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Picking Big Ten dark horse candidates: Iowa

(CBS Sports)
Finding a dark horse in the Big Ten is hard.
On one side of the conference, there's a division (the East) with three programs that consider themselves national title contenders. Then there's the West Division, which is the one that's largely considered to be more flexible, but the history of the division suggests otherwise.
The Big Ten has had the divisional format for six seasons. Wisconsin has won its division (initially the Leaders) in four of those six years, and twice in the three years it's been in the West. So, while the perception may not agree, the truth is that Wisconsin has been somewhat dominant within its division.
Even so, the West is still the most vulnerable. So you will not be surprised to learn that the three dark horse candidates in the Big Ten all call the West their home.


The Big Ten does not release a traditional preseason media poll as other conferences do. I don't know if it offends the conference's midwestern values or something, but it's the way it always has been. Thankfully, the <em>Cleveland Plain-Dealer</em> has taken up the matter for the conference, and in this year's poll, Iowa is picked to finish fourth in the West.
I have a sneaking suspicion this could be one of those years for Kirk Ferentz and company, though.
Iowa must replace C.J. Beathard at quarterback, as well as other key contributors from the skill positions, but you know what Iowa will have? An experienced offensive line. In fact, the Hawkeyes have the most-experienced line in the entire conference, and when this Iowa team is strong up front, it can accomplish a lot. Furthermore, while Iowa has some key players to replace, it's still one of the most veteran teams in the conference.
As far as the schedule goes, there are some concerns. Iowa draws both Penn Stateand Ohio State from the East, but if there's a silver lining, it's that both will travel to Iowa City. Of course, that's offset by the fact that the Hawkeyes will have to play Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road.


Minnesota is a wild card. I can see this team playing well enough to be a real threat in the West, and I can also see it struggling to even reach a bowl game. It's just hard to predict when a team is undergoing a coaching transition, and for some reason, I have an even more difficult time reading it when P.J. Fleck is involved.
One thing the Gophers have going their way this season is their schedule. The draw from the East features a road trip to Ann Arbor, but home games against Michigan State and Maryland are far more palatable. Minnesota will also play host to both Nebraska and Wisconsin, which will help a bit.
Another factor working in Goldy's favor is that it has four returning starters on its offensive line, as well as running back Rodney Smith.
Of course, none of this is to say that there aren't concerns.The biggest, for me, is a defense that only has four returning starters, with only two in the front seven.
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