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Ranking The Best Quarterbacks In 2021 Big Ten Football

#14 will SHOCK you!

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Man, it feels like I’ve done this particular piece an awful lot, doesn’t it? Well the main reason is probably because it’s really easy to get people to give feedback on this one! So for this ranking, we actually have a full seven voters! Let’s get straight to it.

1: Ohio State Buckeyes starter

With five first place votes, the unnamed Ohio State starter was the runaway favorite. In all likelihood it will be blue-chip redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud, but he will face tough competition from 2016 Lamar Jackson, true freshman Kyle McCord, pre-collarbone-injury Aaron Rodgers (the 2011 one with the wheels), redshirt freshman Jack Miller and Madden 2004 Michael Vick.

Look, if you need an explanation for why Ohio State’s starter is #1 on this list, I would like to welcome you to our site and to the sport of college football in general, and you need to understand that right now, Ohio State is in a position where an all-star team made up of the best players from the rest of the Big Ten could probably hang with them all the way into the fourth quarter. Talent is more stratified in the conference now than it was in the 1970’s, and for that reason Ohio State is by far the best in the conference at every non-kicking position. This is the reality. They’re much more stacked than they were in 2014 from the perspective of composite recruiting rankings, and those Tressel teams that you could occasionally trap in a competitive game might as well be Chris Ash Rutgers. In order to falter from this position, even for one year, Ohio State would need to have its coaches do something so monstrous that the entire roster walks out, or it would need the whole coaching staff plus the AD to come down with a crippling drug addiction, but not one of those fun drugs that would appeal to today’s teenagers. No, we’re talking, like, krokodil. Bath salts. Some shit like that.

The only limit to the stats this yet-to-be-named quarterback will put up is how long Ryan Day wants to leave him in and how aggressive the playcalling is in Ohio State’s 13-game preseason.

2: Michael Penix, Jr., Indiana Hoosiers

Only Andrew and I believed in what I view as the top human candidate enough to give him first place votes. The Mighty Penix Laser is the heart and soul of the Hoosiers offense, and his iconic dive to the end zone against Penn State will be remembered for generations in Bloomington. He’s a fantastic runner with elite vision that can find just enough room on the ground to keep drives alive, much like a J.T. Barrett. His challenge will be adapting to the loss of go-to guy Whop Philyor, but Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall return. Penix is the most important Indiana player in recent memory and ought to be recognized as such.

3: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Purdue Boilermakers

As the writer of the article, I get an extra vote in the case of a tie, which happened here. I voted for Aidan O’Connell to get the 3-spot here, because for all the missteps Jeff Brohm has made in recent years, he’s always been a tremendous quarterbacks coach. Hell, he coached the best Illini quarterback since Kurt Kittner! O’Connell still has David Bell to throw to, which makes any quarterback a threat. And let’s be honest with ourselves: even if AOC and Tanner Morgan were exactly as good, you’d rather watch the guy that throws it 50 times a game.

4: Tanner Morgan, Minnesota Golden Gophers

Now that I’m in my 30s, I can’t help but love when college athletes look older than me. Tanner Morgan was not quite the same as his 2019 self in 2020, but still has experience and has been efficient even when not spectacularly so. If Mo Ibrahim has his way, Morgan won’t be called on to do a ton of work, but he’ll be a stabilizing presence in the COVID-scrambled Big Ten landscape.

There was a substantial drop-off from 4th to 5th in our voting, so let’s call this the bottom of Tier 1.

5: Graham Mertz, Wisconsin Badgers

Part of me wants to say this ranking is because all anyone remembers about last year is the Illinois-Wisconsin game, but there’s no denying that this is not one of the best lineups of Big Ten quarterbacks we’ve ever seen. The top four are fairly solid, but below that is a bit of a quagmire. I had Mertz at 6th, not because I think he’s all that good but because he hasn’t demonstrated that he’s particularly bad. He may become the best Wisconsin quarterback since Wilson, which is not a high bar, but he will never get the chance to play a Lovie Smith defense again.

6. Sean Clifford, Penn State Nittany Lions

I take a bit more issue with this one, who’s only penciled in as the starter because Will Levis transferred. Clifford didn’t keep his starting job the whole season as Penn State’s offense found itself with all kinds of unanticipated struggles running the ball. The upside here comes from Penn State having a lot of talent surrounding Clifford, particularly Jahan Dotson. Clifford will certainly have opportunities to succeed, but perhaps a short leash is in order.

