Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten. 

1. The B1G Story

The early signing period begins today, and there’s more at stake now than ever when it comes to building a program.

Specifically, building it with the right quarterback.

Already the college football landscape has been hit with a barrage of quarterbacks leaving for the transfer portal.

“It’s at the point now where recruiting the right quarterback from the transfer portal is as important, or more important, than signing one (from high school),” one Big Ten coach told me this week. “Unless you’re talking about an elite 4- or 5-star quarterback (recruit), you’re probably better off getting a guy from the portal.”

Spencer Rattler, a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, was the first major transfer to announce his plans (South Carolina). Other big names have entered the transfer portal (Kedon Slovis of USC, Zach Calzada of Texas A&M), and Big Ten coaches I spoke to over the last week believe there could be a significant number of transfers within the conference by the end of spring practice.

“Guys want to play, coaches need to win now,” another Big Ten coach said. “The idea of development and patience and learning from the guy in front of you is getting pushed aside.”

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, who left Lincoln days after a loss to Iowa to end the season, is being pursued by numerous schools – but seems to have zeroed in on Kansas State.

Michael Penix Jr., who led a rebirth of Indiana in the 2020 season but struggled in 2021, has passed through the portal to Washington. Jack Plummer of Purdue, a junior and part-time starter who had 7 TDs and 0 INTs, is in the portal.

Among the potential departures: 1 of 2 Iowa quarterbacks (Spencer Petras or Alex Padilla) and Ohio State freshman Kyle McCord. Ohio State’s Quinn Ewers (headed to Texas) and Jack Miller and Penn State’s Ta’Quan Roberson have already entered the portal.

There are roughly 57 quarterbacks currently in the transfer portal, and all of them have immediate eligibility. One Big Ten coach told me he expected “at least half” of the programs in the Big Ten to add a quarterback from the portal.

“There are too many positives to adding a quarterback (from the portal), and they far outweigh any negatives,” another Big Ten coach told me.

Those positives, with comments from Big Ten coaches:

  • Experience. “If you can get a guy who has started FBS games, he has been through the gauntlet. He knows what it’s like when the bullets are flying. Nothing will surprise him about what happens on or off the field, with the entire college experience. He has seen it all.”
  • Accepting coaching: “Too many high school guys get to this level and don’t understand the difference between coaching and criticism. They take it too personal. It’s not personal; it’s coaching and development. We’re in this together. If you win, we win.”
  • Leadership: “The media kind of scoffs at the whole leadership thing, but believe me, it’s at the top of the list when you’re talking about developing quarterbacks. They’re the tip of the spear of the program. They have to be leaders; they have no choice. Some embrace it, some don’t. It’s hit and miss with high school recruits. Many of them don’t have the internal fortitude yet.”
  • Motivation: “With most of these guys, they’re humbled by it not working out at the first school. They’re hungry, they’ve got something to prove. The clock is ticking on these guys, and none of them wants to get into a situation where they’re transferring again. They want it now.”

Among the schools that could be looking for transfer quarterbacks: Michigan State, Minnesota (which lost 2 backups to the portal), Nebraska, Wisconsin (more on that later), Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers.

“It’s an immediate upgrade – if he fits your culture,” another Big Ten coach said. “Guys are transferring for a reason. Sometimes it’s as simple as they got beat out by a better player, and that doesn’t mean they’re not talented. The key is figuring out why, and making an informed decision.”

2. Now or never

Graham Mertz is facing a critical moment in his time at Wisconsin.

Play well in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State, or watch Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst sign a quarterback from the transfer portal.

While Chryst has been publicly supportive of Mertz, he has a history of developing strong quarterbacks at Wisconsin and other coaching stops — as both a head coach and assistant.

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He also has a history of moving on to the next guy if it’s not working out.

Mertz, the former mega recruit, had 7 TDs and 0 INTs in his first 2 starts in 2020. Since then, he’s 10-7 as a starter and has thrown 11 TDs and 15 INTs. He is completing less than 60 percent of his passes, and is averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt.

While those numbers aren’t good, they’re more concerning based on the Wisconsin offense. Chryst’s run-oriented offense sets up the quarterback for success by throwing off play action.

“The way they run the ball, you have a good chance to have a high level of success there,” one NFL scout told me. “The throws are almost predetermined. Because safeties are cheating in run support, the throws are there if they’re read correctly and thrown accurately. (Mertz) has really struggled the last couple of years. I don’t think Paul (Chryst) will settle for much more of that.”

