As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can Connor Cook emerge as an elite college quarterback?
At this time last year, the Spartans’ quarterback situation was a complete disaster. Well, maybe not so much a disaster as a total mystery. Mark Dantonio had a returning starter in Andrew Maxwell and a couple other options — with none of the three looking to be a real go-to guy.
A year later, that couldn’t be further from the case for the 2014 Spartans.
Cook, a sophomore last season, took the reins of the Michigan State offense after a couple games and grew into one of the Big Ten’s best passers by season’s end. Maxwell started the first two games and was downright awful, forcing Dantonio to switch to Cook. The youngster threw four touchdowns in a rout of FCS for Youngstown State, but the non-conference finale against Notre Dame — what would end up being Michigan State’s only loss of the year — was not without its bumps in the road. Cook threw for only 135 yards in the defensive struggle and was removed from the game and replaced with Maxwell on the final drive, which ended in a turnover on downs.
But Cook was terrific from there on out. With one of the nation’s best defenses and a great running back in Jeremy Langford to lean on, the young QB developed, throwing for 200-plus yards in seven of his final 10 games. And, he had his best performances on the biggest stages, something that had to greatly please Dantonio & Co. Cook passed for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Spartans’ Big Ten title game victory over Ohio State, and he passed for 332 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
Cook finished as the Big Ten’s fourth-leading passer, totaling 2,755 yards. His 22 touchdown passes trailed only Heisman contender Braxton Miller.
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It’s those numbers and his end-of-season performance that has experts buzzing about Cook. Many rank him among the best QBs in college football. Some have him as a dark-horse Heisman candidate. Some say he’s the best quarterback in the conference destined for NFL success.
So, you can see how high the expectations are for Cook this season. But, even with all that, there’s little reason to believe he won’t have a good season. Langford is back in the backfield to help Cook out, and despite the loss of a good deal of playmakers on defense, that unit still figures to be strong in 2014. Top receiver Bennie Fowler has moved on, though seven of the team’s eight best pass-catchers from a year ago do return, including Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings Jr., who combined for 87 catches in 2013. Plus, he has a year of experience under his belt and enters camp as the clear-cut No. 1 QB, unlike a year ago when he was part of a three-man battle that wasn’t solved until conference play began.
Cook should boost his stock even more with games against some weaker defenses early in the schedule. Outside a Sep. 6 trip to Oregon, Michigan State plays Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming in the non-conference schedule before opening conference play against Nebraska, Purdue and Indiana — three of the worst defenses in the Big Ten last season.
It all means the Spartans should be contending for another Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. And Cook figures to be right in the middle of it all. Will he become one of college football’s elite quarterbacks? It remains to be seen, but it certainly seems like the stars are aligned.