In 2020, a college football team is pretty much as good as its quarterback. There are exceptions of course, but the days of bus drivers leading teams to conference championships are in the past.
It was no surprise that Ohio State and Wisconsin, the two Big Ten division champions, had good quarterback play in 2019. The teams with the best signal-callers should have even more of an edge than normal in this odd season.
There are eight teams in the Big Ten that return their main starting quarterbacks for this shortened season. Purdue brings back Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell, who both started some games in 2019. Rutgers is in the same situation with Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan. Since no quarterback at either of those schools comes back as an established starter, those players will not be ranked.
The same goes for whomever ends up starting at Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State, since Nate Stanley, Shea Patterson and Brian Lewerke all completed their eligibility.
Maryland’s 2020 starter Josh Jackson would have been included but he decided to opt out of the season. The Terrapins might start Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa, but head coach Mike Locksley has not committed to a decision.
So, of the eight returning starters, who is tops in the Big Ten?
- Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
After a battle in camp with Luke McCaffrey, Adrian Martinez won the starting quarterback job again for Nebraska. Martinez played well as a freshman with 2,617 passing yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but his play dipped in 2019 when he completed 59.4% of his passes for 1,956 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He has been a threat with his legs in both seasons as a starter (629 rushing yards and eight TDs in 2018, 626 yards and seven TDs in 2019), but will have to show real signs of growth as a passer in order to secure the starting spot again. The Gophers did not play Martinez last year but got to see his talent up close in a 53-28 loss to the Huskers in 2018 when he went 25-of-29 for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
- Brandon Peters, Illinois
Peters, a 23-year-old redshirt senior, is the grizzled veteran of the bunch and is entering his second year at Illinois after spending his first three years of eligibility with the Michigan Wolverines. He threw for 1,884 yards with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2019, but if he can improve a little bit – especially with his accuracy (55.9% completions last year) that could be enough for the Illini to raise above a .500 regular-season record. The Illini quarterback has been streaky, playing well in Illinois wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State in 2019 but only passed for 32 yards and an interception in a 40-17 loss to Minnesota.
- Jack Coan, Wisconsin
Coan is out indefinitely with a foot injury he suffered in fall practice. It seems unlikely that the senior quarterback will play in Wisconsin’s season opener against Illinois. His replacement will be redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, who comes with a lot of hype but is unproven. Coan recorded a program-record 236 passes in 2019, completing 69.6% of his throws for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Coan is solid and relatively unspectacular but he is one of the best Wisconsin quarterbacks in recent memory and was instrumental in the Badgers 38-17 win over the Gophers last season.
- Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern
After a solid career with the Indiana Hoosiers, Ramsey moved on to Northwestern as a graduate transfer where he is the top candidate to take over the starting job. He lost the starting job with the Hoosiers to Michael Penix Jr. in 2019 but filled in well when Penix got injured. As a redshirt junior last season, Ramsey played in 11 games (starting seven) and threw for 2,454 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 68.0% of his passes. Ramsey rushed for 252 yards and seven scores in 2019, so he should be able to jumpstart a Northwestern offense which was putrid last season.
- Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Penix beat out Ramsey and started six games before suffering a season-ending right sternoclavicular joint injury. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback from Tampa, Fla., passed for 1,394 yards (232.3 per game), completed 68.8% of his passes with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. Penix, who rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns last year, has high hopes for the Hoosiers and wants to “Shock the world.”
- Sean Clifford, Penn State
The Nittany Lions’ starter is by no means the flashiest quarterback on this list, but he gets the job done on Saturdays, other than when he tossed three picks in a raucous TCF Bank Stadium. Clifford guided Penn State to an 11-2 record in 2019, including a 53-39 win over the Memphis Tigers in the Cotton Bowl. He threw for 2,354 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Clifford’s legs are pretty good as well, running for 402 yards and five scores in 2020. The redshirt junior still has plenty of room to grow but has also shown he is capable of leading a talented team to 11 wins which is nothing to scoff at.
- Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Morgan was one of the driving forces behind Minnesota’s 11-2 season in 2019 and his best target will be back for 2020. The redshirt junior signal-caller will have one more season with dynamic wideout Rashod Bateman in what could be one of the most exciting offenses in college football. Morgan passed for 3,253 yards with 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season while completing 66.0% last season and should only be better this year. The Gophers have a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten West and Morgan will be rowing at the front of the boat.
- Justin Fields, Ohio State
When you’re arguably the best quarterback in the country, then you’re the best quarterback in the Big Ten. That is where Fields sits and after watching him last year it makes perfect sense. As a sophomore in his first season starting for the Buckeyes, Fields completed 67.2% of his throws for 3,273 yards with 41 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also picked up 484 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns on the ground. Fields can do it all, he has mobility, accuracy, arm strength and is one of the best athletes on the field. He will be going to an NFL team soon but until then he’ll just stick to terrorizing Big Ten defenses.