We've discussed departing players and key replacements, previewed spring practices and analyzed the state of each Big Ten program. Now, we're finally looking at the conference's position groups.
As part of an ongoing series, all this week, we'll be ranking the top-three Big Ten teams at each respective position -- in addition to finding the team that could surprise and the squad that needs the most help. Who boasts the best defensive line? And who could zoom past expectations at receiver? Well, we'll get to that.
But, starting off the series, we're taking a glance at an important position that lost quite a bit of firepower over the offseason: Quarterback.
Big Ten teams with best quarterbacks
Why Ohio State has the best QBs: Sure, statistically, J.T. Barrett took a step back last season with the Buckeyes' quarterback carousel. But, early on, he was still trying to kick the rust off his broken ankle and he felt himself forcing throws to one-up Cardale Jones. All those struggles, or obstacles, are gone this spring. This is Barrett's team -- and it's worth reminding just how good he was when all that wasn't an issue in the past.
In 2014, Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman voting. He set 17 school records, including total yards (3,772) and total touchdowns (45). Then-quarterbacks coach Tom Herman called him maybe the most accurate passer he's ever worked with. One B1G coordinator pointed to his mobility, saying "he can definitely win a game with his legs." That didn't go away in 2015. Barrett improved as the season wore on, and he's now a Heisman contender again in 2016. He's the clear-cut No. 1 in the conference right now.
Why Iowa and Illinois are the runners-up: All C.J. Beathard did during his first full season as a starter was guide the Hawkeyes to their first 12-0 regular season, earn team MVP honors and get named to the All-B1G second team. What made all that even more impressive was the fact Beathard accomplished most of that while playing hurt. He began limping after a Week 3 win against Pitt, and he underwent surgery after the season for a sports hernia. He's quick, tough and clutch -- and opposing defenses aren't going to enjoy facing a healthy Beathard.
On the flip side, Illinois' Wes Lunt didn't have a great season in 2015. But he didn't have a whole lot to work with, either. Wideouts Mike Dudek and Justin Hardee both missed the season with injuries, and running back Josh Ferguson also missed several games. Lunt couldn't take it all on himself, as then-coach Bill Cubit pointed out in November that Illinois' receivers dropped 49 balls in the first 10 games. Still, Lunt boasted a strong arm when healthy and, with the return of Dudek and Hardee, he could be in position for a breakout season as a fifth-year senior. Even when he struggled, he never threw many interceptions. He tossed a pick once every 80 attempts last season -- fewer than even Connor Cook, who had one interception every 58 attempts.
Team that could surprise: Michigan State Spartans
Cook may be headed to the NFL, but even he believes the Spartans are in good hands with Tyler O'Connor and Damion Terry. O'Connor boasts the arm; Terry boasts the feet. O'Connor has the edge in camp right now, but coach Mark Dantonio said he felt this would be a competition that lasts into the fall. At any rate, O'Connor stepped on in relief of Cook last season against Ohio State -- and helped beat the defending national champions, 17-14. Not bad for a first career start. There's obviously potential here.
Team that needs to step up: Maryland Terrapins
Some Big Ten schools have to deal with departing starters and the loss of team leaders at quarterback. Maryland's not one of those teams -- but still needs the most help. By far. The Terps were just historically awful in 2015. Over the past 20 years, no team threw more than Maryland's 29 interceptions. Maryland's combination of Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, who both return, combined to complete less than half their pass attempts and throw twice as many picks as touchdowns. The Terps also finished last in the nation in turnovers. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Walt Bell is a great assistant, but he has a lot to fix this spring.