7: Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland Terrapins

There was wide variance on this one, with votes as high as 2 and as low as 10. Let’s say this for Taulia: for the first time since Maryland joined the Big Ten, you can definitely say who’s going to start and if you’re a Maryland fan you probably don’t feel terrible about it. That’s a hell of a step. Tagovailoa went off against Penn State before turning into a pumpkin against Northwestern, but his performance stabilized over the remainder of the year. Maryland’s passing game might not be consistent but it will have big play potential.

Another tier emerged with a clear cutoff below Tagovailoa. This is the end of Tier 2.

8: Cade McNamara, Michigan Wolverines

You know the drill. McNamara, the presumed starter, came on late last year for the Wolverines to replace an ineffective Joe Milton and showed enough Poise And Moxie to get Michigan media waxing nostalgic for clutch Michigan quarterback moments, like when everyone’s favorite Michigan quarterback Tom Brady blew a 20-point second half lead to Illinois at home.

To be perfectly fair, there has been a more measured approach to this year’s quarterback competition, and while all the hype has been directed towards McNamara and incoming freshman JJ McCarthy, the guy everyone’s sleeping on is Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. The redshirt junior (sophomore? i don’t know how that eligibility clock freeze works) started as a true freshman under Kliff Kingsbury until suffering a collapsed lung. Continued fallout from that injury, other injury troubles and a coaching change bringing a different offensive philosophy saw him fall out of the rotation by the end of 2020, but he’s been the most impressive Power 5 quarterback that’s currently on Michigan’s roster.

Of course, that’s assuming he fends off the People’s Quarterback. You know how you go to a game, and when the quarterback misses a couple throws on an early drive some middle-aged dude in a windbreaker stands up and yells “OHHHHH COME ON, GET HIM OUTTA THERE! PUT IN (name) ALREADY”? That guy is the People’s Quarterback, the guy that overly involved fans are clamoring to get reps for. Risk factors for being the People’s Quarterback include being a highly recruited freshman, being talked up in fall camp, being from the state or even a local guy, and certain demographic factors also come into play on occasion. J.J. McCarthy is clearly the People’s Quarterback for Michigan.

Anyway, I haven’t actually said much about the expectations here, but personally I expect Michigan’s offense to do what it’s always done under Jim Harbaugh: underwhelm with superior talent.

9: Payton Thorne, Michigan State Spartans

I always assume that football dudes named Peyton these days are named after Manning and football dudes named Payton are named after Sweetness.

Anyway, Thorne is the presumed starter for a Michigan State squad that is poised to continue being confused on offense. He has adequate wheels to be a running threat, but not quite enough to go with a run-first approach. He’s also out of Naperville Central, a high school that totally bows and whose older alums keep an active marketplace for gear with their former team name (they’re the RedHawks for the same reason Miami Hydroxide is now the RedHawks). As an Illinois alumnus, I totally have the moral high ground here.

It would have been ideal if Thorne had been from the far superior Naperville North, but Mel Tucker will have to make do with what he’s got. What else he has is the presumed People’s Quarterback Hamp Fay, who’s probably not so much the People’s QB as Mel Tucker’s QB. Fay is the first QB they recruited themselves, so I’d imagine Thorne has a short leash.

10: Adrian Martinez, Nebraska Cornhuskers

The last man standing as the Scott Frost quarterback room heads for the exits, Martinez will be the unquestioned starter by virtue of Luke McCaffrey transferring out. Martinez is gifted with a lot of physical tools and a lot of promise that has not yielded results, partially due to injuries and partially due to a lack of progression. It’s easy to remember Martinez as the freshman that was going to some day become a monster under offensive guru Frost, but if not for the eligibility freeze he’d be a true senior this fall. He has physical gifts and a lot of potential, but he’s not the only quarterback on this list with those things. Nevertheless, he’s the key to Scott Frost righting the ship in year 4 after getting hamblasted by Lovie Smith’s swansong. As he goes, so goes the Frost regime.

