Welcome to the sixth year of my Big Ten positional rankings. Even though I started doing this seven years ago, this will only be the sixth time I’ve done the ratings. I took 2015 off because there was no point in doing any ratings because the Buckeyes were the best at everything that year.
If you’re new to the ratings, what I do is rate every position, coach, and schedule in the B1G by team, keeping it within divisions. For instance, the worst a team can do is place seventh in a category, rather than 14th. (You’re welcome Rutgers.)
How accurate have I been? There have been hits and misses, but until last year I had correctly predicted at least one Big Ten Championship Game participant, and in 2013 I nailed both of them. Even though I missed last year with Ohio State and Iowa, the Buckeyes did technically win a division title, so I’m counting it as a win as well.
In case you were wondering, here is the history of my division picks. 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, Legends Wisconsin*
2016: East Ohio State, West Iowa
Clearly, I had a thing for Michigan State back in the day. But let’s not talk about that right now. Let’s talk 2017, or as it will probably become known as, “My Breakup with the Spartans.”
As is the norm, we begin at the most important position in sports — quarterback.
Big Ten West
Junior Clayton Thorson threw for 3,182 yards last year with 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Thorson finished No. 7 in the conference in pass efficiency (125.92), so there is definitely room for improvement here. He finished second in the B1G in pass attempts (478) and completions (280). He could be set for a huge 2017. Behind him is senior Matt Alviti, who has thrown eight total passes in his first three seasons. Young quarterbacks are also on the roster, but they’re going to have to sit until 2019.
Some of me putting Purdue this high is having faith in head coach Jeff Brohm, but also faith in the experience that junior quarterback David Blough has built up in his first two seasons as a starter. Blough threw for 3,352 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. On the downside, however, is the fact that he also threw 21 interceptions. He led the B1G in completions (295) and attempts (517) last year, but will obviously need to cut down on his interceptions. Sophomore backup Elijah Sindelar returns. He played in five games last season.
Alex Hornibrook led the Badgers most of the way to an 11-3 record last season as a redshirt freshman. He had some good games — 214 yards passing against Ohio State, and some bad games — 88 yards passing against Michigan. He eventually faded down the stretch, giving way to senior Bart Houston. Houston is gone now, however, so this is Hornibrook’s show. Under Paul Chryst, he should prove to be a more mature passer and leader this season. Behind him are even younger quarterbacks who have yet to do anything.
This will be interesting. Mike Riley is known for getting a lot out of his pocket passers, provided he has them. He has that currently in Tulane transfer Tanner Lee. Now, that doesn’t mean Lee is some kind of savior — he threw for 3,601 yards in two seasons as a starter, completing just 54% of his passes and throwing 23 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. Still, he is more along the lines of what Riley wants as a quarterback. Lee hasn’t necessarily won the job yet, but he’s the favorite. Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien will battle for it as well.
Wes Lunt is gone for the Illini, so Lovie Smith now turns to either junior Chayce Crouch or sophomore Jeff George Jr. Crouch got the start against Purdue last season and threw for 142 yards and rushed for 137 more. In a loss. To Purdue. George played in five games in 2016, throwing for 470 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has had a good history with dual-threat quarterbacks, which describes Crouch more than George. There is potential here, but can Lovie Smith get either of them to actually reach it?
Sophomore Nathan Stanley appears to be the guy here, though he was in a battle all spring long with junior Tyler Wiegers. Stanley played in seven games last year and threw nine passes. To be honest, there’s no reason to think that he can’t do at least what C.J. Beathard did last year, throwing for 1,929 yards and 17 touchdowns. Wiegers may still present a challenge here. He threw four passes in 2015, which is when he last played. Some changes in the offensive coaching staff should have a positive effect here.
Who knows. Sophomore Demry Croft redshirted last year, but was Mitch Leidner’s backup as a true freshman. The worry here is that if he wasn’t good enough to push Leidner, then how good can he be? He is competing with senior Conor Rhoda, who got a start last year. Both quarterbacks should improve in P.J. Fleck’s offense. Despite the inexperience, it would be hard to imagine either quarterback giving the Gophers less than they received last year from Leidner.
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State
What happens when you give Kevin Wilson a record-setting senior quarterback? Likely more records. J.T. Barrett comes into 2017 with something to prove. Some people are down on him for his performance last season, but he was still good enough to win the Silver Football Award. With Wilson and quarterback coach Ryan Day in charge, expect Barrett’s best season as a Buckeye. He’s also adept at picking up fourth-and-ones with ease. Behind him are three blue-chip quarterbacks fighting among themselves to back him up and get some snaps.
2. Penn State
The Nittany Lions absolutely have a claim for the top spot here. The loss of receiver Chris Godwin, as well as the sheer number of 50/50 balls PSU won last year, make me wonder how much progression junior Trace McSorley will make this season. He threw for 3,614 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions last season. He only completed 8-of-23 passes against Ohio State, and his 121 yards passing against Michigan were a season low. People rave about the Rose Bowl, but he threw three picks. There is young talent behind him as well.
Wilton Speight finished second in the Big Ten with a 61.6 completion percentage last season. Over his final three starts, however, that number dipped to 55% and he threw four of his seven interceptions. Michigan lost all three of those games. Speight was dealing with injuries during that stretch, but his play this spring did not elicit confidence. Still, with Jim Harbaugh, we err on the side of competence. Speight will be pushed by redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, but don’t expect any changes.
If Kevin Wilson was still at Indiana, the Hoosiers might be one spot higher on this list. As it is, fourth isn’t too shabby for a team with a quarterback who threw 17 interceptions last season. Richard Lagow added 3,362 yards passing and 19 touchdowns to those interceptions. He completed just 48.8% of his passes over the Hoosiers’ final four games, three of which were losses. The only win was a two-point victory at home against Purdue. There are some young players behind Lagow, but they need him at his best to go back to a bowl game.
5. Michigan State
Redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke is the projected starter here. He had a solid spring and gives the Spartans an athletic passer who can make plays. Lewerke started twice last season in place of Tyler O’Connor, which was part of a three-game stretch where he threw for 355 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 133 yards in those three games. There is some pretty solid potential in Lewerke, but let’s see it first. Behind him is a talented redshirt freshman and a senior with starting experience.
North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson is the favorite here. I might be in the minority, but I’ve liked Henderson since his high school days. He gives the Terps a strong passer, but also a guy who can move around a bit. In Maryland’s up-tempo offense, he could put up some very big numbers. But he has all of one career pass attempts to his name, so we’re gonna take it slow here. If he can’t hold on to the job, Maryland has a pair of sophomores in Max Bortenschlager and Tyrrel Pigrome who have played quite a bit. Expect the usual injuries here for some reason.
Rutgers left the spring with junior Gio Rescigno as the No. 1 quarterback. He started five games last year, throwing for 889 yards. Over the summer, however, the Scarlet Knights added a pair of quarterbacks who should make a difference. Grad transfer Kyle Bolin threw for over 2,000 yards at Louisville. He eventually gave way to Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. True freshman Jonathan Lewis has been compared to Cardale Jones by head coach Chris Ash. Expect Bolin to win the job, but they’ll want to see what Lewis can do. Rescigno has some work to do.