The debate over the Big Ten front runner going into the 2011 season can be summed up mostly by the quarterback situation each team faces.
The prohibitive favorite coming out of 2010, Ohio State, lost three-year starter and do-it-all enigma Terrelle Pryor to the continued rumblings of NCAA scandal in Columbus, and with him (and the coach he rode in on) go the Buck's pole position.
Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins, Michigan QB Denard Robinson and Northwestern QB Dan Persa are all facing questions which are microcosms of each of their team's weaknesses. Can Cousins and MSU string together strong seasons? Can Robinson and Michigan adjust to the Hoke era? Can Persa stay healthy and productive against a tough schedule?
Meanwhile, Penn State and Iowa are both staring down unstable situations: Iowa trying to replace quarterback/proud-america, Ricky Stanzi, and Penn State trying to finally put down the QB controversy that has been simmering since halfway through the 2010 season.
Yet outside of Columbus, it is the two teams most insiders believe to be at the head of the class—Nebraska and Wisconsin—that have seen their quarterback situations shift most radically this off season, and the role reversal could be a key story line during a long Big Ten season.
After putting together a seven-game win streak more destructive and demoralizing than Sherman's March to the Sea, the Wisconsin Badgers seemed poised to finally establish a place in the upper echelon of the Big Ten in 201—a goal on the minds of Badger fans since the late 90's Barry Alvarez teams went to back-to-back Rose bowls in '98 and '99.
With two productive running backs returning to the backfield (Montee Ball and James White), a seemingly infinite stable of 330lb behemoth road-graders for them to run behind and a defense that has enough experience to stay steady, the big question for the Badgers all summer was: who will lead the charge?
Scott Tolzien was perhaps the most "Wisconsin" quarterback that Wisconsin has ever had. Smart, wily and accurate to a T, Tolzien did exactly what was asked of him in 2010: get the ball to the offensive play makers and get the hell out of the way. Between handing off to the three headed monster in the backfield, racking up almost 2500 yards passing, a 16/6 TD/INT ratio and ranking sixth in the nation in passer efficiency, Tolzien was just what the doctor ordered.
Tolzien also used up his eligibility in 2010, and when one quarterback is so consistently effective for two years straight, you run into a depth chart like this when he graduates:
-RS Soph, Jon Budmayr: Three games played, 8/10 for 134 yards and one TD.
-RS SR, Nate Tice: Two games played: no pass attempts.
-Scout team doooooooom.
None of this is to say that Budmayr, Tice or any of the bench warmers behind them (RS FR Joe Brennan, RS JR Curt Phillips and FR Joel Stave) are incapable of guiding the Wisconsin offense. It is just that not one of these guys has taken a meaningful snap since high school.
Enter Russell Wilson.
Major League Baseball and Division I football have a deep seeded love/hate relationship. Pro baseball teams love to dangle fat contracts in front of NCAA football players (almost always quarterbacks), and college teams hate it when those players bolt for a payday and a reprieve from torment by 280lb defensive ends.
Guys like Drew Henson have walked out on remaining college eligibility, while others like Joe Mauer snubbed his nose at college football despite signing with FSU out of high school. Even when players do stay they sometimes devote their summers to the diamond and not the gridiron, e.g. Dennis Dixon.
It is no wonder then that NC State coach Tom O'Brien grew impatient with the uncertainty surrounding Wilson's future as a college quarterback, so much so that O'Brien was the one to cut Wilson loose despite reports that Wilson wanted to remain at the school for his senior season.
Who will play in the 1st Big Ten title game?
Thus began the free agent derby to land the dual-threat quarterback with two years starting experience. The race quickly boiled down to two teams in similar positions: Wisconsin, last year's champ, and the Cam-Newton-less Auburn Tigers. By the end of June it was a done deal: Russell Wilson would be the next Wisconsin quarterback. "Obviously I told him as a guy with one year of eligibility, I’m not bringing you in with the intention of seeing how you sit on the bench," Bielema said days after the transfer.
So what does Russell Wilson mean for the Badgers in 2011? No one is quite sure outside of the obvious: experience. The former NC State standout and first (2008) and second (2020) team all-ACC quarterback has the kind of dynamic play making ability that Wisconsin has never seen with pocket passers like Tolzien, Tyler Donovan, John Stocco and Jim Sorgi (to name a recent few). His career rushing numbers (1083 yds and 17 TDs) should help when plays break down, as well as give offensive coordinator Paul Chryst a few options to spice up the playbook.
However, baseball giveth and baseball taketh away. Nobody knows that better than the new kid on the Big Ten block, Nebraska.
After a 2010 season that saw the Husker's hopes at a conference championship and BCS bowl game derailed by an injury to RS FR quarterback Taylor Martinez—not to mention the soap opera-esque drama that accompanied it—Bo Pelini and his staff were eager to build sufficient depth at the position for what is shaping up to be a brutal schedule.
Part of that depth already exists with backup JR quarterback Cody Green. Green appeared in a handful of games over the '09 and '10 seasons, posting a 4-0 record as a starter. However, his career passing stats (66/122 for a 54 percent completion rate, 5/3 TD/INT) aren't particularly awe inspiring—particularly 3/12 for 45 yards against Washington in the very disheartening Holiday Bowl.
Fortunately for the Huskers help was on the way in the form of Bubba Starling, a four star prospect out of Kansas who sported offers from the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. Starling was thought to be good enough coming out of high school to at least push No. 2 Cody Green during fall camp, and perhaps solidify depth at quarterback in the event of another injury prone year for the presumed starter, Martinez.
That was until Starling was selected fifth overall in the MLB draft by his hometown Kansas City Royals. Starling wavered for over a month before finally signing with the Royals and passing on the opportunity to play quarterback for Nebraska, while simultaneously striking another potentially dangerous blow to the depth chart in Lincoln.
Thanks to the divergent paths of two potential MLB players this off season, the power balance in the race for the Big Ten title has seen a gradual shift from Legends (cough, West) to Leaders (cough, East). Instead of having two promising quarterbacks fighting to back up Taylor Martinez, Nebraska is one injury away from a hairy situation. Meanwhile, Wisconsin gets to push its "inexperience" problem back a year for one more run at the Big Ten title.
One player has never made or broken a season (although a couple have come close, but neither team has that kind of money), but with a seemingly wide open Big Ten title race, every little bit helps.