Big Ten Football: 10 Best Big Ten Quarterbacks of All Time
The Big Ten has had a fair share of the top quarterbacks in college football over the years. Deciding between the likes of dual-threats like Terrelle Pryor, Antwaan Randle El and Troy Smith and pocket-passers like Kerry Collins, Chuck Long and Tom Brady can be a difficult task.
Yet that is the task we are faced with today, following up on the great list from Jake Martin about the top SEC quarterbacks of all time. Similar to Martin, the list of top Big Ten quarterbacks is based on statistics, championships, Hall of Fame inductions, major awards and pure athleticism.
In addition, the most recent players tend to be better overall than those of the pre-1960s era, so the number of players breaking into the Top 10 from a long time ago is minimal. However, this should help you recognize many of the players on the list.
Who will come out on top? Get ready for some history and some legendary names.
Secondary Honorable Mentions: CFB Hall of Fame Inductees
Although each of these players does not make the list on the following slides, they are among the 24 Big Ten athletes inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. These are the great players who made the Big Ten what it is today. No list of great Big Ten quarterbacks would truly be complete without including these gentlemen:
Aubrey Devine - Iowa (1918-1921)
Paddy Driscoll - Northwestern (1916-1918)
Pete Elliott - Michigan (1945-1948)
Benny Friedman - Michigan (1924-1926)
Paul Giel - Minnesota (1950-1953)
Chic Harley - Ohio State (1916-1919)
Jimmy Johnson - Northwestern (1904-1905)
Rex Kern - Ohio State (1967-1970)
Glenn Killinger - Penn State (1918-1921)
John McGovern - Minnesota (1906-1909)
Shorty Miller - Penn State (1910-1913)
Harry Newman - Michigan (1929-1932)
Mike Phipps - Purdue (1966-1969)
Ernie Rentner - Northwestern (1929-1932)
Gaylord Stinchcomb - Ohio State (1916-1920)
George Taliaferro - Indiana (1945-1948)
Nile Kinnick: Iowa (1936-1939)
Kinnick is more known as a running back for the Hawkeyes, but he led the team as a quarterback in his senior season. That year, he won nearly every national award possible as player of the year, scoring 16 of the 19 Iowa touchdowns that season. Six of his 14 Iowa records have not yet been broken, and he remains the only Heisman Trophy winner from Iowa City, netting him an honorable mention (despite not really being a quarterback full time).
Randy Duncan: Iowa (1956-1958)
Duncan almost quit the Hawkeyes to go play for Iowa State when he barely won the backup quarterback job in 1956, but thankfully he did not leave, as his career would be blessed by some timely injuries to starter Ken Ploen. He led a comeback that saved the season and then also played a quarter of the Rose Bowl that season.
Duncan then started in 1957 and 1958, leading the Hawkeyes to a 24-3-2 record during his tenure. Iowa finished in the top 10 of the AP poll and won two Rose Bowls during his time at Iowa City. Duncan was the first overall draft pick in the NFL draft of 1959, and then was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
Richie Lucas: Penn State (1957-1959)
Lucas was known as "Riverboat Richie" during his time at quarterback because he loved to gamble on play calls when running the offense. Lucas was of Russian descent, but he was born in Pennsylvania and stayed close to home to lead the Nittany Lions during the early part of Joe Paterno's coaching career (Paterno was still an assistant at the time).
Lucas was the first draft choice of the Buffalo Bills in the newly-formed AFL, and he became the first roster player of that organization's history. He only played two seasons in Buffalo, but he made his mark just like he did when playing for the Nittany Lions. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
Tom Brady: Michigan (1996-1999)
It may be hard to believe that Tom Brady would be stuck behind multiple quarterbacks on a depth chart, but that was the challenge that faced him in his first two seasons in Ann Arbor. After waiting behind Brian Griese and the 1997 National Championship team, Brady won the starting job in a tight battle in 1998 and 1999.
