The Big Ten’s new 14-team and East/West Division alignment should provide for an intriguing 2014 season.
The East Division is loaded with likely top-10 teams in Ohio State and Michigan, followed by Penn State and Michigan – two of college football’s top programs. The depth in the East extends to the bottom tier of the division, as Maryland and Indiana could be bowl teams in 2014.
The West Division isn’t loaded with elite teams, but Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska each have a strong case to be ranked in the preseason top 25.
The Badgers lose a good chunk of talent, including several key members on one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. But even with the personnel losses, Wisconsin could be the favorite to win the West.
If the Badgers are the No. 1 pick in the division, then it’s a close call between Nebraska and Iowa for the No. 2 spots. The Cornhuskers have won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s six seasons, while the Hawkeyes improved to 8-5 last year after a 4-8 mark in 2012.
Iowa has a favorable schedule in 2014, but Nebraska might have an edge in talent, especially with the return of standout running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Iowa or Nebraska: Which Team Finishes Higher in the West Division in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think these two teams are going to be almost identical in the win column this year, likely right around eight or nine victories. But I give a slight edge to Iowa over Nebraska, largely due to the Hawkeyes’ favorable schedule. Iowa returns 12 starters from last year’s 8-5 squad, which pounded the Cornhuskers 38-17 in Lincoln. Quarterback Jake Rudock was solid in his first year as the starter, and he should improve in 2014 after being pushed by C.J. Beathard in spring practice. The Hawkeyes are deep at running back and have one of the Big Ten’s top offensive lines. More big-play threats need to emerge at receiver, but there are options for Rudock. As usual, Iowa’s defense should be solid. The biggest concern on that side of the ball will be replacing three starting linebackers, including second-team All-Big Ten selection James Morris. The Hawkeyes usually quickly reload at this position, so there’s optimism the defense won’t have much of a drop in production at linebacker. I think Nebraska’s offense will improve as Tommy Armstrong has more time to develop at quarterback, but the Cornhuskers have to play at Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Iowa hosts Wisconsin and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks in late November and catches Indiana and Maryland in crossover play with the East Division. These two teams are fairly even, but the schedule favors Iowa. The margin between the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers is small and another 5-3 tie in Big Ten play wouldn’t be a surprise. However, considering Iowa hosts Nebraska late in the season, I like the Hawkeyes to finish ahead of Bo Pelini’s team in 2014.
Brent Yarina, (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com Senior Editor
On paper, Nebraska is the better team. But, as they say, the game isn’t played on paper; more importantly, Iowa has the far easier schedule of the two teams. While the Hawkeyes lost a lot of talent, including their decorated linebacking trio, and don’t boast the star power Nebraska does, it’s impossible not to like this Big Ten draw: at Purdue; vs. Indiana; at Maryland; vs. Northwestern; at Minnesota; at Illinois; vs. Wisconsin; vs. Nebraska. Looking at that, it’s very possible Iowa brings a 6-0 Big Ten clip into the final two weeks, the final week being a home game vs. the Huskers. Nebraska doesn’t just travel to Iowa City, either, as it also visits reigning Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State - which the Hawkeyes don’t play - and Wisconsin. Advantage, Iowa.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a facinating debate that we won't know the answer to until the final weekend of the year. That's when Nebraska visits Iowa the day after Thanksgiving. And in all likelihood, that game will decide second place in the Big Ten West. Nebraska returns a deeper roster with more talent across the board, but Iowa has an easier schedule — the Huskers get Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa on the road while the Hawkeyes get Indiana and Maryland in crossover and host both Wisconsin and Nebraska in divisional play. Both coaching staffs are difficult to trust and Iowa traditionally struggles when much is expected of it. It's splitting hairs and both teams should be in that 7-9-win range but, splitting hairs, I will take Bo Pelini and the Huskers to finish higher because they are a lock to win nine games (and lose exactly four) every single season.
Listen to our staff discuss every team in the Big Ten as they start to look to 2014.
For all of the criticism and scrutiny that's directed at Bo Pelini, he should at least get credit for what he has done at Nebraska - win at least nine games every year. If you want to make the case that he should have won more, fine, but that's not relevant for this exercise. As far as 2014 goes, if you are asking me to pick between Nebraska and Iowa, I'll take the Cornhuskers. The Pelini implosion factor aside, players keep showing up in Lincoln to play for him and again, the results speak for themselves. On the field, Nebraska entered the post-Taylor Martinez era at quarterback early because of injuries to the dual-threat signal-caller last season and the offense appears to be in pretty good shape with Tommy Armstrong running the show. All-Big Ten running back Ameer Abdullah should be one of the most productive ball-carriers in the conference again, if not all of FBS, and Armstrong also has an all-conference target in wide receiver Kenny Bell. The defense returns a fair amount of talent and experience as well and let's not forget that side of the ball is Pelini's calling card. As far as Iowa goes, the Hawkeyes had a nice bounce-back season in 2013, but they will be without a lot of key pieces from the team that went 8-5. Two honorable mention All-Big Ten offensive linemen and one of the conference's top tight ends are gone. The defense was hit ever harder by graduation, as head coach Kirk Ferentz must replace all three standout linebackers and two starting defensive backs, all of whom earned all-conference honors last season. That's a lot of talent and experience gone from a team that consistently trails behind Nebraska in the recruiting rankings. Don't get me wrong, I think Iowa is a solid team, but I like Nebraska a little bit more in 2014. After all a "typical" season for the Cornhuskers under Pelini is nine wins. Iowa hasn't won that many in a season since 2008.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Nebraska is far more predictable than Iowa, so it would make sense to take the Cornhuskers. Nebraska overcame injuries at quarterback and all the questions surrounding Bo Pelini to win nine games last season. That should bode well, but I wonder if this is the year Nebraska takes a step back. With its schedule, Iowa would be in position to pounce in the standings. The Hawkeyes get Nebraska at home and miss Ohio State, Penn State and the Michigan schools in crossover games. Beyond the schedule, Iowa has a lot of things working in its favor: A returning starting quarterback (Jake Rudock), healthy running backs for a change, an All-America-caliber tackle and a mostly intact defense. Iowa has to replace all three starting linebackers, but that’s a spot where the Hawkeyes usually have success. Of course, the Hawkeyes haven’t always thrived when they’re the team to watch. Will that be the case again in 2014?
Kevin McGuire, (@KevinonCFB), CrystalBallRun.com and CollegeFootballTalk.com
Iowa is going to surprise some people this season. The running game was healthy last year and looks to be in good shape again after this spring. Put that typical brand of Iowa football in front of a favorable schedule and it would not be a surprise at all to see Iowa make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game. The schedule is clearly in favor of Iowa over Nebraska in the new division line-up. Iowa does not have to play any of the top programs from the East (Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State) and they also get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to wrap up the regular season. There is barely a challenge ahead of them before that that should see Iowa as an underdog. Nebraska, on the other hand, must play at Michigan State and Wisconsin before the regular season finale at Iowa. This feels like advantage, Iowa.