The Big Ten is undergoing a major offensive transformation.
A conference that was dominated by running backs and highly effective ground attacks last fall is morphing into a league of gunslingers and aerial strikes. The absence of Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah has made room for Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and whichever quarterback survives the ongoing battle at Ohio State.
For the first time in over a decade the Big Ten has something to be excited about with its talent and experience under center. While potential Heisman candidates and the leaders of potential conference champions have been the heart of most of these discussions, the real story is the depth and ability at quarterback league-wide.
Nine teams will have starting quarterbacks returning under center for the 2015 campaign, and three others have guys who have at least taken meaningful snaps under center. In a conference that has been dominated by the running game recently, it’s a good indicator that offenses may have a different look when the season gets underway this September.
Cook, Hackenberg and J.T. Barrett (or Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller) have already been the headliners moving into next season, all appearing on various preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists. Thanks to last season’s impressive numbers, it’s not unwarranted praise.
In 2014, the trio combined for over 9,000 yards through the air and 70 passing touchdowns. Due to the quality and quantity of running backs in the conference, the accomplishments of the three quarterbacks were often overshadowed.
The story will be different in 2015. From top to bottom, the Big Ten is full of quality play-callers, and it should make for a more pass-heavy, high-scoring league.
Outside of the three most popular guys heading into the season, quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have proven to be legitimate threats at the position and can lead their respective team down the field.
The ability of Sudfeld and Lunt still remains a bit of a mystery as both have been riddled with injuries throughout their collegiate career.
Sudfeld put together an impressive sophomore campaign in 2013, throwing for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns, but a midseason injury in a game against Iowa ended his junior season after only six games.
Lunt, who made seven starts despite a plague of injuries throughout the year, completed 63 percent of his passes and tossed 14 touchdown passes to just three interceptions.
Hoping to be completely recovered by the opening kickoff, the potential these two guys have is nearly immeasurable.
Nebraska’s Armstrong hasn’t been extraordinary over the past two seasons, but his athleticism still makes him one of the biggest threats in the conference. Last fall, Armstrong put together a 2,695-yard, 22-touchdown performance but was only able to complete 53 percent of his passes. His inconsistency has been a continual worry for the Huskers, but many believe that under Mike Riley he can become a reliable offensive resource.
Wisconsin’s Joel Stave, Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner and Purdue’s Austin Appleby are all returning to the sidelines as well, though they had less-than-stellar campaigns in 2014.
Together, the bottom-rated returners threw 30 touchdowns and 29 interceptions throughout the course of the season. Nobody completed more than 54 percent of their passes.
As for right now, the verdict is still out at Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers.
Heading into the 2015 season, the Big Ten has six solid quarterbacks, and there’s potential that another two or three could emerge as effective under center. It’s a wild change from the constant ground and pound we saw in 2014.
It appears the Big Ten is beginning to acclimate to the pass-happy system of college football that requires high yardage totals and a number of touchdown passes to be successful.
Unlike most years, the conference has the talent to fit the bill and compete with the other leagues across college football and will have a few Heisman-worthy candidates by season’s end, as well.
In the matter of one season, the Big Ten has transitioned from a league leaning heavily on the run game for success to a conference that will become more dangerous through the air. For the first time in a long time, the upcoming season is all about the quarterbacks.
Welcome to college football, Big Ten offense.