Saturday Tradition's B1G quarterback rankings entering Week 0
A year ago at this time, CJ Stroud had not yet thrown a pass in a college football game. The jury was definitely out. But not for long. A 71.9% completion rate, 4,435 passing yards, 44 TD throws and only 6 interceptions counts as weighty evidence.
Ohio State’s electric young quarterback started out at No. 3 in these rankings a season ago, behind Michael Penix Jr. and Tanner Morgan. We’re all older and wiser now, plus we have some better data to go on than what the pandemic-abbreviated 2020 season provided.
Stroud took the top spot in these rankings after Week 6 last year, and he might never give it up before he leaves the Buckeyes as an NFL prospect. Other than Stroud and Penix, only Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa and Penn State’s Sean Clifford earned turns atop our weekly list in 2021.
There was plenty of turbulence below Stroud, as Tagovailoa and Clifford fell back while Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell, MSU’s Payton Thorne and Michigan’s Cade McNamara ascended.
Other than Penix, everyone mentioned so far is back for another go, as are Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz and Rutgers’ Noah Vedral. Of those, only Vedral, a 2-year starter for the Scarlet Knights, seems like he has to worry about retaining his job. At Iowa, veterans Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla are again waging a camp battle. At Northwestern, returning part-time starter Ryan Hilinski might be facing a camp challenge as well. Incoming transfers probably will start at Nebraska, Indiana and Illinois.
Unranked this week
Illinois: Tommy DeVito (transfer from Syracuse) or Artur Sitkowski
Indiana: Connor Bazelak (transfer from Missouri) or Jack Tuttle
Northwestern: Ryan Hilinski or Brendan Sullivan
Rutgers: Noah Vedral or Gavin Wimsatt
10. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin
2021 stats: 1,958 passing yards, 59.5%, 10 TDs, 11 INTs
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The Badgers are still waiting for their highly touted 2019 4-star recruit to hit his stride. With 20 starts under his belt and a great Braelon Allen-led running game to set up play action, Mertz should improve this season.
9. Spencer Petras, Iowa
2021 stats: 1,880 passing yards, 57.3%, 10 TDs, 9 INTs
The Hawkeyes don’t play quarterback-friendly offense, at least if said quarterback is trying to stand out. That’s why they’ve had a succession of 3-star recruits at the position, and why Petras is still trying to hold off Alex Padilla for the job as camp winds down.
8. Tanner Morgan, Minnesota
2021 stats: 2,044 yards, 59.6%, 10 TDs, 9 INTs
In his final season, Morgan reunites with Kirk Ciarrocca, who is back as offensive coordinator after 2 years away. If they can recreate the magic that led to Morgan’s best season in 2019 (3,253 yards, 30 TDs), the 6th-year senior will top 10,000 career yards and possibly even pass Adam Weber (10,917) as the Gophers’ all-time leader.
7. Casey Thompson, Nebraska
2021 stats (at Texas): 2,113 yards, 63.2%, 24 TDs, 9 INTs
As the Cornhuskers began fall camp, coach Scott Frost said the starting job was Thompson’s to lose. After 4 years at Texas, the 23-year-old arrives in Lincoln looking to build on the progress he made while starting his final 10 games as a Longhorn. He has shown some dual-threat skills in college, netting almost 3 yards per carry.
6. Cade McNamara, Michigan
2021 stats: 2,576 yards, 64.2%, 15 TDs, 6 INTs
The stats don’t jump off the page because Michigan ran the ball almost 60 percent of the time. But McNamara made plays when needed, leading the Wolverines to 12 wins and a CFP berth. Nonetheless, he’s being pushed by 2021 5-star recruit JJ McCarthy. However it plays out, Jim Harbaugh will have solid quarterback play again this season.
5. Sean Clifford, Penn State
2021 stats: 3,107 yards, 61.0%, 21 TDs, 8 INTs
Clifford put up solid enough passing stats even after getting blasted in the ribs by Iowa’s Jack Campbell in Week 6 last year. But he couldn’t run effectively, and Penn State’s offense sputtered without that element. The 24-year-old 6th-year senior gets one more crack at winning over Nittany Nation. He’ll become the program’s first 10,000-yard career passer if he keeps the starting assignment for at least 10 games.
4. Payton Thorne, Michigan State
2021 stats: 3,233 yards, 60.4%, 27 TDs, 10 INTs
After setting the school record for touchdown passes in a season, the 6-2, 210-pound Thorne begins his junior season as the unquestioned leader of Mel Tucker’s resurgent Spartans. If he stays healthy, the 21-year-old will be climbing MSU’s career passing lists in a hurry.
3. Taulia Tagovailoa, Maryland
2021 stats: 3,860 yards, 69.2%, 26 TDs, 11 INTs
Ah, Lia. Here we go again. (Kudos to you if you got the Donnie Iris song reference, but damn you’re old!) Tagovailoa is back for his 4th year in college and 3rd with the Terps. As coach Mike Locksley pointed out at Big Ten Media Days, his QB dominated in 2021 outside of a disastrous 5-interception game against Iowa. With fellow upperclassmen Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus Jr. back and healthy at receiver, Tagovailoa could reach even greater heights this season — especially if Maryland can put a serviceable O-line in front of him.
2. Aidan O’Connell, Purdue
2021 stats: 3,708 yards, 71.8%, 28 TDs, 11 INTs
At this time last year, Jack Plummer had earned the starting job at Purdue. He even rose to No. 2 in these rankings early in the season. But now Plummer is in the Pac-12 with Cal, because pass-happy Purdue coach Jeff Brohm settled his multi-year quarterback competition once and for all in Week 5 last year. From that point on, O’Connell averaged 370.7 passing yards over the Boilermakers’ final 9 games. He went well over 500 yards in victories against Michigan State and bowl opponent Tennessee.
1. CJ Stroud, Ohio State
2021 stats: 4,435 yards, 71.9%, 44 TDs, 6 INTs
Stroud set a school record with 573 passing yards and tied one with 6 TD throws in a 48-45 Rose Bowl victory over Utah. That’s where he left off. With favorite target Jaxon Smith-Njigba back and stud receivers in line to replace NFL first-round picks Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Stroud should be even better in his sophomore season.