The Wolverines were 20-5 during his tenure of starting, and that included a Big Ten title and two major bowl victories over the SEC. While Brady will be ineligible for the college football Hall of Fame as a result of not being named an All-American, his legacy built later in the NFL easily propels him into honorable mention category for this list.
Terrelle Pryor: Ohio State (2008-2010)
Although this name, like Maurice Clarett, can make a Buckeye fan's stomach churn, there is no denying the absolute dominance with which Pryor took over the Big Ten during his three years in Columbus. Ohio State won three Big Ten championships and two of the three BCS bowls it participated in during his tenure (the 2010 season and Sugar Bowl have since been vacated).
Unlike his successor Braxton Miller, who is just as talented with his feet, Pryor had a long galloping stride that looked like he was not running when he was blowing past opposing defenses. Pryor will also not make the Hall of Fame because he was not an All-American, but that cannot diminish how he led the Buckeyes to remain atop the Big Ten through the end of the Jim Tressel era.
10. Bob Chappuis, Michigan
Although Tom Brady would likely end up as the most prestigious quarterback in Michigan history when considering his professional career, others Wolverines like Chad Henne and Bob Chappuis had better college numbers. Bob Chappuis starts the list of the Top 10 based on a career spanning 1942, 1946 and 1947, the break due to service in World War II.
Chappuis was actually shot down over Northern Italy during the war, but he parachuted to safety and was sheltered for the last three months of the war by Allied partisans. His return to the Wolverines was fortuitous, as he broke the record for total offense in the Big Ten in both 1946 and 1947.
The 1947 Michigan team went undefeated behind his leadership, including a 49-0 demolishing of USC in the Rose Bowl. Chappuis finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988.
9. Antwaan Randle El, Indiana
Randle El has not yet been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he deserves to be there. He was named a first-team All American by the FWAA, which should make him eligible per the player eligibility guidelines. Although he became a kick returner and wide receiver at the next level, his dynamic play at quarterback while at Indiana really broke through as the beginning of the dual-threat quarterback trend in place today.
His first game as a freshman was memorable, racking up 467 total yards with 3 passing touchdowns and no interceptions against Western Michigan. Randle El would finish the year with over 2,600 passing and rushing yards combined, which easily broke Indiana University records. He then repeated the feat of going for more than 2,500 total yards in each of his four seasons.
Although Randle El only finished sixth in Heisman voting his senior season, he was recognized as the Big Ten's best player of 2001 with the Chicago Tribune Silver Football award. Even though the parts around him could not lift Indiana into serious conference title contention, Randle El did more than his fair share to get the Hoosiers up to competitive.
8. Kerry Collins, Penn State
Kerry Collins has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but that is because his professional career has spanned this long time in the nearly two decades since he graduated. Collins finally stopped playing in the 2012 season, but his 16 years of service before then were highly distinguished in the NFL. However, Collins perhaps had his greatest success at Penn State before that long professional career.
Collins played minimally as a freshman and about half of the time as a sophomore, but the reins of the team were handed to him as Penn State entered the Big Ten in 1993. Collins struggled a bit in nine games as a junior, but then he exploded as the best quarterback in the country in 1994. Collins hit 66.7 percent of his passes for nearly 2,700 yards and 21 touchdowns, fueling the most effective Nittany Lions offense in the Joe Paterno era.
Penn State finished 12-0 and lost out on a national championship in the polls to Nebraska. Too bad the Huskers would need another 18 years to join the league, or else they could have settled it on the field. As it were, Collins led the last Penn State team with serious national title aspirations, and that, in combination with a long professional career, puts him up on this list.
7. Bob Griese, Purdue
Bob Griese grew up as an athlete and he chose Purdue because he could get a great degree while starring in baseball, basketball and football. However, his football career quickly outshone the other sports as Griese had incredible natural talent throwing the ball. Griese also acted as kicker and punter, which meant many games he scored all of the points for the Boilermakers.
