This was supposed to be the “year of the quarterback” in the Big Ten.
It was primed to be a season that gunslingers throughout the conference were national leaders in passing yardage and touchdown tosses. The 2015 campaign was going to be the year that the Big Ten ditched its traditional ground-and-pound style and played like the rest of the country.
Midway through the year, it’s safe to say that has not been accomplished. The aerial attack that was preparing to take the nation by storm has been nothing short of disappointing.
Talents such as Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg, Nate Sudfeld and the two-headed monster of Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett at Ohio State should’ve put the Big Ten on the quarterback map.
The only thing this season has proven, however, is that the conference that has failed to gain much relevancy as an offensive conference still has a long way to go.
Entering the season, Cook and the combo of Barrett and Jones were expected to be named finalists in the Heisman Trophy ballot. Hackenberg was predicted to put together a season that would improve his stock as a future NFL draft pick. Sudfeld, Tommy Armstrong, Wes Lunt and a few other names were also anticipating big seasons.
After seven weeks into the season, not one Big Ten quarterback ranks in the nation’s top 20 in passing yardage. Only one play-caller, Nebraska’s Armstrong, has reached 15 touchdown passes.
As for the potential Heisman candidates?
Cook has been effective yet relatively quiet in the Spartans’ 7-0 start. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions in the first two months of the year but has a modest 239 yards per game and has posted a completion rate below the 60 percent mark.
Despite Ohio State’s undefeated start, Jones and Barrett have combined for only 11 touchdowns and have struggled to find any sort of rhythm offensively.
The “year of the quarterback” in the Big Ten has already become a season of struggle.
Perhaps the one surprise coming from that position has been the play of Wisconsin’s Joel Stave, who has elevated his game to a level that has allowed the Badgers to become a threat in more than one aspect of the game.
Last season, Stave struggled with his consistency and was virtually ineffective throughout the duration of the season. Now, as the Badgers sit 5-2 on the year, the senior has upped his completion rate nearly nine points and has thrown 30 more passes than he did a season ago.
His performance would’ve been an excellent addition to an already dominant group of quarterbacks. Unfortunately for the Big Ten, he’s one of the guys receiving high praise among a mundane bunch.
The Big Ten hasn’t been particularly bad at the quarterback position but it hasn’t been dominant as expected. Its top five touchdown passers (Armstrong, Cook, Chris Laviano, Sudfeld and Lunt) have combined for 60 total scores this season.
That number ranks as the second-lowest among the Power Five conferences, only ahead of the ACC which has posted a total of 57 for its top five.
Quarterbacks have been good in the Big Ten but there’s been nothing Heisman-worthy. Jones has struggled for the Buckeyes, Hackenberg’s offensive line leaves him vulnerable and unable to get comfortable in the pocket. It’s a discouraging site, especially with so much talent bottled up.
It makes you wonder, if this group of quarterbacks can’t separate themselves and dominate the Midwestern skies, will the Big Ten ever be able to catch up to the rest of the college football world?
So far, the conference hasn’t needed its gunslingers to be dominant. Good defense and efficient ground attacks have been enough to keep the Buckeyes, Spartans and Hawkeyes unbeaten. The passing game has been just effective enough to keep opponents off balance.
Unfortunately, that’s not what anyone expected from the Big Ten.
Maybe the second half of the season will be better for the conference and its quarterbacks. If not – if this quarterback-heavy league doesn’t have anyone breakthrough in the final stretch of the season – it’s hard to imagine the Big Ten ever shedding its smash-mouth persona.