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Top 15 Quarterbacks in Big Ten History

The greatest Big Ten quarterbacks!
Publish Date:11/08/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis
01 Jan. 2001: Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Drew Brees (15) throws a deep pass during the 87th Rose Bowl game played against the Washington Huskies, on January 1, 2001, played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo By John Cordes/Icon Sportswire) NCAA College League USA Archive PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxRUSxSWExNORxDENxONLY Icon506010101004

These rankings are based solely on the player’s college career, so you won’t see Tom Brady high on this list.

15) Brad Banks, Iowa Hawkeyes

In 2002, the Hawkeyes won a share of the Big Ten, only losing one regular-season game, a narrow defeat at the hands of rival Iowa State. They finished the season 11-1 and earned a berth in the Orange Bowl. Banks was the premier skill player, throwing for over 2,600 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Banks finished second in that year’s Heisman race to Carson Palmer (who he also lost to in the Orange Bowl) but edged out Palmer for the Davey O’Brien Award. Banks only was a Hawkeye for two years, but he gave Iowa one of their most memorable seasons in recent history.

14) Rick Leach, Michigan Wolverines

Leach could have been a spread quarterback had he played twenty years later than he did. Leach could move the ball with his legs or his arm. Leach was a winner and would rank much higher if he played a decade later.

13) Rex Kern, Ohio State Buckeyes

Kern was a tough runner, took a lot of physical abuse in Woody Hayes’ wishbone and led the Buckeyes to 20 straight wins in 1968 and 1969 (including the ’68 national title) before Michigan’s 24-12 upset. He was not a passer as the Buckeyes ran the wishbone, but Kern was always clutch and a winner when it was needed.

12) Tom Brady, Michigan Wolverines

Believe it or not, Brady had to fight to be the starter at Michigan from day one. That made his body of work smaller than many of the guys on the list, but the fact that he was 20-5 as a starter and that includes two bowl wins over SEC competition that the issue was the coach and not Brady.

11) Brian Griese, Michigan Wolverines

Griese’s stats aren’t impressive but what is impressive was his ability to win in big games. Griese was the Rose Bowl MVP in 1998, tossing three touchdowns in a 21-16 win over Washington State. Griese remains the only quarterback to lead Michigan to a (share of the) National Championship in over six decades.

10) Kerry Collins, Penn State Nittany Lions

Collins won all the quarterback trophies (Davey O’Brien, Sammy Baugh) and the Maxwell Award. He also won all 12 games he played in 1994, including a dominating win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

9) Antwan Randal El, Indiana Hoosiers

Randle-El was one of the most electrifying players in the nation. At the end of his four seasons, he became the first player to throw 40 touchdown passes and rush for 40 touchdowns. He was so good that he won the Big Ten MVP quarterbacking a team that went 5-6.

8) Jeff George Illinois Fighting Illini

George was one of the most naturally gifted quarterbacks in history. In 1989 George’s late-game heroics against USC and Michigan State (along with huge wins over Ohio State and Iowa) gave Illinois a bid in the Citrus Bowl. They defeated Virginia to earn the school’s second-ever season with double-digit wins.

7) Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Wolverines

Harbaugh was arguably the greatest winning quarterback in Michigan history. In his two seasons as the starter, the Wolverines went 19-2-1 during the regular season, only losing to top-ranked Iowa 12-10 in 1985 and Minnesota by a field goal in 1986. Those two Michigan teams went on to play in the Fiesta Bowl (which they won over seventh-ranked Nebraska, 27-23) and the Rose Bowl (which they lost to seventh-ranked Arizona State, 22-15). Harbaugh was tough as nails, and he was most notably a winner.

6) Troy Smith, Ohio State Buckeyes

He beat Michigan three times as a starter, threw 54 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions, and posted a 25-4 record with a win in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. Smith may have been a by-product of fantastic talent around him, and he was flat out bad in a Championship game loss to Florida, but he got the job done while at Ohio State and won a Heisman trophy.

5) Russell Wilson, Wisconsin Badgers

The 2011 Big Ten champions would not have even contended had Wilson not stepped in and strung together the most significant single statistical season for a quarterback in league history – 33 TD passes, four interceptions, a 191.8 passer rating, plus 338 net rushing yards and six more TDs on the ground. Sure, he only played one year as a Badger, but it was the most outstanding single season in Big Ten history for a quarterback.

4) Chuck Long, Iowa Hawkeyes

Over Long’s last three seasons, the Hawkeyes posted a 27-9-1 record and made three bowl appearances, including a Rose Bowl bid in 1985, when the Hawkeyes won the Big Ten outright for the first time in over 30 years. Long would have added a Heisman trophy to his collection if not for a remarkable season by Auburn’s Bo Jackson.

3) Art Schlichter, Ohio State Buckeyes

Schlichter had issues with gambling that derailed a promising NFL career. The guy was as talented a quarterback as you will ever see. Art was a four-year starter for the Buckeyes, was in the Heisman race each of his last three years and was the Big Ten’s MVP in 1981, when he had a 458-yard passing day against Florida State. Schlichter was a winner and could run with the ball also. He was good enough to be drafted with the fourth pick in the NFL draft.

2) Bob Griese, Purdue Boilermakers

Griese would be an NFL hall of fame and one of the most underrated quarterbacks of all time. Griese twice earned All-American honors and was the runner-up to Steve Spurrier in the 1966 Heisman voting. However, his most outstanding achievement at Purdue was leading the Boilermakers to two touchdowns (he also kicked both extra points) in the team’s stunning 1967 Rose Bowl win over the USC Trojans.

1) Drew Brees, Purdue Boilermakers

Brees was a two-time Heisman finalist who shattered all of Bob Griese’s passing records during his stay in West Lafayette. In 2001 led the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl appearance since Griese guided them to that 14-13 victory over USC in 1967. Leading the Boilermakers to the Rose Bowl is not easy, but Brees was up to it. When you look at Brees career at Purdue, it’s mind=blowing that he was not a first-round draft pick in the NFL.


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