The early perception of the Big Ten West is that Iowa and Nebraska are the likely teams to beat this year. One reason for that? Both have experienced quarterbacks returning, and that’s huge in college football.
Here’s our rankings of the presumed starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten West.
1. TOMMY ARMSTRONG JR., NEBRASKA
Citing the 2015 season, Armstrong stands as the Big Ten’s returning leader in passing yards (3,030) and passing touchdowns (22). In fact, the Cibolo, Texas native has tallied 22 TD passes in each of the previous two years.
Armstrong had four supreme outings against top-notch competition last year — 319 yards passing, three TDs vs. BYU, 309 yards passing, four TDs against Miami (Fla.), 368 yards passing, two TDs against Southern Miss and 320 yards and four TDs against Michigan State.
Armstrong (6,691 yards passing, 53 passing TDs) is likely one or two games away from breaking Taylor Martinez’s Nebraska record for career passing touchdowns (56).
In a close battle with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Armstrong (15 career rushing TDs) might be the Big Ten’s best running (or scrambling) quarterback.
For his senior campaign, Armstrong must show improvement in the crucial areas of completion percentage and interceptions. He has a career mark of 54 percent – and led the Big Ten in picks last year (16).
2. C.J. BEATHARD, IOWA
Beathard owns a 13-2 career mark as the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback. The senior-to-be accounted for 23 touchdowns last year (17 passing, six rushing), spearheading an Iowa offense that averaged 30-plus points per game (first time since 2008).
Beathard has the highest quarterback rating among the Big Ten’s returning quarterbacks (139.5).
In 2015, Beathard (2,809 yards passing, 5 INTs) registered a completion rate of 63 percent or higher six times (when rounding up).
On the down side, Beathard has never passed for 300 yards in a single college game.
3. WES LUNT, ILLINOIS
Among the Big Ten’s presumed starters, Lunt (6-foot-5, 225 pounds) may possess the highest upside as a prospective NFL quarterback.
In 2015, Lunt (2,761 yards passing, 14 TDs) led all conference performers in pass completions (270) and pass attempts (481).
Of his two games with 30-plus completions last season (versus Western Illinois and Minnesota), Lunt had an absurd completion rate of 72 percent.
The Fighting Illini have a slew of returning playmakers from last season, including receivers Malik Turner (39 catches, 510 yards, 3 TDs in 2015), Desmond Cain (53 catches, 492 yards) and explosive tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn (842 total yards, 6 TDs as a freshman).
They’re all necessary parts … in Lunt’s quest to remain upright for a full season.
4. MITCH LEIDNER, MINNESOTA
Leidner (2,701 yards passing, 20 total TDs last year) may never be a regular threat for 300 yards passing and/or three touchdowns. However, he is effective at the quarterbacking slot.
- Last season, the Lakeville, Minn. native tossed at least one touchdown pass in his final eight games (15 total TDs during that span).
- Leidner registered back-to-back outings of 300 yards passing in 2015 (versus Nebraska and Michigan).
- In Minnesota’s Quick Lane Bowl victory over Central Michigan, Leidner was ultra-efficient in the pocket, completing 24 of 30 passes for 223 yards and two scores (one rushing).
At 6-foot-4, 236 pounds, Leidner will likely garner long looks from NFL scouts this fall. He has the requisite size, arm and pocket awareness to play at the next level, but can he be something beyond a professional clipboard holder?
5 — CLAYTON THORSON, NORTHWESTERN
Let’s begin by celebrating Thorson’s achievements as a freshman. He logged quality playing time in all 13 games, leading the Wildcats to a surprising 10-win season. He helped Northwestern post a pair of five-game winning streaks and registering multiple touchdowns in consecutive weeks versus Ball State and Minnesota.
Now for the bad news. Thorson (1,522 yards passing, 12 total TDs) had a completion rate of less than 50 percent in seven of his final eight outings, including a woeful performance in the Outback Bowl against Tennessee (8 of 20 for 57 yards; two INTs). He also shepherded the nation’s 114th-ranked offense, which only cracked the attainable mark of 20 points seven times.
Put it all together, and Thorson likely deserves this countdown ranking, with little room for advancement. At least until he starts completing passes at a 60-percent clip.
6. DAVID BLOUGH, PURDUE
Blough probably merits a better fate than sixth place. As a freshman, the Texas native – similar to Purdue legend Drew Brees – passed for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns on a last-place team (2-10 overall).
The kid showed plenty of promise in Year 1, busting Bowling Green for 340 yards passing and three touchdowns (one rushing) and rolling for 356 total yards and five touchdowns in the upset win over Nebraska.
Blough had some consistency issues early on last year (as expected). Toward the end, however, the Purdue passer had a completion rate of 58 percent or higher for his final five games.
Purdue returns three of its top four receivers from last season — Deangelo Yancey (48 catches, 700 yards, 5 TDs), Domonique Young and Cameron Posey.
The Boilermakers may experience a number of blowout situations this year, meaning Blough would have a chance to eclipse the 3,000-yard passing mark.
Opportunity knocks, sort of.
7. BART HOUSTON, WISCONSIN
It would be a major surprise if redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was named the starter for Wisconsin’s mammoth opener against LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. So, the temporary nod goes to the senior Houston, who has only 51 career passes).
Houston will be flanked by experienced playmakers this fall, most notably tailback Corey Clement (career average: 6.6 yards per carry), receivers Robert Wheelwright (32 catches, 416 yards, 4 TDs in 2015), Jazz Peavy (member of Big Ten ‘All-Name Team’) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (28 catches, 313 yards, 1 TD).
Let’s be honest here: Wisconsin (81st in scoring last season) hasn’t been a passing juggernaut the last few years; and Houston still couldn’t crack that starting lineup. His promotion in 2016 might be short-lived, if the Badgers aren’t flying out of the gate, or at least demonstrating tangible growth.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.