CHICAGO – An immediate byproduct of Big Ten realignment was parity in one of the conference’s new divisions. In 2014, at least, there appears to be no clear favorite in the West. Compared to the top-heavy East, where Ohio State and Michigan State look like top dogs – only one other Big Ten team (Nebraska) received a championship vote in a recent media poll – the East features a cast of teams capable of making a run. Perhaps that explains the increased optimism about Iowa heading into the season.
Yet the absence of an Ohio State/Michigan State-type power in the West isn't the only reason Iowa could be a contender. Just look at what the Hawkeyes accomplished last season. After three years of regression – from 11 wins in 2009 to eight wins in 2010 to seven in 2011 to four in 2012 – Iowa won eight games and pushed an LSU team loaded with NFL talent in a 7-point loss in the Outback Bowl. All of Iowa’s losses came against tough competition: Northern Illinois (22 votes in the final AP poll), No. 3 Michigan State, No. 12 Ohio State and No. 14 LSU.
“[We] went from 4-8 to 8-4 in the regular season,” senior defensive tackle Carl Davis said. “The thing we need to do now is finish. We gotta win those bowl games. We played a great LSU team, but that’s not good enough. Losing five games is not good enough. We’re confident, but we’re not happy at all. We know we got a lot of work to do.”
The Hawkeyes return key pieces. Junior quarterback Jake Rudock could be primed for a breakout season after showing poise as a first-year starter in 2013. “He’s got all the attributes I think of being a good quarterback,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. There’s depth at running back – which is notable, given Iowa’s recent history at the position – and a talented receiving corps including Kevonte Martin-Manley, who stands 55 receptions away from tying the program record. Senior offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, a projected top-five pick in SI.com’s 2015 NFL mock draft (and an expert weightlifter), headlines a solid offensive line that returns two other starters.
Iowa's defense is coming off an impressive season, in which it earned top-three rankings in the conference in scoring and total defense, but the unit is not without question marks. Seniors Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat will anchor the two tackle spots, and starting ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy also return. While the back seven lacks experience and losing three starters (including two NFL draft picks) at linebacker is a major blow, the Hawkeyes return capable contributors in sophomore cornerback Desmond King and veteran ‘backers Quinton Alston and Travis Perry (along with talented sophomore Reggie Spearman).
Iowa’s biggest advantage may be its schedule. The Hawkeyes play most of what appear to be their toughest conference games at home, and their nonconference slate seems navigable. In a division that appears to have little separation among top competitors, the Hawkeyes’ seemingly more forgiving path could put them over the top. Most importantly, in the final two weeks of the season, Iowa hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska in consecutive weeks at Kinnick Stadium in games that could have conference title implications.
Still, trying to predict the difficulty of a schedule in July is risky. Iowa’s slate features several potential landmines, including a Week 3 date with Iowa State, which has won two of the teams’ last three meetings, and road trips to Pittsburgh and Maryland. And while the East looks like the more difficult of the two divisions, as Ferentz points out, a West team, Wisconsin, has won two of the last three conference championships. “Maybe the balance is tipped our way,” Ferentz said. “I could argue that off recent history. It’s just, there [are] a lot of good football teams in our conference, and the strong shall survive.”
In recent years, as Iowa’s tailspin deepened, it has become fashionable for Big Ten fans to poke fun at the Hawkeyes and coach Kirk Ferentz’s exorbitant salary. Many Iowa fans, meanwhile, have taken to aggressively defending Ferentz. Another strong season may not stop the jokes, but it would be a positive first step for Iowa in the Big Ten’s East-West era and provide more proof that the Hawkeyes are trending in the right direction.