Griese finished second in Heisman voting in 1966 behind Steve Spurrier, but he ended up with the better professional career by winning two Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. Griese enjoyed great success and a broadcasting career while watching his own talented quarterback son Brian Griese play for Michigan. This is one of the cardinal families in the Big Ten, like the Manning family in the SEC.
Griese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994, and he is also in the pro football Hall of Fame as well. His best games as a collegian came in an upset victory over Notre Dame (19-of-22 passing) and in the Rose Bowl in a 14-13 upset of USC.
6. Les Horvath, Ohio State
Nile Kinnick was the first quarterback in the Big Ten to win the Heisman Trophy, but he had served as a running back until his senior season when he won the award. A few years later, Les Horvath brought back the award to the Big Ten as a full-time quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes. What is interesting about this is that Horvath was only eligible because of special rules provided during World War II.
In this regard, Horvath had played for the Buckeyes from 1940 through 1942 and had graduated in 1942. After being in dentistry school for a year, head coach Carroll Widdoes convinced him to come back for the 1944 season thanks to a rule allowing for a fourth year of eligibility beyond graduation due to wartime departures. Horvath then blew away everybody with a great final season, winning the Heisman Trophy in a narrow vote.
The Buckeyes went 9-0 and won the Big Ten title, finishing No. 2 in the country. Thanks largely to Horvath, Ohio State outscored opponents by the wide 287-79 margin for the entire season. Whenever Ohio State celebrates its deep history, you will always see a couple clips of this first Heisman winner from that university.
5. Chuck Long, Iowa
Long was one of the first redshirted players under new rules in 1981, which gave coach Hayden Fry a chance to admire his young recruit, mostly on the practice field. Long impressed Fry enough to win the starting job as a redshirt freshman, a role that he only relinquished once for a single game during his four years in Iowa City.
Although Long could not quite get Iowa back to Pasadena in his first three seasons, he did put up some great performances, such as completing 22 consecutive passes against Indiana in 1984 and scoring more points against Penn State (in Happy Valley) and Texas than had ever been done before. His career was celebrated after three years and most assumed he would be gone to the NFL.
However, Long surprised all by coming back for 1985. Leading heroic comebacks against Michigan State and No. 2 Michigan helped Iowa stay at the top position in the national polls for most of the season. Only a loss to Ohio State (a typical bugaboo for the Hawkeyes) kept Iowa from winning a national title. Long finished only a slight 45 points behind Bo Jackson in the Heisman voting, which prevented Iowa from celebrating a second Heisman Trophy.
However, Long did take Iowa back to Pasadena and an outright Big Ten title in that 1985 season. Because of a couple snaps taken during the Rose Bowl of his freshman year (a loophole not in existence anymore), he is believed to be the only player to actually participate in five bowl games.
4. Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
Just like the previous man on this list Chuck Long, Tommie Frazier had great success in college that was not repeated once he became a professional. Despite being injured frequently during his career, Frazier drove Nebraska to two consecutive national titles in 1994 and 1995. This feat was not repeated until Alabama repeated last season.
Frazier took over the starting quarterback role halfway through his freshman season, and he immediately led the Cornhuskers to a New Year's Day bowl. That led to an undefeated regular season in 1993 which was only marred by a late comeback win by Florida State and Charlie Ward in the Orange Bowl. In what would be unthinkable today, Frazier was named most valuable player of the national championship despite his team losing the game.
Frazier missed most of the 1994 season due to blood clots in his leg, but he did return to lead another undefeated Cornhuskers team in another Orange Bowl, this time to a victory over Miami. The 1995 Nebraska team was perhaps the most dominant in college football history, defeating Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl to cap the national championship.
All in all, Frazier finished 45-4 at Nebraska and left the program with every accolade possible, except perhaps a Heisman Trophy (he finished second to Eddie George in 1995). His professional career was ended before it started because of continued blood clotting. However, his college career was more than enough to get him in the college football Hall of Fame in 2013.
