B1G QB Power Rankings, Bowl Edition: It’s all on Justin Fields
Breaking down everything you need to know about the Big Ten’s quarterbacks.
1. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Whether Ohio State beats Clemson in the College Football Playoff and reaches the national title game ultimately falls on Fields. This is the moment Fields has been waiting for; it’s why he campaigned so hard for Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren to revisit his decision to postpone the season.
It’s concerning, though, that Fields enters the biggest game of his career coming off 2 subpar performances in his last 3 outings. After having just 3 interceptions in 14 games last season, Fields now has 5 in 6 games this season, including 2 against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The Buckeyes have been hellbent on torching defenses downfield instead of taking what the defense gives them (like running the ball against light boxes), and that really hurt them on Saturday. The 29 carries for Trey Sermon wasn’t enough, because the Wildcats couldn’t stop him. Instead, Ryan Day kept throwing the ball after big Sermon runs. It was baffling.
Northwestern clearly wasn’t going to let Fields beat them, and when you combine that with Ohio State’s best receiver, Chris Olave, missing the game due to COVID, you can see why Fields struggled a bit. It should be noted, though, that the first interception was an incredible individual play from Brandon Joseph, and the second interception was a miscommunication between Jameson Williams and Fields.
To beat Clemson, Fields needs to play a much cleaner game. For whatever reason, he doesn’t like checking the ball down to tight ends and running backs, and he sometimes forces the ball downfield or holds on to the ball too long. The tough part is that Ohio State is going to need to put up a ton of points to beat Clemson and Alabama, as the Buckeyes’ defense is not what it was last year, when it had Chase Young wreaking havoc on every play. Ohio State will be in shootouts, and Fields will have to be at the top of his game. That isn’t far-fetched; Fields is still a great QB capable of big-time performances. He is the same guy who has 60 career TD passes and only 8 INTs.
But for the first time in his career, Fields will go into a game with some doubt surrounding his ability to get it done. Ohio State will be an underdog. Whether the Buckeyes can attain their ultimate goal, it all comes down to Fields.
(Last week: 1)
2. Jack Tuttle (Indiana)
It’s a shame that we won’t see Indiana play in a premium bowl game. The Hoosiers (6-1) were snubbed from a New Year’s Six bowl. This program deserves it. But for Tuttle, maybe this is a blessing in disguise. He still has just 1 career start since Indiana has had games canceled the last 2 weeks, and now he gets one of the worst pass defenses in the country in Ole Miss (4-5), which allows 324.4 passing yards per game. Granted, the Rebels have gone up against the most explosive offenses in the country in Alabama and Florida. Regardless, this is a great spot for Tuttle to show what he can do. In his 1 game, Tuttle was terrific against an elite Wisconsin defense.
(Last week: 2)
3. Sean Clifford (Penn State)
For all of his struggles this season, it’s strange to say that Clifford currently leads the Big Ten with 1,883 passing yards and 16 TD passes. He also tied Rocky Lombardi for most interceptions (9) in the Big Ten. Granted, he is the only QB who got to play 9 games, but that’s still a feather in Clifford’s cap. (He also was pulled early against Nebraska and entered late the next week against Iowa, so it wasn’t a full 9 games by any means.) Clifford notably didn’t throw an interception the last 2 weeks, and that’s something to build on. He has a really good receiver group if Jahan Dotson comes back along with talented freshman Parker Washington.
(Last week: 6)
4. Peyton Ramsey (Northwestern)
For a while, Ramsey looked like he was going to lead Northwestern to a Big Ten title and possible Playoff berth. That’s how good Northwestern was playing — even the offense. The Wildcats probably saved a few wrinkles to their offense specifically for Ohio State, and they sure had the Buckeyes confused with their tempo and different formations. Ramsey, though, ultimately couldn’t make the big-time throws that are required to win big-time games. Auburn has one of the SEC’s best pass defenses, so Northwestern will need to show the same creativity it showed against Ohio State, like using freshman RB Cam Porter in the Wildcat.
(Last week: 3)
5. Jack Plummer (Purdue)
It would’ve been interesting to see Plummer face Indiana’s lockdown defense, but that matchup never came to fruition. We are headed for another QB battle in Lafayette this offseason. Will Plummer beat out Aidan O’Connell this time?
