When Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema arrived at Big Ten media days in Chicago last month, he was surprised to learn who wouldn't be joining him.
"Usually everyone has their quarterback, and there were a lot of teams that didn't have theirs," Bielema said. "That made a huge statement to me. I didn't bring ours because I didn't know who it was going to be."
Only five Big Ten teams brought their quarterbacks to the Second City. Of the group, only three were returning starters and just two -- Penn State's Daryll Clark and Illinois' Juice Williams -- had started every game in 2008.
Media day rosters don't mean everything, and to be fair, the Big Ten's preseason offensive player of the year, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, stayed home in Columbus. But the lack of proven quarterbacks invited to Chicago underscores a trend that has undoubtedly contributed to the Big Ten's recent struggles in the national spotlight.
Since 2006, when Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith hoisted the Heisman Trophy in midtown Manhattan, the Big Ten has been losing the arms race and the big games.
Two seasons ago, the league had only one quarterback rated among the nation's top 35 passers -- Ohio State's Todd Boeckman, who ranked 13th with a 148.9 rating -- and just two players among the nation's top 35 in pass yards.
Things seemingly got worse last fall.
Clark finished as the Big Ten's highest-rated passer, at No. 25 nationally (143.44). Five conferences had multiple quarterbacks finish among the top 25. Williams, meanwhile, was the only Big Ten quarterback ranked among the top 25 in pass yards per game (16th, 264.4 ypg). Only four Big Ten signal-callers averaged more than 200 pass yards a game.
"The one thing I took out of last year more than anything is the play of the quarterback is pivotal to your success," said Bielema, whose Badgers struggled mightily at the quarterback spot and tumbled from a No. 8 ranking to a 7-6 finish. "Because that position is so key in winning, that's a big part of it.
"And how do people fix the Big Ten? Win."
The mending process should accelerate this fall for a league that has lost six consecutive BCS bowl games, six consecutive Rose Bowls and much of the national respect it built up for decades.
The Big Ten returns its top six rated passers from 2008. Williams enters his fourth year as a starter, while Minnesota's Adam Weber begins his third. Hopes have been raised for Clark, Pryor and Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, each of whom helped his team to a January bowl last season.
"Our league and our nonconference profile or success will be better this year because of that stat alone," Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Last year, there were a lot of first-time quarterbacks starting, and it makes a huge difference. When you have your top quarterbacks in the league returning, that league's going to be pretty good."
In addition to the returnees, several newcomers at quarterback could become stars.
"I go back to 2002," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Nobody saw Brad Banks coming down the street. He just took off and played extremely well, so there will be some good stories this year."
Several of the Big Ten's returning quarterbacks also boast the versatility and explosiveness often needed to have success at the highest level in today's college football.
Clark, Pryor, Williams and Weber all are effective on the move, and teams like Michigan, Northwestern and Michigan State likely will start mobile quarterbacks this fall. The league also is recruiting more multitalented quarterbacks like Michigan's Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson, Minnesota's MarQueis Gray and Penn State's Kevin Newsome.
"You're starting to see [Big Ten] teams, for the majority, target those types of quarterbacks now," said Todd McShay, director of college football scouting for ESPN's Scouts Inc. "They've been behind the curve, but obviously Michigan with their guys, Ohio State with Troy Smith and now Terrelle Pryor, Juice Williams certainly was in that mold coming out of high school, and Daryll Clark is one of the better versions of a dual-threat quarterback.
"They're starting to head in that direction just a little bit later than some of the other conferences."
McShay said a playmaking quarterback isn't a prerequisite for winning BCS bowls, but having a game-changer in the backfield masks other weaknesses.
Rodriguez has seen the increased demands placed on quarterbacks in recent years make the position "more of a focal point than ever."
"The quarterbacks in the Big Ten this year, they're more dynamic," Williams said. "Obviously, we've got Terrelle Pryor, Daryll Clark, Adam Weber spinning the ball through the air, along with myself. You have guys who can make plays, whether it's with their arm or their legs."
More difference-makers should help, but Big Ten quarterbacks still must overcome several obstacles to put up silly stats in 2009. Defense remains the flavor of choice in the league, as three Big Ten teams (Iowa, Ohio State and Penn State) ranked among the top eight nationally in points allowed last fall.
Much of the league also remains run-oriented on offense.
The general style of play also varies from conferences like the Big 12, where "it was seven-on-seven every week, a lot of guys throwing the ball around and throwing it well," Ferentz said.
Climate also could be a factor -- nine of the top 10 rated passers in the nation from 2008 played in warm-weather states -- but Big Ten coaches don't want to make excuses.
"The quarterback's going to be judged on how many games he wins," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said. "It goes back to the national talk of the Big Ten conference, that we're not as good. That's something we have to accept. Because until we go win the bowl games and we go do the things you have to do, that's the way it is."
The message sinks in for the men ultimately charged with repairing the Big Ten's rep.
"We'll be able to apply some pressure on a lot of defenses this year, but most of all, we've got to win," Williams said. "Somehow, someway, we've got to come up with a win."
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com