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QB play is first step toward Big Ten fix

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten took a beating this bowl season, but rather than gripe about unfavorable locations and matchups, it's time to acknowledge a fact about the league.

The quarterback position stinks.

And in this age of college football, that equals competitive suicide.

All it took was a look across the field during bowl season to realize how far the Big Ten must progress at the quarterback spot.

The list of quarterbacks the Big Ten faced included:

  • Texas junior Colt McCoy, a Heisman Trophy finalist who ranks fourth nationally in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and ninth in passing yards.

  • USC junior Mark Sanchez, who ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency and 20th in pass yards.

  • Georgia junior Matthew Stafford, who ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency and 14th in pass yards.

  • Missouri senior Chase Daniel, who ranks fourth nationally in pass yards and fifth in total offense.

  • Kansas junior Todd Reesing, who ranks eighth nationally in both passing yards and total offense.

Of the Big Ten quarterbacks competing in bowl games, only one, Penn State's Daryll Clark, ranks among the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency (Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor did not qualify). Minnesota's Adam Weber had the most passing yards (2,761), which ranks 35th nationally.

Granted, the Big Ten's best statistical passer, Illinois' Juice Williams, didn't reach the postseason, but this league is losing the arms race.

The Big Ten had by far the best stable of running backs in the country this season, boasting three of the nation's top six ball carriers (Shonn Greene, Javon Ringer, Chris "Beanie" Wells).

Who cares?

College football has become a quarterback's game, and the Big Ten has fallen way behind. For the Big Ten to restore its place among the nation's top conferences, the fix must begin under center. It takes more than adopting the spread offense, which most Big Ten teams have done. Quarterbacks must be better developed in this conference.

And despite the league's sagging national reputation, there is hope.

The quarterback spot figures to be stronger in 2009 than it was in 2008.

  • Clark did a fabulous job this fall and should only improve despite losing his top three wide receivers. If Penn State solidifies its offensive line, Clark will be able to make plays with his arm and his legs.

  • Pryor will have a full year under his belt and should be operating in a system that better suits his talents. There's no reason why Pryor shouldn't carry the ball 15-20 times a game. He's almost impossible to tackle and consistently gets to the corner, as Texas found out Monday night. Had Ohio State continued to run Pryor more in the second and third quarters, it might have won the game.

  • Williams enters his senior year and could once again put up monster numbers if he limits interceptions. Illinois has several big-play threats at wide receiver, and if new coordinator Mike Schultz improves the run game, Williams might have a huge season.

  • Weber should be improved in his third year as the starter, especially with Eric Decker back in the fold. He'll be working with a new offensive coordinator, but has shown impressive growth so far.

  • Iowa's Ricky Stanzi established himself this fall. If he can limit interceptions and utilize his receivers, he'll have a big junior season.

  • Michigan State loses Brian Hoyer, who had a nice record but poor statistics. Kirk Cousins showed flashes this fall and will be pushed by Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol. I wouldn't be surprised if the Spartans are more dynamic at the quarterback spot in 2009.

  • Northwestern's Mike Kafka is better suited for the spread offense than his predecessor, C.J. Bacher. Kafka had 217 rushing yards in his first start this fall against Minnesota and will be a major threat if he develops as a passer.

  • Purdue's Justin Siller had a big day against Michigan and could be the answer for new coach Danny Hope. Siller's mobility gives the Boilermakers' offense an element it lacked with Curtis Painter.

Still, there are major question marks around the league. Wisconsin and Michigan need to identify capable quarterbacks, and the situations at Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana and Michigan State are far from stable.

Improved quarterback play also will help Big Ten defenses. Though Stanzi exposed Penn State's weak secondary in the second half of Iowa's 24-23 upset on Nov. 8, it took a quarterback like Sanchez to truly show the season-long deficiencies in the Lions' back half.

The Big Ten's problems certainly go beyond the quarterback spot, but until the play under center improves, the league will get exactly what it deserves.