- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Before the season began, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. That was based on projections and assumptions, but now we have a full season's worth of data.
So it's time to go back and assign a final 2011 ranking to each position in the league. We'll start, as usual, with the quarterbacks. You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth will matter more at other positions, but for this one, we're mostly concerned how the main guy fared this past season.
Let's kick it:
1. Wisconsin: When we did this list in June, we didn't know yet if Russell Wilson would transfer to the Badgers. That's why we ranked Wisconsin No. 11 at the time. That seems ludicrous now. Wilson broke the NCAA single-season record for pass efficiency (191.8), finishing ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. He completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards and had 33 touchdowns and only four interceptions. If that's not enough to qualify for the top spot, I don't know what is.
2. Michigan State: I'm not sure if Kirk Cousins' 2011 season was properly appreciated nationally. Cousins led the Big Ten in passing yards with 3,316 while completing 63.7 percent of his passes and throwing 25 touchdowns. He was especially good down the stretch as the Spartans' offense took off and remained one of the best leaders in college football. And Cousins didn't get nearly the same amount of support from the running game that Wilson did.
3. Michigan: Denard Robinson's numbers declined in several key areas from 2010, including his rushing yardage, passing yardage and completion percentage. Meanwhile, his interceptions went up and there was little doubt he struggled at times. Yet Robinson also had two of the most spectacular individual efforts of the season in wins against Notre Dame and Ohio State, and he still led the Big Ten in total offense per game. And in the end, it's pretty hard to argue against an 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl title.
4. Northwestern: A lingering Achilles' tendon injury and an awful defense helped obscure the fact that Dan Persa had another outstanding year when healthy. He completed 73.4 percent of his throws and actually averaged more passing yards per game (237.6) than any other Big Ten quarterback. Persa's mobility, however, was limited and that made him much less of a running threat. Kain Colter fulfilled that role and did a nice job stepping in for Persa, including his heroics in an upset win at Nebraska.
5. Nebraska: Taylor Martinez's improvement wasn't easy to measure in statistics. His completion percentage dipped to 56.3 in 2011, and he had far less of an impact running the ball over the last half of the season — he failed to run for more than 56 yards and did not have a rushing touchdown in the final seven games. But Martinez got better as a game manager and leader and remained a dual threat defenses had to account for. And he learned to protect the ball better, throwing just three interceptions in his final eight games.
6. Iowa: James Vandenberg put up some good numbers in his first year as a full-time starter, throwing for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns. But he compiled a lot of his stats against bad defenses like Pitt, Louisiana-Monroe, Indiana and Northwestern. He wasn't nearly as good in losses to Nebraska, Michigan State and Penn State. Vandenberg has the potential to be the best pure passer in the Big Ten, but he needs to become more consistent.
7. Ohio State: The Buckeyes would have ranked at or near the bottom of this list after the first half of the season, after initial starter Joe Bauserman was benched and freshman Braxton Miller went through some early growing pains. While Miller's passing was often reigned in, he was extremely effective as a runner, rushing for for at least 90 yards five times. Miller showed the whole package in an impressive performance against Michigan to end the regular season. With Urban Meyer's tutelage, Miller could put the Buckeyes at the top of this list in the near future.
8. Purdue: The Boilermakers' quarterback situation looked bleak to start the year, as projected starter Rob Henry went down with an ACL injury and backup Robert Marve was slow to recover from his own knee problems. But while Purdue wasn't flashy at the position, it got decent production from Caleb TerBush and from Marve later in the year. Combined, they passed for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns, and TerBush was the team's fourth leading rusher.
9. Illinois: Nathan Scheelhaase looked like he'd claim a spot as one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks with a solid start to the season, including a 426-yard, four-touchdown showing in a win over Northwestern. But like the rest of the Illini offense, his production fell off a cliff in the second half of the season, and the sophomore appeared to lose his confidence along the way. Freshman Reilly O'Toole came in for certain situations and looked close to usurping the starting job. Scheelhaase bounced back with a nice second half in the bowl win against UCLA. Now he'll have to adjust to new coach Tim Beckman's spread offense.
10. Minnesota: Early in the season, it was hard to tell if MarQueis Gray or freshman Max Shortell would win coach Jerry Kill's favor and seize control of the offense. Neither was particularly effective. But Gray, who made the transition from wide receiver, started to find a groove late in the year. He led the upset against Iowa and ran for 327 yards in the final two games. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder is hard to stop when he takes off running, but he must improve on his 50-percent completion rate.
11. Indiana: The Hoosiers played quarterback roulette for the first half of the season, rotating between Ed Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel. But when they finally settled on freshman Tre Roberson, they found their signal-caller of the present and future. Roberson is still a bit raw but has tremendous athleticism and instincts. He ran for 121 yards and threw for 169 against Northwestern, showing that he could be yet another dangerous dual threat quarterback in this league going forward.
12. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' handling of the quarterback situation was baffling and counterproductive in 2011. Penn State continued to trot out Rob Bolden as the starter for much of the year even though Matt McGloin was clearly the better option. McGloin did the heavy lifting off the bench, but he was not exactly a world-beater either, completing just 54 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State mostly because they put a couple of receivers in the Wildcat formation, and when McGloin couldn't play in the TicketCity Bowl, Bolden struggled. New coach Bill O'Brien will quickly learn that Tom Brady isn't walking through that door in 2012.