Wisconsin was 2-3 vs. ranked teams this season, but Mertz was little factor in both wins (Purdue, Iowa), completing just 16 passes for 156 yards and no touchdowns.

In the season final against Minnesota – with the Big Ten West Division on the line – Wisconsin had a 7-game winning streak snapped when the Badgers couldn’t run the ball and the game was on the arm of  Mertz.

He threw 38 passes and had just 171 yards (4.5 yards per attempt), and had a critical interception inside the Wisconsin 30 that Minnesota converted into a 2-play touchdown drive.

3. A new Green road

Mel Tucker changed the face of Michigan State football last season by signing critical transfer portal players who made immediate impacts.

That doesn’t mean he can’t recruit at the high school level.

His third recruiting class in East Lansing will be his best, and the top 20 ranking could grow in the coming weeks until National Signing Day in February.

“I’ve been all over the country,” Tucker said. “Everyone is talking about Michigan State.”

Tucker was an ace recruiter at both Alabama and Georgia, and his first 2 classes at Michigan State were in the 40s (44 in 2020, 46 in 2021), according to the 247Sports composite. There wasn’t a track record, and he wasn’t a known quantity in the Midwest.

That all changed after the 2020 season, despite the 2-win season and nothing to show from a Covid-shortened schedule. His first 2 classes at Michigan State didn’t have a single 4-star recruit.

His class today will have at least 5 (and maybe 1 or 2 more), and could add a 5-star recruit in OT Kiyaunta Goodwin, who has verbally committed to Kentucky. Goodwin took his final visit to Michigan State last weekend, but the staff feels good about their chances. His decision is expected this afternoon.

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: grading the current QB status.

1. Michigan: If Cade McNamara struggles against Georgia’s defense, there could be an opening in the spring for talented backup JJ McCarthy.

2. Ohio State: CJ Stroud was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but what’s behind him? Kyle McCord or 4-star recruit Devin Brown.

3. Michigan State: Payton Thorne was solid, but struggled in big games. Don’t be shocked if Tucker adds a transfer portal QB.

4. Iowa: Petras or Padilla? If Iowa plans on expanding the offense into more QB run concepts (like the rest of CFB), Padilla is the easy choice.

5. Penn State: Sean Clifford returning for his sixth season is huge; his injury history isn’t. Christian Veilleux played well in 1 start vs. Rutgers (3 TDs, 0 INTs).

6. Minnesota: The prime candidate for transfer portal quarterbacks. That’s right, plural.

7. Wisconsin: Mertz has the talent. Will Chryst stay with him another season, or find a replacement in the portal?

8. Purdue: Aidan O’Connell says he plans on returning to Purdue in 2022. The loss of Plummer means Purdue could sign a portal player.

9. Maryland: Taulia Tagovailoa was hit and miss, but the talent is clearly there. Maryland must improve the O-line.

10. Illinois: Injuries and ineffective play in Year 1 under coach Bret Beilema will lead to at least 1 portal signing.

11. Nebraska: The QB room is wide open. Among the numerous possibilities: former LSU QB Myles Brennan, whose passing game coordinator at LSU, Mickey Joseph, recently joined the NU staff.

12. Rutgers: Freshman Evan Simon and sophomore Cole Snyder are there, but Greg Schiano’s top 20 recruiting class doesn’t include a quarterback. Expect a portal signing.

13. Northwestern: Wildcats haven’t exactly had success from transfers (Hunter Johnson, Ryan Hilinski), but that doesn’t mean the portal won’t be used again.

14. Indiana: Freshman Donaven McCulley has talent, Jack Tuttle has been hit and miss. Expect the Hoosiers to land at least one from the portal.

5. The Weekly Five

Five keys to Michigan beating Georgia:

1. Follow the Alabama plan. Throw first to set up the run, and hit an early deep ball to Cornelius Johnson or Andrel Anthony.

2. Don’t give up on the run. If the threat of the pass is there, the interior is vulnerable and hard-running TB Hassan Haskins can get to the second level by forcing broken tackles.

3. Get after QB Stetson Bennett from the edge. Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo are quick and disruptive, and the D-line has created opportunities for them with stunts and games up front. Confuse the Georgia O-line, get home and affect Bennett.

4. Spy Bennett. It took Alabama 2 quarters to figure this out: spy Bennett with a single defender so he can’t pick up critical yards and extend drives. Those runs ended in the second half, and the Georgia offense struggled when Bennett had to make throws to extend drives.

5. Don’t get caught up in the moment: You’ve played big games this season and flourished. This one is no different.