A changing of the guard is in progress in the B1G.
Three of the top five quarterbacks statistically from 2015 are gone, leaving many teams searching for a new starter under center. Entering fall camp, a good portion of the conference was still in the midst of a quarterback battle, some of those teams finally solidifying its No. 1 guy earlier this week.
But it’s not all newbies taking snaps this fall. Despite losing some NFL-caliber talent, the B1G does have some of the nation’s most dynamic passers and dual-threat quarterbacks returning to the field.
Depth at the position is still in question, but the quality at the top of the quarterback crop is as good as any other conference in the country.
There are a handful of guys equipped with the tools to lead the B1G passing attack in 2016. Who are the most likely candidates?
Here’s the list:
5. Wilton Speight/John O’Korn, Michigan
The battle is still ongoing in Ann Arbor but whoever emerges as the No. 1 guy has a good shot to lead the B1G in passing. That’s thanks in large part to the heavy artillery the Wolverines have in their air strike.
Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt are a trio tough for defenses to stop. They’re great targets for whoever takes the snaps for the maize and blue this fall.
O’Korn has more game experience, appearing in 20 games with Houston, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 34 touchdowns in two seasons. Speight, on the other hand, has just nine completions to his name.
Whether Harbaugh goes with the former Cougar or anoints the inexperienced Speight, Michigan’s passing attack is in good hands. Both have displayed the necessary tools to lead an explosive offense.
Unless the two are splitting snaps all season long, look for Speight or O’Korn towards the top of the B1G’s passing leader board at the end of the season.
4. Wes Lunt, Illinois
Lunt enters his third season as the starter at Illinois in a career that was hindered by injuries early. Last fall, though, the Rochester, Ill. native stayed healthy and was one of the B1G’s top quarterbacks.
He ranked fifth in the conference in passing yards per game (230.1) and eighth in touchdowns (14). Lunt also protected the football well, throwing just six interceptions in 2015, the second-lowest total among 12-game starters in the B1G.
With Lovie Smith now at the helm, Illinois likely won’t rely quite as heavily on the passing game, which means fewer attempts for the three-year starter. But Lunt’s experience still keeps him in the conversation as one of the conference’s top quarterbacks.
Over the past two seasons, Lunt has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 28 TDs with just nine picks. He’s an excellent weapon for a new coaching staff to inherit and a guy who could leave Illinois as one of the most prolific passers in the program’s history.
3. C.J. Beathard, Iowa
The Hawkeyes return one of the most reliable quarterbacks in the nation for 2016.
Beathard threw just five interceptions last season, tied for the nation’s third-lowest total among passers who started 12 games or more last season. He also completed 61.6 percent of his passes, the third-best clip in the B1G.
The second-team All-B1G selection wasn’t a stat sheet stuffer last year. He only tossed 17 TD passes and never eclipsed the 300-yard mark in his first year as a starter. By that standard, Beathard’s name shouldn’t appear on this list.
Iowa quarterbacks have a tendency to blossom after their first season, though.
Like former Hawkeye passers Ricky Stanzi and James Vandenberg, Beathard has all the tools to be a top-five quarterback in the B1G. He’s elusive, accurate and can connect on deep passes. With a full season now under his belt, Beathard will be one of the most dependable guys under center center in the country.
2. Tommy Armstrong, Jr., Nebraska
Despite issues with accuracy and turnovers, Armstrong has been a top five quarterback in the B1G each of the past two seasons.
Armstrong has thrown for 6,691 yards and 53 TDs for his career. In 2015, he averaged 252.5 yards per game, the second-highest mark in the conference.
The 2016 season will bring a heavier emphasis on the running game for the Huskers. Though Armstrong won’t be dropping back as much, that’s a good thing for the seasoned quarterback. He’s posted some of his best outings when his throws have been limited.
Against Minnesota last season, Armstrong completed 18-of-26 passes for 261 yards, three scores and no interceptions. In last year’s Foster Farms Bowl, he threw just 19 passes, tallying 174 yards and a TD on 12 completions.
The Nebraska signal-caller is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the conference and arguably the country. His big arm and quick legs have made for a combination that’s hard to contain.
If he’s able to improve his consistency and stop throwing interceptions, he’ll quickly appear on several radars across the college football landscape.
1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
He’s the B1G’s top Heisman Trophy contender for a reason.
Two season’s ago, Barrett was the conference’s second-best passer, trailing only Michigan State’s Connor Cook. As a freshman, he threw for 2,834 yards and 34 TDs on the way to an 11-1 record as a starter.
Barrett is the most versatile quarterback in the conference and is one of the top play-makers in the country. Whether it’s by arm or by feet, he’s always a threat to make a game-changing play.
Last season, Barrett was questionably benched behind Cardale Jones despite a sensational 2014 season. Now, the former Freshman All-American is the unquestioned leader of the Buckeyes.
Four times Barrett has thrown for 300 or more yards in a game and he’s rushed for more than 100 yards on five occasions. As Ohio State lost a chunk of its production from last year, Barrett will be expected to generate most of the offense this fall.
He’s more than capable of living up to the task.
A season similar to his 2014 campaign should put Barrett atop the B1G in passing and could earn him the conference’s first Heisman Trophy winner since fellow Buckeye Troy Smith won the award in 2006.