Predicting the Starting QBs: Big 10
2020: Williams, Brandon Peters, Matt Robinson, Coran Taylor
The 2020 Illini football team did something it hadn’t done since 1975: start four different quarterbacks in the first four games of the season. It is pretty rare for a team to start three quarterbacks in a season, and Illinois was able to pass this number in just four games. Moving into 2021, the competition is between Brandon Peters and Isaiah Williams. Peters arrived on campus in 2019 as a graduate transfer from Michigan and led the Illini to their first bowl game appearance since 2014. In 2020, Peters led the team with 429 passing yards. He was tied for second with three touchdowns and threw no interceptions. Heading into his sixth season, Peters brings experience and familiarity to an Illini offense that could use it. On the other side is Williams, a redshirt freshman who was the Illini’s highest ranked quarterback signee since 2006. In 2020, he threw for nearly 400 yards and led the team with four touchdown passes. He also added nearly 400 yards and one touchdown while running the football. New head coach Bret Bielema has two solid options at quarterback, but Williams has the edge. With his strong running ability, decent arm and four years left of eligibility, Bielema and the Illini should hand the keys of the offense over to Williams and let him continue to develop and lead for the next few seasons.
Michael Penix Jr.
2020: Penix Jr., Jack Tuttle
Similar to the Miami Hurricanes, the Indiana's starting 2021 quarterback is unclear at the moment due to an ACL injury. 2020 starter Michael Penix Jr. was outstanding for an Indiana team who surprised many people. Penix Jr. had just over 1,600 yards passing with 14 touchdowns against only four interceptions in six starts. His best performance came in the near-upset win over Ohio State, where he threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns. That was Indiana’s first loss of the season, which put them at 4-1 on the season. All was looking bright until his season ended against Maryland due to a torn ACL, his second ACL injury while at Indiana. Jack Tuttle, his replacement, proved he is fully capable to lead the Hoosier offense. In two starts and three total appearances, Tuttle completed over 50 percent of his passes and threw for 362 yards and two touchdowns. Both of these touchdowns came on the road in the win against Wisconsin. In the bowl game against Ole Miss, Tuttle did suffer a separated shoulder on his throwing arm, but he fought through it and played well. Tuttle is a good backup option, but Penix Jr. will be the 2021 starter when he fully recovers.
Junior quarterback Spencer Petras returns to Iowa and looks to lead the Hawkeyes offense for the second year in a row. However, the job is not guaranteed. Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe recently announced that Iowa will be holding an open competition for the quarterback spot. Petras will be competing with Alex Padilla, a member of the 2019 recruiting class, and Deuce Hogan, a redshirt freshman. However, by the time September rolls around, Petras will be the man under center for the Hawkeyes, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t stay that way. In a shortened 2020 season, Petras threw for over 1,500 yards with nine touchdowns against five interceptions. The numbers aren’t eye-opening, but Petras showed great improvement at the end of last season. In wins over Illinois and Wisconsin at the end of the season, Petras threw for a combined 331 yards and five touchdowns with zero interceptions. With a combination of a strong end to the season, a season of experience and a full offseason, Petras will be the starter for the Gophers to start the season, but Padilla, who has a lot of hype and talent, is not too far behind him.
2020: Tagovailoa, Lance LeGendre (Transfer)
It's the first game of the season, and the offense walks out on to the field. Commanding the huddle is the quarterback, whose name on the back of the jersey reads “Tagovailoa.” Taulia, Tua’s younger brother, looks to make his own mark in college football. After spending his freshman season in Tuscaloosa behind his brother, Tagovailoa found his way to College Park, Maryland by way of the transfer portal before the 2020 season. He became the starter for the Terps following a competition with Lance LeGendre, a 2019 four-star signee. He started the first four games of the season, throwing for just over 1000 yards, seven touchdowns, and seven interceptions. He missed the fifth game against Rutgers due to a positive COVID-19 test. The sixth and final game was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. LeGendre, who started in Tagovailoa’s place, transferred to Lousiana-Lafayette this offseason, paving the way for Tagovailoa to remain the starter going into 2021. Don’t expect him to be like his brother, who won a national championship and is now an NFL starter, but he doesn’t have to be. Throwing for a thousand yards and seven touchdowns in only four games is not bad by any standards, but he does need to improve on throwing less interceptions. He also loses a vast amount of help. Marcus Minor and Johnny Jordan, two starters on the offensive line, are leaving as graduate transfers. Former starting running back Jake Funk was drafted by the Rams in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft. Tagovailoa has a lot of upside and positives to his game. Maryland also only has one other scholarship quarterback on the roster with Reece Udinski, a transfer from Virginia Military Institute. With experience, talent and need, Tagovailoa is the clear starter heading into 2021 for the Terps.
