Sigh. [Bryan Fuller]
In some ways, Michigan's 2017 schedule is daunting. They open the season with a tough test against Florida, travel to Penn State and Wisconsin, and face one of the decade's two best programs to cap the regular season. In other ways, it looks quite navigable: Michigan should be favored in at least a couple of the aforementioned games, they get Ohio State at home, and they'll be heavy favorites against the rest of the schedule.
This post is the first in a series ranking the position groups of M's 2017 opponents. It's also the most illustrative of the dichotomy between the top teams in the Big Ten East and everyone else on the schedule. Michigan plays a couple of potential Heisman contenders at quarterback; they also go against a series of teams whose QB situations are either unsettled or downright bad. To wit: I briefly considered Air Force for the #3 spot on this list.
While these rankings skew heavily towards the ability of the starting quarterback, I also took depth and backup quality into account. The first two teams on this list will come as no surprise.
1. Ohio State
At this point, JT Barrett is one of the most-known commodities in college football. While he hasn't developed into a pinpoint passer, especially on deep throws, he's an ideal fit for Urban Meyer's power spread because of his frustratingly effective running and smart decision-making. He threw 14 touchdowns against only four picks in Big Ten games last year, and while he posted a mediocre 6.5 yards per attempt, he did so while throwing to one of OSU's least dangerous receiving corps in a while. If a couple WRs emerge, Barrett could be right back in the Heisman mix.
This group took a hit this week when expected backup Joe Burrow broke his hand, which will keep him out indefinitely. Reserves Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell have a ton of talent but no game experience, and this isn't exactly the most comforting quote:
“Dwayne, better known as Ross in the quarterback room, my man Ross, I would say with him he’s a little risky,” said starter J.T. Barrett. “He has a little bit of mentality like Cardale. His arm can take him places but then also too it can get him in some tight spots as well, but when he’s set up to throw the ball and he’s in rhythm he has a big arm.”
I almost moved OSU behind PSU when this news broke. In the end, I stuck with the Buckeyes because of Barrett's experience, the expected improvement in the receiving corps, and the addition of former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to the coaching staff.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the list.]
2. Penn State
Trace McSorley flourished in PSU's new offense—except against M. [Bryan Fuller]
Among qualified QBs, Trace McSorley posted the best pass efficiency in Big Ten games by over 20 points. (Wilton Speight was second.) His 9.4 YPA led the conference by a full yard-and-a-half. (Again, Speight was second.) His 21 touchdowns also led the conference; he only threw three picks. In Joe Moorhead's F-it-we're-going-deep offense, McSorley provided the proverbial gunslinging without the turnover-prone downside associated with that term, and while he's no Barrett he was also an effective runner.
Without leading receiver/jump ball maven Chris Godwin, McSorley's deep passing numbers may fall back to earth a bit. He's still got plenty of talent in the receiving corps, however, and "tight end" Mike Gesicki wins more than his fair share of contested downfield catches.
Redshirt sophomore backup Tommy Stevens wasn't a highly touted guy out of high school, but he looked solid in the spring and shouldn't be a disaster if called upon.
THE GORGE OF ETERNAL PERIL
A lot of Richard Lagow's throws look like bad ideas. [Eric Upchurch]
So, yeah, there's quite a dropoff. Michigan doesn't even face Northwestern's Clayton Thorson and Nebraska's Tanner Lee, who are getting some preseason hype as the best B1G QBs in the tier after Barrett-McSorley-Speight.
Indiana's Richard Lagow has a heck of an arm; he also has obvious issues with accuracy, mechanics, and decision-making, which led to him throwing as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns in conference play while completing under 60% of his passes. He still posted the best pass efficiency mark in Big Ten play among Michigan's 2017 opponents after Barrett and McSorley.
Lagow got pushed a bit in the spring by redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey, who showed some burgeoning talent, but it's Lagow's job to lose. Yes, it says a lot about the schedule that the #3 team on here had a mild QB controversy despite a returning starter.
|Malik Zaire (ND 2015)||13/20||65.0||428||10.7||4||0||19||103||5.4||0|
|Luke Del Rio||38/67||56.7||1358||6.8||8||8||16||-43||-2.7||0|
Florida's quarterback play has largely been a disaster post-Tebow and last year was no exception; Purdue transfer Austin Appleby and sophomore Luke Del Rio posted near-identical, ugly stat lines.
While Del Rio returns, he's currently running third at best in the race to start the opener. Talented redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, a top-60 overall recruit in the 2016 class, held the job exiting the spring. The Gators added Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire over the summer, and now it's a full-blown open competition that, as of today, didn't have a clear leader:
Jim McElwain on his quarterback situation: "We're going to play a bunch of them. Not naming a starter right now."
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) August 23, 2017
Zaire looked like Notre Dame's quarterback of the future when he won the job in 2015 and torched what turned out to be an awful Texas defense in the opener. He broke his ankle the following week, however, and lost out to eventual first-rounder DeShone Kizer last season. Zaire could be a dangerous dual-threat guy, but first he has to get the offense down and beat out Franks. Facing the Gators in week one is definitely an advantage for Michigan, which won't have the same concerns about breaking in a new starting QB against a fierce defensive front.
It's Alex Hornibrook's job now with Bart Houston gone. [Fuller]
Wisconsin couldn't settle on a quarterback last year, either, going back and forth between senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Houston outplayed Hornibrook last year, averaging 9.6 YPA to Hornibrook's 6.5 in conference games, but with Houston gone to graduation there's no more competition to speak of—it's Hornibrook's job.
While much of Hornibrook's struggles can be chalked up to the usual problems facing a first-year starter, he didn't show much of an arm, and Wisconsin's offense in general has been underwhelming of late. By virtue of getting a solid amount of experience under his belt without throwing a ton of interceptions, though, Hornibrook narrowly edges out the next two on this list.
David Blough is tough to figure out. He gets some mention among the second-tier Big Ten quarterbacks; it's not easy to stay afloat in Purdue's offense, especially given how often they asked Blough to throw the ball last year. On the other hand, 21 is a whole lot of interceptions. Blough had just one pick-free game in 2016 and it came in a 50-7 loss to Maryland in which he averaged 3.2 YPA.
Blough got dinged up in a recent practice, which has opened the door for last year's backup, Elijah Sindelar, to make it a competition. Given Sindelar's stat line from last year, that may not say good things about Blough's acclimation to Jeff Brohm's new system.
7. Michigan State
With Tyler O'Connor gone to graduation, Michigan State is expected to go with redshirt sophomore Brian Lewerke, who looked solid for a first-year player before his season ended with a broken leg against Michigan. While Lewerke looked the part, showing a decent arm and above-average mobility, he didn't get to take a ton of snaps last year before injury struck; he's probably less of a sure thing than MSU fans hope.
The backup situation is cause for concern, especially if former four-star Messiah deWeaver doesn't take a leap forward. Damion Terry has piled up plenty of evidence that he's not a starter-quality quarterback in this conference. He can provide a different look as a change-of-pace, run-first QB, but he makes MSU very one-dimensional in the process.
8. Air Force
I wasn't kidding about considering Air Force for #3 on this list. Their offense got new life last year when sophomore Arion Worthman stepped in for injured senior starter Nate Romine. Worthman showed he probably should've had the job from the jump; he was an extremely dangerous runner and far more efficient passer than most in AF's option with a side of long bombs attack. While the Falcons turn over far too much of their team to have a good shot at the upset, Worthman is going to make a few plays that frustrate Michigan fans.
|Kyle Bolin (UL 2015)||78/137||56.9||1154||8.4||12||8||16||-59||-3.7||0|
After the quarterbacks were a disaster last year, Rutgers needed a fresh face. They got one in Louisville transfer Kyle Bolin, who quite understandly left after losing a battle with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Bolin performed relatively well when called upon at Louisville; he just didn't have Jackson's rushing upside (or anything close) and threw a few too many picks. To nobody's surprise, he locked down the starter job in fall camp.
NSFW language warning. There's a five-yard checkdown on 3rd and 12 in here.
This is where is starts to get dire. I thought Maryland may have stabilized their quarterback situation with former four-star Caleb Henderson, who transferred from North Carolina after he couldn't get past #2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky on the depth chart. Henderson sat out some of fall camp with a foot injury, however, and the race remains wide open.
Last year's backup, Tyrrell "Piggy" Pigrome, and true freshman Kasim Hill are the current frontrunners, and that's bad news one way or the other. Pigrome didn't look like a viable Big Ten QB while getting plenty of snaps as a change-of-pace guy last year; Hill is a true freshman, albeit a four-star. I'd assume Maryland fans want Henderson to get healthy and win the job, but he's attempted all of one career collegiate pass. Offensive coordinator Walt Bell did an impressive job putting together a dangerous rushing attack; he's got his work cut out for him in the passing game.
|Demry Croft (2015)||7/17||41.2||34||2.0||0||0||9||38||4.2||0|
PJ Fleck has finally cracked the code for getting around a QB competition: name both competitors starters!
Fleck just told media that both QBs Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will play vs Buffalo. Names both starter, guys have earned right to play.
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) August 17, 2017
Rhoda and Croft each served as Mitch Leidner's primary backup over the last two seasons. They say when you have two quarterbacks, you really have no quarterbacks, and that maxim is especially true when those quarterbacks couldn't beat out a guy who was delivering food for something called Bite Squad before finally getting an NFL training camp call in August as an injury fill-in. Both guys will also be adjusting to a significantly different system under Fleck. It's a good thing Minnesota has a couple of burly, skilled running backs.
Returning starter Hayden Moore, who was inaccurate and turnover-prone before falling to injury last year, is locked in a battle with sophomore Ross Trail. That's rather alarming given half of Trail's incompletions last year were caught by the opposing team.