3. Troy Smith, Ohio State
Breaking into the top three is the most recent Heisman Trophy winner in the Big Ten, that being Troy Smith of the Buckeyes. Smith did not play quarterback at all as a freshman and then only won the job when Justin Zwick was injured halfway through the 2004 season (in an embarrassing 33-7 loss that would the worst Big Ten loss during Jim Tressel's decade in Columbus).
In fact, a suspension for receiving improper benefits caused Smith to miss the bowl game in 2004 and then he had to split time with Zwick again in early 2005. That time-splitting may have cost Ohio State a victory against Vince Young and the eventual national champion Texas. However, he took the job over from there and never looked back, winning three games against Michigan and becoming a Big Ten killer.
Although Smith had plenty of scambling and running ability like more recent Buckeye quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Braxton Miller, Smith was the purest passer of the bunch. That helped him complete 67 percent of his passes as a senior, leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 regular season capped by the biggest game ever against Michigan (a 42-39 victory for the No. 1 Bucks against the No. 2 Wolverines).
Smith then won the Heisman with the highest percentage of the vote ever. That did not help him in a colossal disappointment of a BCS Championship against Florida. With top receiver Ted Ginn Jr. out with injury, Smith could only manage 4-of-14 passing for 39 yards. One might say Smith began this current SEC legacy of dominance, but he also was probably the best player of the last decade in the Big Ten.
2. Eric Crouch, Nebraska
Putting two Nebraska players from before the Big Ten days into the top four of this list is bound to annoy some readers, but we might as well celebrate the one team the conference added recently that has good football history. The debate between whether Eric Crouch or Tommie Frazier was a better quarterback is a lively one, as both had their struggles with either injury or getting benched early in the career.
Nevertheless, Crouch gets the nod (barely) because he actually won a Heisman Trophy in 2001 and he broke most of Frazier's school records early in his senior season. Although Crouch was forced to redshirt during the 1997 national championship year, he led the Cornhuskers back to glory with a 12-1 record in 1999 and then a 10-2 record in 2000.
Then in 2001, Crouch did it all for the Cornhuskers as they stormed to an 11-0 start. In addition to passing and rushing for many touchdowns, Crouch also caught a touchdown on the famous Black 41 Flash Reverse play against defending national champion Oklahoma. His best game actually came against Colorado, but the Buffaloes dominated the Nebraska defense to send the Cornhuskers to a 62-36 defeat.
Still, that did not stop Nebraska from backing into the national championship game a few weeks later, nor did it stop Crouch from winning the Heisman. Nebraska was pounded by a budding Miami dynasty 37-14 in the Rose Bowl national championship, but that should not detract from one of the best careers for a "Big Ten" quarterback. Besides, Ohio State finished that Miami dynasty off for Nebraska the following season.
1. Drew Brees, Purdue
The top of the list features another player from the last two decades, although Brees did not win the Heisman like Crouch and Smith. The Boilermaker quarterback did finish in the top four of the Heisman voting in both his junior and senior seasons, and his All-American awards will qualify him for the Hall of Fame when his professional career finally ends.
Right now, he is still a strong leader of a great offense in the NFL, and he has won a Super Bowl with the Saints. Although perhaps not as accomplished as Tom Brady overall, Brees had a much better college career at a school where great success is a rare thing. Despite not going to a Rose Bowl since 1967, Drew Brees led the team there in the 2000 season following an 8-3 finish.
Brees left college with conference records in many categories. These include passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), completions (1,026), attempts (1,678) and total offensive yards (12,693). Over a decade later, Brees still holds all of these records but the one for attempts, which was beaten by a mere nine pass attempts more from Curtis Painter, also at Purdue. That is a legacy that stands the test of time, and is cemented by his success at the next level.
Drew Brees has been wildly successful at every level at which he has competed. That gives him the top slot on the best Big Ten quarterbacks ranking of all time. Congratulations to Brees on the honor, and we look forward to seeing him in the college and professional Hall of Fame in a few years.
Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @DA_Fitzgerald and let me know how you would re-rank them in the comments below. See you next week!
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