(Last week: 4)
6. Tanner Morgan (Minnesota)
Morgan’s encore to a brilliant 2019 season was a bit underwhelming, on the surface. His 7 TD passes and 5 INTs in 7 games won’t land Morgan on all of the fun preseason lists going into 2021. But I’m giving Morgan, and pretty much all QBs, a bit of a pass for this wacky season. The Golden Gophers were decimated by COVID, as were most teams, but they also had very limited time to work with a new offensive coordinator. Plus, Rashod Bateman opted out, opted back in and then opted out again. There wasn’t a ton of continuity for Morgan. I’m expecting him to look more like his 2019 self next year.
(Last week: 5)
7. Spencer Petras (Iowa)
Petras is peaking at the right time with 5 TDs and 0 INTs the last 2 games. He’ll get one of the SEC’s best pass defenses, Missouri, in the Music City Bowl. The Tigers (5-5) are allowing opposing QBs to complete just 58.5 percent of their passes (second in the SEC). For Petras, who has struggled with accuracy issues all season, this will show how much progress he has made.
(Last week: 11)
8. Graham Mertz (Wisconsin)
Mertz’s struggles continued against Minnesota. For the third game in a row, he didn’t have a touchdown. For the fifth game in a row, he failed to complete better than 60 percent of his passes. He is going through growing pains that most freshmen experience, especially at QB.
I found it encouraging, though, that Paul Chryst has stuck with him through it all. He called timeouts late in the first half Saturday to get the ball back and let Mertz take shots downfield, which seems like a very un-Wisconsin thing to do. Mertz briefly came out of the game for Chase Wolf to start the second half, and then returned. But Mertz got knocked out on a hit to the head during a run late in the game. Wolf re-entered and led the Badgers to the win, which included throwing a TD pass to Jack Dunn.
Who knows what Mertz’s availability will be in the bowl game against Wake Forest’s 106th-ranked pass defense. Mertz will enter 2021 as the starter, though, as last year’s starter, Jack Coan, entered the transfer portal.
(Last week: 8)
9. Adrian Martinez (Nebraska)
Martinez’s junior season looked a lot like his sophomore season (and not like his freshman season). That’s an issue for Nebraska heading into next season. Over the last 2 seasons, Martinez has 14 TDs and 12 INTs, compared with a freshman year in which he threw 17 TDs and 8 INTs. Martinez averaged a career-low 6.6 yards per attempt. And once again, Martinez is among the national leaders in lost fumbles. He had 4 turnovers in the season finale against Rutgers. The big question for Nebraska will be whether it wants to go into a fourth straight season with Martinez as the starter.
(Last week: 9)
10. Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland)
Tagovailoa will have a lot of hype coming into 2021. If he can limit his turnovers — he threw 7 interceptions on just 122 pass attempts — then he could be in for a big junior season.
(Last week: 10)
11. Payton Thorne (Michigan State)
Thorne, a redshirt freshman, enters 2021 as the favorite to start. Rocky Lombardi, who started the first 6 games, entered the transfer portal. Barring another QB transferring in, this is Thorne’s job. Sophomore Theo Day didn’t play at all this season.
(Last week: 11)
12. Cade McNamara/Joe Milton (Michigan)
The QB battle is on, and incoming 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy will be in the mix, too. Last year, the competition between Milton and the since-departed Dylan McCaffrey was the most intriguing in the Big Ten, but due to the pandemic, it all happened behind closed doors. It will be fun to follow this during the spring and summer.
(Last week: 12)
13. Isaiah Williams (Illinois)
Williams is clearly the frontrunner going into 2021. Brandon Peters “started” the season finale at QB, with Williams lined up out wide. Peters threw a backward pass to Williams, who threw it to Chase Brown for 33 yards. It was a well-designed play. The next play, Peters exited and Williams took over. Peters only played 11 snaps and didn’t complete a pass on 4 attempts. He was just 3-of-18 for 21 yards in his last 2 games.
That has opened the door for Williams, a former 4-star recruit who is an electric runner but not a refined passer. Williams threw for 120 yards and 2 TDs and added 102 yards on the ground against Penn State, with new head coach Bret Bielema looking on. Williams has yet to complete more than 50 percent of his passes in any of the 10 games he has appeared in over the last 2 years. That’s where he must improve this offseason.
(Last week: NR)
14. Noah Vedral/Art Sitkowski (Rutgers)
Vedral was unable to play against his former team, Nebraska, in the season finale. Neither Vedral nor Sitkowski distinguished himself as the guy moving forward. Though Vedral won the job in the preseason, it should be noted that he threw 8 interceptions on 221 pass attempts, while Sitkowski had no interceptions on 81 attempts.
(Last week: 14)