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?