Ranking Big Ten QB situations: Michigan State and Michigan football have question marks

Rainer Sabin
Detroit Free Press

The quarterbacks leading Big Ten offenses into the 2021 season include promising young talents, familiar names who have yet to maximize their potential and accomplished starters aiming to rebound from disappointment.

But it’s unclear whether a Heisman contender can be found among this crew. The departure of Ohio State’s Justin Fields has left the conference without a star at the sport’s most valuable position, although Indiana’s Michael Penix may make that claim if he’s able to stay healthy and recapture the magic of 2020. 

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14. Illinois

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters passes as Michigan State defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk (72) pursues during the second half Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

The relaunch of Bret Bielema’s Big Ten career should begin with an experienced starter as the triggerman of his offense. Former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters is back and well-suited to run the pro-style offense Bielema has long favored.

Peters’ backup last season, Isaiah Williams, recently moved to receiver and he could help fill the void left by Josh Imatorbhebhe. But whether Peters will have enough firepower around him is a question, after the Illini averaged 20.1 points per game, second-lowest in the conference.

13. Michigan State

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne  leaves the field after the spring game Saturday, April 24, 2021 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

The Rocky Lombardi era ended soon after it began. Coach Mel Tucker will turn to a new starter in his second season. The question is whether it will be Temple transfer Anthony Russo or redshirt sophomore Payton Thorne. Russo has the most experience, but Thorne has more athleticism and seems to have a higher trajectory. Thorne also performed better in the final spring practice open to the public.

The question of whether Michigan State has a stable option at quarterback won’t be answered until the games begin.

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12. Northwestern

For the second consecutive year, coach Pat Fitzgerald reached into the transfer portal and pulled out a potential starting quarterback. He grabbed former Indiana starter Peyton Ramsey last year. This year, Fitzgerald snagged Ryan Hilinski, who directed South Carolina’s offense in 11 games as a freshman in 2019.

But Hilinski isn’t guaranteed to be Ramsey’s successor. He will compete with former Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson, once a five-star recruit in high school. This could be Johnson's last shot to make something of his college career.

11. Iowa

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras.

After Iowa won its final six games and thumped Wisconsin in its finale, the general feeling in corn country was the Hawkeyes could be contenders in the Big Ten if they can muster good quarterback play consistently. But skepticism remains after Spencer Petras’ erratic performance in 2020. In five games last season, his completion rate dipped below 60%.

Despite his struggles with accuracy, Petras is expected to remain the starter, and the Hawkeyes will see how far he can take them in 2021.

10. Rutgers

Rutgers Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral carries the ball as Michigan Wolverines defensive back Brad Hawkins tackles during the first half Nov. 21, 2020 in Piscataway, N.J.

For the first time in years, the quarterback carousel in Piscataway won’t spin this season. Yes, Rutgers will trot out the same starter, Noah Vedral, it did last season. The former Nebraska transfer was far from spectacular in 2020. But he was solid, leading the Scarlet Knights to a pair of wins and pushing Michigan to the brink in a three-overtime shootout.

Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson helped maximize Vedral’s best traits, and with the partnership continuing for another season, the Scarlet Knights may take another step this fall.

9. Michigan

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara makes a pass against Penn State during the second half of Michigan's 27-17 loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020.

Coach Jim Harbaugh has several options, starting with Cade McNamara, who flashed in relief of Joe Milton during a thriller against Rutgers. Freshman J.J. McCarthy, a former five-star prospect, just got to campus. And incoming transfer Alan Bowman is aiming to resuscitate his career after being phased out as Texas Tech’s starter. A lot will be riding on Harbaugh’s choice after a 2-4 season last fall, and Harbaugh, a purported quarterback whisperer, needs to deliver better results.

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8. Maryland

When Taulia Tagovailoa was at his best last season, he looked unstoppable, big plays and touchdowns aplenty. When he was at his worst, he appeared abominable, interceptions and incompletions galore. The Jekyll-and-Hyde act played out over a roller-coaster season that featured a rout of Penn State and a beatdown administered by Northwestern. If Tagovailoa can find some consistency and solid protection, the Terps could be pesky.

7. Purdue

Will Aidan O’Connell or Jack Plummer lead Purdue’s offense? And does it matter? O’Connell and Plummer each started three games in 2020 and posted nearly identical stats, which is not surprising because coach Jeff Brohm has developed a plug-and-play system for quarterbacks.

If the Boilermakers don’t have a capable passer, they’re doomed because Brohm’s teams typically need to win shootouts. With wideout Rondale Moore in the NFL, that figures to be more challenging.

6. Nebraska

At times, Adrian Martinez has looked like a breakout star. On other occasions, he has been a liability for the Cornhuskers during coach Scott Frost’s prolonged rebuild. Can Martinez finally put it all together and carry Nebraska into a new age filled with promise?

Martinez will have the weight of the program on his shoulders. Backup Luke McCaffrey is gone and Martinez’s status as the QB1 seems secure. That could help boost the confidence of a player whose output has gradually declined since his freshman season in 2018.

5. Minnesota

Tanner Morgan was set to take the college football world by storm after his sophomore season. Then 2020 happened, and well, doesn’t that just explain it all? A COVID-19 outbreak at the outset of the season derailed the Gophers and the offense didn’t have the same punch it did in 2019, when Minnesota rowed to an 11-2 record.

Morgan came to emblemize the downturn; he put up pedestrian numbers, throwing seven for touchdowns and five interceptions. A bounce-back season seems possible, but star receiver Rashod Bateman is no longer there to give Morgan a lift.

4. Wisconsin

In his first start, Graham Mertz burst on the scene and gave the impression he could be a transcendent player. He was near perfect in a rout of Illinois, throwing one incompletion in 21 attempts and five touchdowns. Then he crashed back to earth like a meteor. In his final four games, the interceptions (2) outnumbered the touchdown passes (1). Mertz and the Badgers hope he can recapture the magic he showed in his promising debut last October.  

3. Penn State

The transfer of Will Levis cleared the way for Sean Clifford to lead Penn State’s offense after a rocky 2020 season. Clifford seemed out of sorts as the Nittany Lions lost their first five games and he struggled to adjust to Kirk Ciarrocca’s offensive system. But no worries. Mike Yurcich replaced Ciarrocca and his duty is to transform Clifford into one of the Big Ten’s best starters again.

If Yurcich can pull it off, the Nittany Lions will rebound quickly.

2. Ohio State

C.J. Stroud completed 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in the OSU spring game.

Justin Fields has left Columbus. And while the departure of a former Heisman Trophy finalist would be a cause for concern at most programs, it’s not at Ohio State. Whether it’s C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or Kyle McCord behind center, the Buckeyes figure to roll up and down the field.

Coach Ryan Day is a skilled tactician and the selected starter will have talent all around him. Stroud, the favorite to get the nod, is a former four-star recruit ranked the No. 2 pro-style passer in his class.

1. Indiana

Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. runs against Rutgers during a game at Memorial Staium in Bloomington on Oct. 12, 2019. (Rich Janzaruk / Herald-Times)

The best quarterback in the Big Ten can be found in Bloomington. Yes, Michael Penix is that good. Before he tore his ACL in his right knee, he carried the Hoosiers to a 5-1 record and a top-10 ranking. Penix threw for at least 300 yards in three straight games against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, while flashing the playmaking ability that made traditional blue-blood programs quake in their cleats. If Penix can stay healthy, he could be primed for an encore in 2021.

Contact Rainer Sabin at rsabin@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Big Ten newsletter