Russell Wilson is an anomaly.
It's not because the Seahawks' Super Bowl winner is short. Rather, he's an uncharacteristic 21st-century NFL quarterback because of where he first broke out as a star: in the Big Ten at Wisconsin, after transferring from North Carolina State.
Through the Big Ten's apparent decline over the last decade or so, the most common reason given is that it lacks "SEC speed," a broad but not totally inaccurate description of the difference between top southern teams of college football and those from up north. The best SEC teams have boasted not only deeper arsenals of skill-position playmakers, but more importantly, deeper, more athletic pools of talent all around the formation. This is why -- for better or worse -- the best SEC teams have been the closest thing college football can have to NFL teams, with the best combination of big and fast athletes at every position.
But the whole SEC SPEED thing glosses over another obvious difference, a decisive advantage held by the SEC but also the Pac-12 and Big 12. It's the most important position in sports, and in the years since Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2006, it's worth asking: Who exactly wants to come north to play quarterback in the Big Ten?
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In the last 10 years, including the class of 2014 that will become official on Wednesday's National Signing Day, recruiting website Rivals.com has given 207 quarterbacks its highest ratings of either four or five stars. Of those players, 34 have originally signed with 2014 Big Ten schools (including Rutgers and Maryland), compared to the SEC's 58, the Pac-12's 40, the ACC's 30 (not including partial member Notre Dame) and the Big 12's 28, with the Big Ten ranking fourth among the five on a per-team basis (remember, the Big 12 has only 10 schools, whereas the Big Ten has 14).
Yes, recruiting rankings are an inexact science that certainly don't tell the whole story -- Wilson was a two-star prospect -- but Rivals, Scout, 247Sports and ESPN.com generally do a solid job predicting success. And by looking at them, we can somewhat accurately gauge how successful conferences and teams are in attracting the most coveted prospects.
It's no surprise that the Big Ten lags behind. Since the pivot point that was the national championship game after the 2006 season, when Florida blew out Ohio State and began the SEC dynasty, much has been made of the changing geography of college football. Whereas once states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and the rest of the Rust Belt churned out ample college football talent, now the clear strongholds are south and west, with Florida, Texas and California towering head and shoulders above the rest.
The SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all reach into one of those states -- in fact, with the addition of Texas A&M, the SEC is now the only one of the five major leagues to penetrate two of the three prep football superpowers -- giving them an overwhelming advantage over the Big Ten in attracting top talent and depth.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. While the Big Ten has fallen far behind the SEC in attracting coveted quarterback recruits, it has also failed miserably at retaining and developing signed blue-chippers into effective starters.
Of the 24 four- and five-star quarterbacks signed by current Big Ten teams in the classes of 2005 through 2011, only five will have finished their careers as starters for those teams (Juice Williams at Illinois; Terrelle Pryor, who was ruled ineligible and entered the supplemental draft, at Ohio State; Nathan Scheelhaase at Illinois; and current starters Braxton Miller at Ohio State and Devin Gardner at Michigan). A staggering 15 of those 24 have transferred out of the league.
Quarterbacks transferring is hardly uncommon, of course, as it's a competitive position in which backups rarely see the field, meaning prized quarterbacks who don't win a job often seek playing time elsewhere. But while the league has benefitted from acquiring the likes of Russell Wilson as part of the NCAA's rule that allows graduate students to transfer without penalty, it has mostly been hit hard by whiffing on so many of its highly sought-after quarterback signings.
Predictably, in the last 10 NFL drafts, only 14 Big Ten quarterbacks have been drafted, compared to 23 for the SEC, 20 for the Pac-12, 14 for the ACC and 12 for the Big 12. However, NONE of those Big Ten players have gone off the board in the first round, with all but four (Drew Stanton, Chad Henne, Terrelle Pryor and Russell Wilson) drafted in the final four rounds that now make up Day 3. In fact, the Big Ten still hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round since Penn State's Kerry Collins went No. 5 overall to the Panthers in 1995, nearly two decades ago, and it's unlikely the league will have quarterbacks selected in any of the seven rounds this year, for the second straight time (Michigan's Denard Robinson was drafted last year, but as a receiver). To be fair, since Collins, the Big Ten has placed Tom Brady and Drew Brees in the NFL, and they've been two of the most successful quarterbacks in league history. But the lack of coveted prospects since then is troubling.