2020: Joe Milton (Transfer), McNamara
Michigan’s 2020 season was underwhelming to say the least, a common thing throughout the six years of Jim Harbaugh era. After two years of Shea Patterson at the helm, the Wolverines opened up a three-man competition for the 2020 season between Joe Milton (Jr.), Cade McNamara (So.), and Dylan McCaffrey (Sr.). McCaffrey opted out, and Milton won the job, but did not live up to expectations after only throwing for 1,077 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. McNamara, on the other hand, showed great potential throwing for 435 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. 2021, unlike the previous year, sees a clear-cut picture of who the starter will be. With Milton transferring to Tennessee and McCaffrey transferring to Northern Colorado, McNamara will be the starter for the 2021 season. A lot is on the plate for McNamara and Harbaugh as Michigan fans are growing impatient, especially after the disappointing 2020 season that saw the Wolverines go 2-4. With mounting pressure from the fanbase, as well as five-star freshman JJ McCarthy enrolling, it is crucial for McNamara to have success this season.
2020: Payton Thorne, Rocky Lombardi (Transfer)
In Mel Tucker’s first year as the Head Coach, the Spartans struggled to find success during the shortened 2020 season. To put it bluntly, the offense was abysmal. The Spartan offense put up just 18.0 points per game, threw for under seven yards per attempt and rushed for just over three yards per attempt by a running back. Quarterback-wise, time was split between Payton Thorne and Rocky Lombardi. Lombardi, who transferred to Northern Illinois this past offseason, struggled to find consistent success. He had over 1,000 yards passing, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. Five of these interceptions came in the Iowa and Indiana games, which they were outscored a combined 73-7. Thorne took over for the final two games and finished the season with nearly 600 yards passing, three touchdowns and three interceptions during his freshman season. Thorne does need some slack cut due to the weirdness of 2020 and his first start being against Ohio State, but 2020 did show that he isn’t quite ready to lead the offense just yet. Sometimes it is best for a team to have a new face lead the offense, and this is the case for Michigan State. For the Spartans, that face is Anthony Russo, who recently transferred from Temple and is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. In three years at Temple, Russo threw for over 6,200 yards, had 44 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. Standing at 6 feet 4 inches, Russo has the size, talent and experience that the Spartans need. That being said, do not expect the Spartans to compete for a Big Ten championship or even for their division in 2021, but do expect them to see improvement from their previous 2-5 record and a bowl game appearance in this upcoming season.
The Gophers look to continue to row the boat in Tanner Morgan’s third year at the helm of the offense. After a breakout year in 2019 that saw him throw for over 3,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while finishing with an 11-2 record, Morgan and the Gophers were one of the many teams who saw a dip in production during the 2020 season. Without a full offseason to develop and a new offensive coordinator, Morgan threw for a little over 1,300 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions while Minnesota went 3-4. However, Morgan has a lot of talent and experience on his side. Year three will determine just how legit he is. He does lose wide receiver Rashod Bateman to the NFL, but gets Chris Autman-Bell back, who caught 22 passes for 430 yards with one touchdown in 2020. The start of the season won’t be easy either as the Gophers host reigning Big Ten champion and the national runner-up Ohio State in the first game, but the rest of the schedule is manageable for Morgan to have a 2019-like season. Again, 2021 will show just how legit of a quarterback and NFL prospect he is.
