Was it just me, or was the B1G quarterback play in 2019 really good? It was better than I think most expected.
Ohio State’s Justin Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Sean Clifford replaced Trace McSorley and Penn State didn’t seem to miss a beat. Tanner Morgan rose from a projected backup to leading the B1G in passing average. There were a handful of other intriguing stories from across the B1G involving the most important position in football.
And, if you love quarterback play, I’ve got some good news. Some of the B1G’s top passers are returning for the 2020 season. That could result in one of the better quarterback years the conference has seen in some time.
With so many skilled quarterbacks returning next year, I’ve listed the five best who will be back on the field in 2020.
5. Adrian Martinez, Nebraska
We witnessed a bit of a sophomore slump in Lincoln in 2019. Martinez entered last fall as one of the quarterbacks perceived to be the best in the B1G and was receiving plenty of Heisman Trophy love. All of that evaporated pretty quickly, though.
Martinez’s numbers declined in every statistical category from his freshman campaign as Nebraska missed bowl eligibility for a third-straight season. He finished the year with just 10 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, with his completion rate dropping by five percent (59.4). Nagging injuries obviously contributed to the drop-off in production, but more was expected from the dual-threat quarterback.
A player of Martinez’s talent level is capable of responding in a big way, and shouldn’t be dismissed as one of the top returning quarterbacks in the B1G. With more incoming talent around him and some offensive staff changes, Martinez has a great opportunity for a bounce-back year next fall. And with a favorable schedule in the first half of the season, he’ll have a chance to get a rhythm established in his third year.
4. Michael Penix Jr., Indiana
The reality is that Penix has the skill to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the B1G next season, but there are some concerns that keep him just outside for right now.
Penix operated in Kalen DeBoer’s system well and provided a new dynamic under center that Indiana hasn’t had in awhile. The rising sophomore showcased the ability to stretch the field, maneuver in the pocket and find playmakers frequently. Penix had that “this guy is for real” moment against Michigan State, completing 33-of-42 pass attempts for 286 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for an additional score. Unfortunately for Penix and the Hoosiers, his season didn’t extend much further than that game.
For the second-straight year, Penix’s season was cut short due to injury, playing in just six games as a redshirt freshman. He threw for 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns while completing passes at a 68.8 percent clip. If not for the injury concern, Penix might’ve cracked the top three on this list. So far, he’s not been able to stay healthy, so that will be a major question for IU in the 2020 season.
Additionally, DeBoer took the head coaching job at Fresno State, leaving Indiana after one year. Even though Tom Allen plans to keep the offense similar to what DeBoer installed by promoting Nick Sheridan from within, there will still be some change. How Penix responds to a third offensive coordinator in as many years is worth keeping an eye on in the fall.
3. Sean Clifford, Penn State
Stepping into a position that was occupied by Trace McSorley for three years is not an easy task. Yet Clifford was pushed into the spotlight and produced a year better than most expected.
Clifford proved to be a threat with his arm and his legs, accounting for over 3,000 total yards and 28 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. He was the engine behind an offense that averaged 35.1 points per game (second-highest in the B1G) and ended the year with an 11-2 record, including a 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
Imagine the damage Clifford can do with a full year now under his belt.
Not only does Clifford possess experience now, he’s also got great weapons with a loaded backfield, wide receiver Jahan Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth all returning. Oh, and Kirk Ciarrocca — the mastermind behind one of the best passing offenses in the B1G at Minnesota last season — is now running the show in Happy Valley. Clifford has the potential to put up Heisman-like numbers in his junior season.
Clifford’s biggest issue last season was his completion percentage, hitting targets less than 60 percent of the time. With a little more accuracy, the Penn State gunslinger can engineer one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country in 2020.
2. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
Through the first few games, we thought Morgan’s excellence under center was somewhat of a fluke. But when it lasts the entirety of a season, there’s a little more too it than bad competition and a few lucky plays.
Morgan finished the season averaging 250.2 passing yards per game, the highest average in the B1G. His 66 percent completion rate ranked fourth in the conference and he threw 30 touchdown passes to just seven interceptions. The result was an historic 11-win season for Minnesota, including a 31-24 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
If that isn’t enough to sell you on Morgan, how about the fact that he completed 21-of-22 passes against Purdue (95.5 percent) for 396 yards and four touchdowns, and 18-of-20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns against Penn State. The Gophers won both games.
Morgan isn’t the most flashy guy on the field, but he possesses a high football IQ and trusts his receivers to make a play. He’s also mobile enough to extend plays or pick up a few extra yards with his legs.
Minnesota is losing Ciarrocca as the offensive coordinator and leading receiver Tyler Johnson, which are obviously huge blows. But with Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas all returning, Morgan has all the weapons necessary to lead one of the top passing offenses in the conference again.
1. Justin Fields, Ohio State
As talented as the other four quarterbacks are on this list, Fields is on another level. It’s unheard of to get through a league as brutal as the B1G with just one interception through 13 games. It’s even more ridiculous to account for 50 total touchdowns with just that one pick.
Fields answered any and all questions thrown his way this season. The Georgia transfer quarterback had no issues fitting in right away as a first-time starter at one of the premier programs in college football. And his arrival in Columbus is the reason why the Buckeyes claimed a third-straight B1G title and made their first appearance in the College Football Playoff since 2016.
The knee injury Fields sustained near the end of the season was obviously a hindrance for Ohio State’s final two games against Wisconsin in the B1G Championship Game and Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. But when Fields was healthy, there was only one quarterback in the country more prolific — Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.
In wins over No. 9 Penn State, No. 18 Michigan and No. 11 Wisconsin in the final three weeks before bowl season, Fields completed 63 percent of his passes for 789 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He didn’t shy away from the big moments.
Now, with a full year of experience under center and an entire offseason to heal, Fields will be expected to build off his sophomore campaign, in which he threw for a B1G-best 3,273 yards and 41 touchdowns, along with 484 rushing yards and 10 scores on the ground.
Fields is already one of the two favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in 2020, behind only Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.