perhaps it's too much to expect it to happen without last seasons' two top receivers BJ Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Perhaps. Maxwell was a highly decorated high school recruit out of Midland, Michigan, but unlike, say, MarQueis Gray's path to starting, Maxwell hasn't been "Brewstered" in his three seasons at Michigan State. Instead he's been able to sit and practice and prepare, and can probably run the offense blind folded at this point. He's also got a strong arm and from what you read from everyone around him, a lot of accuracy and confidence. I trust coach Mark Dantonio and see no reason not to think Sparty's offense rolls right along with Maxwell at the helm. I'm not expecting him to duplicate Cousins' impressive numbers from 2011, but I think over 60% completion with at least 2500 yards and 20 TD's is pretty reasonable.
2. Braxton Miller, OSU
So yes, I AM saying that Ohio State, who last year had by far the worst passing offense in the Big Ten, will have the second best QB in 2012. Part of it is, of course, that passing isn't everything in Columbus, and part of it is just how talented Miller is. But the most important piece, and change, is Urban Meyer as the head coach. Yes, despite a less-than-stellar exit at Florida, I believe in Urban this much. When he has a QB that's suited to his spread offense, his offense is spectacular, and wow is Miller ever suited to his offense. Try a picture-perfect fit. He's not the bull of a runner that Tebow was, but he's still an excellent and shifty ball-carrier, and already looks to be more accurate passer than #15 ever was in Urban's offense. Not only that, but this is Ohio State. They ALWAYS have loaded recruiting classes and after last season's debacle, you know these kids are going to be hungry to avenge last season. When you combine one of the best coaches in America with an uber-talented QB perfectly suited for his system AND a ton of talent around him? Yeah I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying Braxton Miller will be one of the best QB's in the Big Ten in 2012.
1. Denard Robinson, Michigan
No surprise here, as Shoelace will be a Heisman candidate for as long as Michigan stays in the conference title chase. Last year's media 2nd team all-conference QB continued to wow people and opponents with his feet, and was pretty good with his arm too. Making the transition from Rich Rod's run-happy spread system to Brady Hoke's more traditional offense, Robinson showed improvements throwing the ball and reading defenses and should only get better with another off-season learning the offense. The B1G's 5th leading rusher may actually run less in 2012, but that should mean less wear and tear on his slight frame, more passing yards, and could make him more dangerous when he decides to tuck it and go. As it stands, he's the clear-cut front runner for best QB in the Big Ten in 2012.