11: Noah Vedral, Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Oh irony. Our OTE voters did not find a significant divergence between the former ill-fated Martinez stand-in and Martinez himself. Nevertheless, Vedral proved to be a surprisingly limited liability for a Rutgers quarterback, though Johnny Langan was also in and out of the lineup. Greg Schiano is playing with house money at this point, so for all we know he’ll play three quarterbacks a game. Noted actual punching bag Art Sitkowski is still around, and I wouldn’t put it past this regime to salvage him, but the People’s Quarterback of this equation is true freshman Gavin Wimsatt. Greg Schiano landed the #3 dual threat quarterback in the country for 2021 in this top-100 player. That’s the kind of player you want to get on the field if you’re rebuilding a program, but also Schiano has placed a premium on winning games. Either way, the best QB room in recent ‘Gers memory is perhaps upon us.

12: Spencer Petras, Iowa Hawkeyes

Put Petras with Graham Mertz in the category of “you know, against Lovie Smith’s Illini defense, you could really see the potential in this true freshman come out!” Petras was Iowa’s biggest limitation last year, full stop. The Ferentzi are nothing if not stubborn, so they stuck with him through all the “well he’s a freshman what do you expect him to play the position?” Petras is no Aaron Rodgers outside the pocket, and it’s hard to evaluate him in the pocket because he never stands in there and makes a throw. We’ll see if his happy feet finally lead him to the bench or if he has a little more discipline this year. If not, the People’s Quarterback Deuce Hogan is waiting in the wings. He’s Iowa’s People’s Quarterback because he just says what’s on his mind. You know? Everyone’s thinking it, but most people are afraid to say it out loud. Not Deuce, he just comes out and says it! The woke mob is conspiring to keep him on the bench, but the truth will come out eventually and they will be CRUSHED AND OWNED.

Anyway, this concludes Tier 3. Tier 4 is the state of Illinois.

13: Ryan Hilinski, Northwestern Wildcats

I’ll let MNWildcat take it from here:

Ryan J. Hilinski is an American football quarterback for the Northwestern Wildcats. He previously played for the South Carolina Gamecocks, where he started 11 games in 2019.

It seems that Pat Fitzgerald has really come around on empowering labor...or he’s finally admitted that his coaching staff is out of ideas for developing quarterbacks. Hilinski is the likely starter, and this will mark the third straight season that Northwestern starts a recruited-over P5 transfer on day one. That being said, Peyton Ramsey was a unicorn and possibly the best backup quarterback in the country while behind Penix. I don’t expect him to do as well as Ramsey, but it’s fair to assume he can’t do much worse than the start of the Hunter Johnson experience. Johnson, by the way, is still around and just itching to finally get that Johnson-Peters matchup everyone’s been demanding

14: Brandon Peters or Isaiah Williams, Illinois

Illinois and Northwestern will assuredly feature the worst passing offenses in the conference, as neither team has a difference making receiver. All of the day 1 starters for Illinois are gone, and Brandon Peters wasn’t very effective with them.

So, speaking of Adrian Martinez, Brandon Peters. He’s demonstrated that he has the physical tools to win in the Big Ten. He’s made some phenomenal throws, accurate deep balls, tight-window lasers over the middle, fade passes of varying degrees of success, and demonstrated more athleticism than anticipated There is just something that hasn’t clicked with him though. For a long time, he was reluctant to run the ball even though that was a key part of the Illini offense that would actually have brought less blitz pressure on him. I can’t explain what’s missing other than confidence and quick decision-making. I can’t explain any other way why he hesitates on throws we all know he can make in crucial spots. I can’t find another reason he seems to second-guess his throws even as the ball is coming forward. He needs to hang out with Ayo Dosunmu more.

It’s also possible that Isaiah Williams starts, although honestly that should be viewed as more of a failure of Peters than anything else. Given that Illinois has two big-time tight end targets and a good offensive line, the ability to make plays from the pocket would be of huge benefit to their offense, and Williams simply hasn’t shown he can do it. He has a good arm and is a tremendous athlete, but all the Rivals board posters crowing about how Kyler Murray is also short are not prepared to see Illinois redesign its offense to get Williams out of the pocket like Oklahoma did with Murray. I think it’s more likely that Wiliams gets more reps in the slot.

The wild card here for me is Deuce Spann, a 2020 freshman who is 6’4”, throws a nice ball and has great wheels. I don’t know why he didn’t get any reps last year, but I don’t know why a lot of things happened in the Lovie Smith era.

Oh and Matt Robinson is still around for some reason