In our Big Ten Breakdown series, we will examine the best five players in the conference at each position. Next up is quarterback, the most important position on the field.
This year’s batch of Big Ten quarterbacks is a bit thin, as prominent programs such as Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State are all replacing accomplished quarterbacks.
RELATED: Big Ten’s five best wide receivers
The best quarterback in the conference wasn’t even the opening day starter last season and is also the only non-senior on this list.
Here’s a look at the five best quarterbacks in the Big Ten entering the 2016 season:
5. Mitch Leidner, senior, Minnesota
Leidner was respectable last season, finishing seventh in the conference with 2,701 passing yards. He tossed 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and also scampered for 270 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. The Lakeville, Minn., native was limited in spring ball by a foot injury, but his experience will be vital as Minnesota returns seven starters to an offense that ranked 13th in scoring.
Minnesota’s talented backfield tandem of freshmen Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith will take some of the pressure off of Leidner’s shoulders. But the 6-foot-4 Leidner will most likely determine how far the Gophers go in 2016.
4. Wes Lunt, senior, Illinois
Lunt will be the primary piece of Illinois’ offense under new head coach Lovie Smith. He was average during his first year as a full-time starter, throwing for 2,761 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2015.
Last year’s leading receiver has departed, but Lunt will have most of his receiving corps back in Champaign for the 2016 campaign. The absence of running back Josh Ferguson will hurt, and the 6-foot-5 Lunt will likely have to shoulder a greater load.
3. C.J. Beathard, senior, Iowa
Beathard stepped in admirably for the Hawkeyes last season. The Franklin, Tenn., native was a difference-maker for Iowa and was responsible with the football while leading his team to a perfect regular season. Beathard threw for 2,809 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions in his first year as a starter.
The 6-foot-2 Beathard could have a more enhanced role in coach Kirk Ferentz’s run-oriented system during his second year at the helm and will have his top receiver back in Matt VandeBerg. Health will be a crucial factor for Beathard and the Hawkeyes offense.
2. Tommy Armstrong Jr., senior, Nebraska
It seems like Armstrong has been in Lincoln forever, but that’s because he’s practically entering his fourth season as a starter. The 6-foot-1 veteran from Cibolo, Texas took the reins midway through his freshman season and hasn’t looked back since. He threw for 3,030 yards, 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions and also ran for 400 yards and seven touchdowns during his third year at the helm.
The Nebraska offense has a ton of upside, because Nebraska returns its top six pass catchers from last season, including Jordan Westerkamp. The Huskers have finished third in the Big Ten in scoring offense the past two seasons, but the 2016 unit could be the best of them all. It will be up to Armstrong to cut down on his turnovers – he’s thrown 28 combined interceptions the past two seasons – and take Nebraska’s offense to the next level.
1. J.T. Barrett, junior, Ohio State
Barrett finally gets the keys to the Buckeyes offense this season after playing second fiddle to Cardale Jones during the beginning of the 2015 season. Barrett is a tough player to gauge based on last season’s quirky situation, but his talent is evident. He threw for 992 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions last season, but his 2014 stats might be more indicative of what to expect this year. Barrett chucked 34 touchdowns and rushed for another 11 scores while replacing the injured Braxton Miller during the 2014 season.
Barrett probably should have been Ohio State’s starter originally last season and will get a chance to prove himself as the guy this time around. It’s finally Barrett’s time to shine, and he will have to perform well to get the Buckeyes back to the College Football Playoff.