2020: Martinez, Luke McCaffrey (Transfer)
The best way to describe Nebraska football at the moment is a mess. After hiring Scott Frost before the 2018 season, hopes were high. However, the Cornhuskers have yet to win more than five games in each of his three seasons at the helm. However, one of the small bright spots has been and consistent pieces of the Cornhuskers team is quarterback Adrian Martinez, who returns for his fourth season as the starter. The dual-threat quarterback hasn’t put up the most eye-popping numbers passing. His best season was his true freshman season, where he threw for 2,617 yards and 17 touchdowns against eight interceptions. The numbers have dipped in each season. In 2020, he threw for a little over 1,000 yards and only four touchdowns in seven games. However, he has had consistent success running the ball with at least 500 yards rushing yards and seven touchdowns in the past three seasons. As far as the other quarterbacks, Luke McCaffrey, who started two games in 2020, transferred. Behind Martinez on the roster is Logan Smothers, a redshirt freshman, and Heinrich Haarberg, an early-enrollee freshmen. Needless to say, for a Nebraska team looking for some consistency as well as his experience, there is no reason why Martinez would not be the starter going into 2021, but keep an eye on Nebraska if they make a switch should they continue to struggle as much as they have the past few seasons.
2020: Peyton Ramsey (NFL)
In one of the biggest turnarounds, the Northwestern Wildcats made a quick jump into the top-ten in 2020 after going 3-9 in 2019. This turnaround can largely be attributed to the outstanding performance by quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who threw for over 1,700 yards and had 12 touchdown passes in nine games after transferring from Indiana. To put it this way, in 12 total games in 2019, three Northwestern quarterbacks combined for over 1,300 yards passing and only six touchdowns against 15 interceptions. However, Ramsey left for the NFL, where he went undrafted and had workouts with the Bengals and Panthers. Moving into 2021, the clear option for Ramsey’s replacement is former South Carolina starter Ryan Hilinski. The primary starter for the Gamecocks in 2019, the then-true freshman threw for over 2,300 yards and had 11 touchdowns against five interceptions. It looked like Hilinksi was ready for a big jump in 2020, but after the loss of a true offseason due to COVID, Collin Hill’s transfer from Colorado State to South Carolina and the eventual emergence of Luke Doty, Hilinski found himself as the odd man out. Hilinski entered the transfer portal in December and committed to Northwestern the following January. Already proven to be capable of making an impact as well as having a full offseason to develop, Hilinski gives Northwestern a great opportunity to build off of its seven-win 2020 season.
2020: Justin Fields (NFL)
Out of all starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten entering the 2021 season, C.J. Stroud has arguably the biggest shoes to fill. Previous starter Justin Fields is off to Chicago, which opened up a competition between the redshirt freshman Stroud, fellow redshirt freshman Jack Miller, and five-star true freshman Kyle McCord. There is a lot of young talent in the quarterback room as both Stroud and Miller were four-stars in the 2020 recruiting class, and Miller was the third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2021 class. On paper, there is no single standout, but Ohio State’s spring season showed that the job is Stroud’s to lose. After taking most of the first-team reps in spring practices, Stroud went 16 for 22 with 185 yards and two touchdowns during the spring game. As for the others, McCord played just as well throwing for 184 yards and two touchdowns on 12 completions, and Miller went 17 for 30 with 128 yards and one interception. However, with the hype and first-team reps given to him, all signs point to Stroud to be the next starter for the Buckeyes, who look to win their fifth-straight Big Ten championship and make their third straight playoff appearance.
