Offenses are ahead of defenses so far in college football, as scoreboards lit up like pinball machines throughout the country over the weekend.
Four of the top five in the AP Top 25 poll scored 40 or more points, led by No. 2 Alabama’s 63-48 win over Ole Miss, a game in which both teams combined for a whopping 111 points.
That makes quarterback play all the more important when the Big Ten opens its season in less than two weeks. Teams with returning starting quarterbacks may have a leg up based on continuity, though new faces throughout the league could emerge as well. Wisconsin already suffered a blow at the position when returning starting quarterback Jack Coan suffered a foot injury in camp. Coan is sidelined indefinitely.
Here’s a look at the top five returning quarterbacks in the Big Ten:
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State: There’s no debating Fields is the best quarterback in the conference, based on his monster sophomore season that included 3,273 yards passing, 484 yards rushing and a combined 51 TDs (41 passing, 10 rushing). Fields will look to improve his decision making in the pocket as a junior this season, but there are few other flaws to his game. Fields and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence are the two leading candidates to win the Heisman Trophy this season.
2. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota: Morgan excelled in Minnesota’s run-pass option offense last season, passing for 3,253 yards with 30 TDs and seven interceptions. The Golden Gophers lost Tyler Johnson but bring back a pair of talented receivers in Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, which should help Morgan put up big numbers again in 2020.
3. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana: The key for Penix is staying healthy, but he was still a difference-maker in six games for the Hoosiers last season, passing for 1,394 yards, rushing for 119 yards and accounting for a combined 12 TDs (10 passing, two rushing). Pro Football Focus rated Penix as the 12th-best college football quarterback in the nation and the third-best in the Big Ten behind Fields and Morgan based on his combination of accuracy, mobility and arm strength. “There’s an arm talent he has that a lot of guys don’t have,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said.
4. Sean Clifford, Penn State: Clifford’s 254.7 yards of total offense per game ranked fourth in the Big Ten last season. Overall, Clifford passed for 2,654 yards and accounted for 28 TDs (23 passing, five rushing) last season. This season, Clifford should benefit from the creative play-calling of new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
5. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska: Martinez will look to bounce back as a junior after a disappointing sophomore season. He’s still a talented, dual-threat quarterback who passed for 1,956 yards and rushed for 626 yards with a combined 17 TDs (10 passing, seven rushing) while battling injuries. Like Penix, the key for Martinez is staying healthy. He missed two games with a knee injury last season and is coming off offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm has yet to decide on a starting quarterback but said following Saturday’s scrimmage returning quarterbacks Jack Plummer and Aidan O’Connell are slightly ahead of UCLA transfer Austin Burton. Plummer, a sophomore, started six games for the Boilermakers last season, while O’Connell started three games.
Brohm hasn’t ruled out using more than one quarterback for Purdue’s season-opener Oct. 24 at home against Iowa.
“We probably are still open to that, “ Brohm told Tom Dienhart of The Gold and Black. “I think that, you know, that's not what we're shooting to do. But, at the same time, we've got to be smart. In certain situations, maybe we'll use one or two of them, and then we'll see how the course of the game goes. I think all of them are going to be in the bullpen ready to go. Not that we ever want to have a quick pull. But at the same time, all three guys can play."
WEEK 1 SCHEDULE SET
Indiana’s season-opener against No. 9 Penn State will kick off at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, at Memorial Stadium and air on FS1.
The Hoosiers, coming off their best season since 1993 at 8-5, will get an immediate test facing a Nittany Lions team led by standout tight end Pat Freiermuth, returning quarterback Sean Clifford and defensive end Shaka Toney.
IU will seek its first win against a ranked team since knocking off No. 17 Michigan State 24-21 in overtime Oct. 1, 2016.
Purdue and Iowa also will kick off at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24 and air on the Big Ten Network.