It wasn't always this way. The 10 drafts of the 1980s featured 18 quarterbacks selected in the first round; six of them played for current Big Ten schools, while none played in the SEC, as the offensive landscape was still slowly changing. In the last 10 drafts, however, 28 quarterbacks have gone in the first round in this wide-open passing age in which quarterbacks are valued even more; nine came from the SEC, while none played in the Big Ten.
And it's not as if NFL quarterbacks haven't come from the Midwest: 17 NFL quarterback draft picks in the last 10 seasons (equal to Florida, Georgia and Alabama combined) played prep football in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but only five (Ricky Stanzi, Troy Smith, Terrelle Pryor, Chad Henne and Jeff Smoker) went to Big Ten schools. The rest are mostly a mix of MAC and ACC products.
From recruiting top prospects through development to the NFL, most of the 21st century has seen the Big Ten fail to keep up with the national quarterback movement, thereby strengthening the case against the league as stuck in its plodding, punt-to-win ways.
Attracting better athletes is an important goal, but it doesn't help that the league doesn't have star quarterbacks getting them the ball.
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According to Rivals' rankings, four 2014 quarterbacks rated four or five stars are set to join Big Ten rosters, with Penn State's Michael O'Connor and Wisconsin's D.J. Gillins (both from Florida) already enrolled for spring and Tyler Wiegers and Clayton Thorson ready to sign with Iowa and Northwestern, respectively. The SEC currently has seven, as part of another all-around dominant year for the conference on the recruiting trail.
Not only are the best quarterbacks and best recruits at most positions in their backyard, but they're also in the warmer weather of the south, which means the Big Ten has to both go into enemy territory to find more of the best recruits and convince them to leave sunny Florida for snowy Ohio or Michigan.
Obviously, shifting the tide is not easy. The biggest advantage the Big Ten has its money -- not in the $100 handshake way, but in its ability to pay top dollar for coaches. Given the success of the Big Ten Network and future gains from the league's next television deal, the Big Ten continues to maintain its power off the field. And those gains, as Dan Wetzel wrote at Yahoo, should allow the league to be more aggressive in hiring coaches to attempt to improve the on-field product.
There are two big ways to overcome the geographic hurdle and attract top quarterbacks to the Big Ten: hire the best recruiters, and hire the coaches who can get quarterbacks to the NFL. In the last few years, Penn State has gone both routes with forward-thinking hires, first hiring Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien -- who managed to help walk-on Matt McGloin become an undrafted rookie starter for the Raiders -- as the latter, then replacing him with the former in one of the sport's most energetic salesmen in former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.
O'Brien successfully signed top quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg -- who, after a strong freshman season, may be a top candidate to eventually break the Big Ten's first-round drought in a couple years -- then added O'Connor in this class. Purdue (Danny Etling) and Michigan (Shane Morris) both kept star in-state quarterbacks home last year, while Ohio State attracted J.T. Barrett from Texas.
Michigan's Morris will now be coached up by new highly paid offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who left Alabama, while Barrett waits behind Braxton Miller under the tutelage of Urban Meyer and rising star coordinator Tom Herman. Miller gives the league a 2014 Heisman candidate, and Michigan State's Connor Cook gives it a stellar player on the rise.
For once, the Big Ten's quarterback cupboard hardly looks bare. Aside from O'Brien, this offseason it kept its best coaches and kept its best quarterback, and it also has a few breakout stars on its hands behind center.
The geography problem will continue to make it an uphill battle, but now's the time to capitalize and start to make playing quarterback in the Big Ten attractive. A little snow won't hurt if there's a path to the NFL.