2020: Clifford, Will Levis (Transfer)
The late-2010s Penn State were near the top of the college football world with star running back Saquon Barkley, now with the New York Giants and appropriately nicknamed “SaQuad,”and star quarterback Trace McSorely, just a kid from Briar Woods who wore number nine. However, the hype and performance on the field by the Nittany Lions has not been as good since then. After an 11-2 season in 2019 that saw Clifford throw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns against seven interceptions, the 2020 season was wildly inconsistent for Nittany Lions. Clifford threw for nearly 1,900 yards and 16 touchdowns, which was the big positive. The negative? Clifford threw nine interceptions in a shortened season, while Penn State went 4-5. The record is not as scary as it looks. Penn State started the season 0-4 before Clifford was benched in favor of Will Levis for the Iowa game. The result wasn’t any better as Levis himself was benched in favor of Clifford during the blowout loss. However, the tide changed quickly for the Nittany Lions. They went 4-0 to finish the season with Clifford back in the starting spot. Moving to 2021, Levis transferred to Kentucky, paving the way for Clifford to stay as the starter. Overall, 2020 was a wild and inconsistent season for Clifford and Penn State as a whole. Likewise to Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, the 2021 season will show just how legit Clifford is as a quarterback and a NFL prospect.
2020: Aiden O’Connell, Jack Plummer
The Boilermakers were one of a plethora of teams who had a lackluster 2020 season. After going 2-4, there were a multitude of reasons for Purdue’s struggles, but the quarterback position was not one of them. Rising third-years Aiden O’Connell and Jack Plummer have split time as the starter over the last two seasons, and both have very similar numbers. In two years, O’Connell has thrown for over 2,000 yards, 15 touchdowns and only six interceptions. As for Plummer, he has thrown for over 2,500 yards, 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Specifically in 2020, Plummer had slightly better numbers throwing for 22 more yards and one more touchdown than O’Connell. Although both are capable to lead an offense, Purdue should make a change at the position going into 2021. UCLA transfer Austin Burton is that change. Although he is unproven as he has never started a game, he has a lot of talent on his side that gives him an edge over the other two. With a decent running ability and getting to work with Jeff Brohm to improve his passing attack, Burton has a certain wildcard talent that Purdue should take a chance on going into the 2021 season.
2020: Art Sitkowski (Transfer), Noah Vedral
After winning their first conference game since 2017, Rutgers saw a lot of improvement for a team that has been known and ridiculed for their vast struggles. 2020 was the first year with new coach Greg Schiano at the helm. Although they went 3-6, those three wins were the most since 2017, where they had four total, and also the most conference wins since 2017, where they had three total. A lot of this success can be contributed to the emergence of Noah Vedral at quarterback. He had over 1,200 yards passing with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. His passing yards touchdowns were the most by a Rutgers quarterback since 2015. There is a minor injury concern with Vedral. An ankle injury forced him to miss the season-finale against Nebraska, but he is recovering well and should be 100 percent by the time the season starts. Along with this, longtime starter Artur Sitkowski announced he was transferring to Illinois, and the Scarlet Knights return its top-three receivers and leading rusher from 2020. Needless to say, there is no reason that Vedral is not the starter and doesn't improve in 2021. With success and experience to build off of from the last season, a return of production and a full offseason to improve, Rutgers has a great opportunity to make a bowl game, something they haven’t done since 2014, but the key to this is how well Vedral plays.
Graham Mertz, like the Badger’s 2020 season, had an individually inconsistent 2020 season, but slack must be given. Mertz, who was a redshirt freshman last season, was thrust into the starting position after 2019 starter Jack Coan, recently transferred to Notre Dame, suffered a season-ending foot injury in preseason camp. Mertz, a four-star recruit in the class of 2019, had a tremendous start to the 2020 season with a 45-7 win over Illinois, during which he went 20 for 21 and had 248 yards and five touchdowns. He followed that game up with a two-touchdown performance the next week in a blowout win against Michigan. The rest of the season, however, was forgettable. Wisconsin lost three-straight games, and Mertz threw five interceptions against only one touchdown. After finishing the regular season 3-3, Wisconsin defeated Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, where Mertz threw for 130 yards, had two touchdowns and broke the trophy during a locker room celebration. 2020 did no favors for Mertz as he wasn’t even supposed to start, and then the coronavirus pandemic shortened the season. However, Mertz showed quite a few bright spots, and with a true offseason and experience from last season, Mertz should improve and be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference.