Big Ten

Five Big Ten quarterbacks to watch in 2016

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Five Big Ten quarterbacks to watch in 2016

J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

Let’s start with the obvious. Barrett will be a Heisman Trophy favorite two years removed from being the conference’s top quarterback. Last season, Urban Meyer’s quarterback confusion led to Barrett not taking over as the full-time starter until midway through the season, but when he finally did, he proved why he should’ve been taking every snap since Game 1. He scored 20 total touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ final eight games, including a total of 12 in three games against Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers. This will be the first season in Barrett’s career in which he’ll have the keys to the car from Day 1, the unquestioned starter from the end of one season to the start of the next. We all know what the guy can do. So get ready.

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern

There are plenty of quarterbacks in the conference in need of making a big leap, but none might be as important to his team as Thorson. Last season, the Wildcats won 10 games behind one of the best defenses in the country, but the offense was a mess. The total offense ranked 115th out of 127 FBS teams, and the passing offense was worse at 119th. Behind Thorson, the Cats mustered just 138.5 passing yards a game. That doesn’t mean he didn’t show promise. He did, particularly as a quarterback who could make plays with his arm and his legs. With running back Justin Jackson one of the conference’s best and the defense primed for another big year behind the excellent Anthony Walker at linebacker, a better season out of Thorson could have Northwestern in position for a West Division title.

Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska

While Armstrong can never officially be the Big Ten’s interception king while those dudes at Maryland are still taking turns pitching passes to opposing defenders, there’s no doubt the senior Cornhuskers will need to improve his accuracy if he wants to make Mike Riley’s second season in Lincoln different from his first. Following last offseason’s coaching change, Nebraska experienced a grotesque 5-7 regular season. Yes, many of those losses featured razor-thin margins. And yes, the Huskers were the only team to beat conference-champ Michigan State during the regular season. But five wins is never going to sit well with anyone in Lincoln. And Armstrong is the guy who can change that. His athleticism is unquestioned, the guy can make plays. But a 55.2-percent completion percentage to go along with 16 interceptions could use some improvement, to say the least.

Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State

The heir apparent to Connor Cook has some big shoes to fill. Cook could very well be the best quarterback the Spartans have ever had, while O’Connor has barely seen the field in his time in East Lansing. Of course, it was O’Connor that was under center for the majority of Michigan State’s signature win over Ohio State last season. He completed seven passes in that game for 89 yards and a touchdown, but there’s not too much more game action for Mark Dantonio to go on. It will be a preseason competition between O’Connor and Damion Terry, though many believe it’ll be O’Connor. Some more tough news for O’Connor: There’s no Tony Lippett or Aaron Burbridge — Michigan State’s back-to-back Big Ten Receivers of the Year — to ease him into his first season as starter.

Wes Lunt, Illinois

It’s almost hard to believe this is already the end of Lunt’s Illini career. A senior now on his third head coach in his three years of on-field action, will Lunt finally turn into the quarterback Illinois fans all expected him to be when he transferred in from Oklahoma State? He got off to a rip-roaring start in his sophomore season, taking advantage of poor competition before getting injured and swapped out in favor of Reilly O’Toole. Last season as a junior, Lunt averaged 230.1 yards a game, good for fifth in the Big Ten, but the Illinois offense still ranked as one of the league’s worst. Again without top weapon Mike Dudek for the 2016 campaign, Lunt again will run into a gauntlet of menacing Big Ten defenses with Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern all on the schedule. Lunt never seems to lack confidence, but with a pretty bare cupboard of targets, can he finally get the Illini offense off the ground?

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?