IOWA CITY, Iowa – When it came time to rank the 2016 Big Ten football teams by division, the staff from Athlon Sports took a different approach with Iowa.
“We went into our predictions meeting looking for reasons not to pick Iowa (to win the West Division) and we couldn’t,” said Mitchell Light, Executive Editor for Athlon Sports. “We think it’s a solid team with a very favorable schedule and not enough worthy opposition in the Big Ten West.”
Light’s description of Iowa should sound familiar because that’s exactly how Iowa was described last season during its historic march to a 12-0 record, which included winning a Big Ten West Division title. Iowa was considered a solid team that took advantage of a favorable schedule and being in a weak division before being exposed by Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Athlon Sports isn’t predicting another undefeated regular season for the Hawkeyes, but hardly sees Kirk Ferentz’s 18th season as head coach being a collapse, either.
The long-standing magazine has Iowa ranked 20th nationally and defending its Big Ten West title, but then losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game to cap a 10-3 regular season, including 7-2 in conference play.
Athlon also has Iowa senior C.J. Beathard as its second-team quarterback behind Ohio State junior J.T. Barrett.
“They increased their field position by a lot last year,” Light said of Iowa. “Their special teams were a lot better. Plus eleven in turnover margin. Three-and-one in games five points or fewer. So are those things repeatable? We’ll find out.
“I think the roster looks pretty similar. I think C.J. Beathard is going to have a better year, a healthier year. I think the defense will probably be a little bit better maybe. “And quite frankly, who else are you going to pick.”
Athlon picked Nebraska to finish second in the West Division, followed by Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue.
Geography is certainly on Iowa’s side, considering Athlon has three teams from the Big Ten East Division ranked higher than the Hawkeyes. Ohio State is ranked third nationally followed by Michigan at No. 5 and Michigan State at No. 13.
“I know teams can change their lot in life,” Light said. “They can climb up and down the food chain. But historically, if you look at programs and their historical points, the best programs are in the east.”
Most teams in Ohio State’s position of having just six returning starters would be rebuilding, but the Buckeyes are an exception, rich with talent.
“It’s recruiting class after recruiting class after recruiting class,” Light said of what makes Ohio State successful under head coach Urban Meyer. “We might be a little higher on Ohio State than some people. We’ve got them third nationally, so a college football playoff team.
“But look at Urban Meyer’s track record in the Big Ten. His record is unbelievable. I think with the quarterback situation being more settled this year, now they’re more susceptible to injury, of course. But if Barrett stays healthy, I’m confident they will find the playmakers they need.”
Even with Michigan on the rise under polarizing head coach Jim Harbaugh, Light said the Buckeyes still lead the pack by a wide margin.
“The talent between Ohio State and the rest of the league to me the gap is still huge,” Light said. “Michigan is obviously getting better from a talent standpoint with the Harbaugh factor. Michigan State has got it niche of being a national contender with maybe not the most talented roster.
“But if you just look at the roster, clearly, Ohio State is the best team in the league.”
Iowa withstood a great deal of pressure last season, each week having to protect its undefeated record in order to stay in playoff consideration.
Light doesn’t expect the same kind of pressure this season.
“Not really because we’re only picking them 20th,” Light said. “So it’s not like we’re picking them as a national contender. We happened to pick them to win a very mediocre division. I didn’t feel like it was asking some team to handle all the attention that’s going to come with being picked to finish very high.
“We’re picking them lower than where they finished last year on the national landscape. I don’t think it’s a program that should feel a lot of pressure because I don’t think anybody is picking them to finish in the top ten.”
Iowa was criticized for its schedule last season. The same narrative could happen this season since Ohio State and Michigan State aren’t on the schedule again.
“Quite frankly, the schedule is very favorable,” Light said. “No Michigan State, no Ohio State and they get Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern at home, and Michigan at home.
“So it’s really set up for them to have another good year.”
Athlon Sports predictions/selections
Big Ten West
1. Iowa; 2. Nebraska; 3. Wisconsin; 4. Northwestern; 5. Minnesota; 6. Illinois; 7. Purdue
Big Ten East
1. Ohio State; 2. Michigan; 3. Michigan State; 4. Penn State; 5. Indiana; 6. Maryland; 7. Rutgers
Iowa all-Big Ten selections
First-team – Sean Welsh, Jr. OL; Desmond King, Sr. DB
Second-team – C.J. Beathard, Sr. QB; Cole Croston, Sr., OL; Jaleel Johnson, Sr., DL; Josey Jewell, Jr., LB; Desmond King, punt returner
Third-team – Matt VandeBerg, Sr., WR; Desmond King, kick returner