Who Will Be the Big Ten Football's Leading Passer in 2014?

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterMay 21, 2014

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) during warmups before the Penn State annual Blue-White Game NCAA football scrimmage on Saturday, April 12, 2014 in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Sure, go ahead and get your jokes in about quarterbacks and passing in the Big Ten. Someone has to lead the conference in that category. 

Last year, the Big Ten had just one 3,000-yard passer: Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. With Scheelhaase gone, though, which quarterback will eclipse that total and throw for more yards than anyone else in the conference?

The Big Ten actually has a wealth of quarterbacks returning, from Michigan's Devin Gardner to Iowa's Jake Rudock. Presumably, everyone comes back a year better. It wouldn't be surprising, then, to see passing yards go up around the league. 

Which Big Ten quarterback will have the most passing yards? Here are some possible candidates. 

Big Ten Leading Returning Passers
NameSchool2013 Yards2013 Touchdowns
Devin GardnerMichigan2,96021
Christian HackenbergPenn State2,95520
Connor CookMichigan State2,75522
Nate SudfeldIndiana2,52321
Joel StaveWisconsin2,49422


Indiana Junior Nate Sudfeld

Indiana's trio of quarterbacks has become a pair thanks to the departure of Cameron Coffman. Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson split time nicely last season, and there's a good chance the Hoosiers go with a two-quarterback rotation this year. 

"I think it's going to be very tough, to be honest with you," Indiana offensive coordinator Kevin Johns told ESPN.com's Brian Bennett in March. "I think both are going to look pretty good this spring. The good thing is we don't have to make a decision for a long time." 

Unless Sudfeld separates himself as the true No. 1 quarterback, it could be hard for him to become the Big Ten's leading passer. Even if the Hoosiers had the best passing offense in the Big Ten.  


Michigan Senior Devin Gardner

Devin Gardner is the leading returning passer with 2,960 yards. Even though Michigan ran the ball nearly 60 percent of the time on offense last season, the team was oftentimes putrid at it. That put more pressure on Gardner to get things done in the air. 

Tony Ding/Associated Press

With new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, the Wolverines hope to get out of their offensive slump. In two years at Alabama, Nussmeier orchestrated efficient passing offenses. He also had quarterback AJ McCarron and wide receiver Amari Cooper. 

It's also possible that Shane Morris, who has apparently closed the gap on Gardner, is given the starting nod this season. 

The point being, Gardner has some work to do if he's even going to be the starter, let alone the Big Ten's leading passer. 


Michigan State Junior Connor Cook

Though aided by a stingy defense and sound run game, Connor Cook cemented himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten last season.

His 2,755 yards passing puts him as the third-leading returning quarterback and his 22 passing touchdowns were second-best in the conference. Though Bennie Fowler is gone, Tony Lippett, who led the team with 44 receptions, is back. So, too, is Macgarrett Kings, who is excellent in the open field. (Kings was suspended during spring drills for violating teams rules, but is expected to be back in the fall.) 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Developing consistency in the passing game is going to be the biggest hurdle for Cook and his wide receivers. 


Ohio State Senior Braxton Miller

Braxton Miller barely cracked the top 10 in passing yards in the Big Ten last season, but there were a few reasons for that. For one, Miller wasn't always healthy. Secondly, he had a bruising bell-cow back in Carlos Hyde to hand off to. Along those lines, Miller had a senior-laden offensive line that paved the way for Hyde and him in the running game. 

But with a new-look offensive line this season, and without Hyde, will Miller be forced to pass more? Receivers Devin Smith and Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman all return as leading pass-catchers. However, no quarterback has thrown for more than 3,000 yards under head coach Urban Meyer since Tim Tebow did it at Florida in 2007 (3,286 yards). 


Penn State Sophomore Christian Hackenberg

The most physically gifted quarterback in the Big Ten has a high ceiling and at least two more years ahead of him. That's good news for first-year coach James Franklin. 

In 2013, Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Half of those yards went to Allen Robinson, who has since departed for the NFL. While Hackenberg can make all the throws, his primary job this year will be developing chemistry with newer players while learning a new playbook. 

So which quarterback is most likely to lead the Big Ten in passing? It comes down to a tight battle between Cook and Hackenberg, with an ever-so-slight edge to Hackenberg. 

Even with some new receivers in the mix, Hackenberg is ready to take the next step. With Penn State spreading it out, the sophomore will have plenty of opportunities to sling the pigskin. 

As for Cook, Michigan State was more balanced on offense last year than you might think with about 43 percent pass plays. That number should go up this season. The question is if it will be enough to surpass Hackenberg. 

If 2014 is anything close to 2013, there won't be immense pressure for Cook to attempt a ton of passes. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com and ESPN.com.




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