Leistikow: Why 6-3 might win the Big Ten West
The college football onslaught is coming fast.
On Monday, the Southeastern Conference kicks off the flurry of media days. (Of course it does.)
In 2½ weeks (July 25-26), it’ll be the Big Ten Conference’s turn in Chicago.
In just over four weeks (Aug. 6), it’ll be Iowa’s media day.
And just eight weeks from Saturday comes the Hawkeyes’ Sept. 3 season opener against Miami of Ohio.
You’ll hear a lot of football hot air between now and then. Speaking of, Hawkeyes reporter Mark Emmert and I will deliver game-by-game Iowa predictions on next week’s (July 13) "Hawk Central" radio show and podcast.
(Spoiler alert: I don't have Iowa going 12-0. Not sure about Mark; we’re not sharing our picks with each other until we go live.)
Here’s one more prediction I’ll leak now: I not only think a team with three conference losses could win the Big Ten West Division, I think there’s a good chance it happens. So anything more than six league wins might be a virtual lock for Indianapolis come Thanksgiving week.
You could probably see that as a good development for the Hawkeyes: A program that rarely has margin for error might have a little in 2016. Not that you want to think about losing in July.
But here are some reasons you might see a West-winning 6-3 record in the Big Ten’s first year with nine-game conference scheduling since 1984.
Each of the West Division’s seven teams play five conference road games; every East team plays four.
In other words, of the three crossover games, two of those will be on the road for West inhabitants.
This setup will be reversed in 2017, by the way. It’s a fair way to determine division titles and the two spots in the Big Ten championship game. But every year, one division will have a greater home advantage on its side in pursuit of College Football Playoff positioning.
As far as Iowa is concerned, it’ll have the Big 12's Iowa State at home in even years (when playing five Big Ten roadies) and on the road on odd years. So Iowa can annually count on a 7-5 home-road split.
Heavyweights out East
Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State (generally in that order) are widely predicted in everyone’s preseason top 15. The West's highest-predicted team, Iowa, is in the Nos. 20-25 range.
Those three East powers could very well go 9-0 against West competition, putting a dent into the eventual West champion’s record. A look at their West crossovers:
Michigan — Wisconsin (Oct. 1), Illinois (Oct. 22), at Iowa (Nov. 12)
Michigan State — Wisconsin (Sept. 24), Northwestern (Oct. 15), at Illinois (Nov. 5)
Ohio State — at Wisconsin (Oct. 15), Northwestern (Oct. 29), Nebraska (Nov. 5)
Michigan’s Nov. 12 trip to Iowa might be considered the biggest toss-up among that group of nine.
You may have noticed Wisconsin (10-3 last year) appearing on all three lists. Those games, followed by an Oct. 22 visit to Iowa City, represent the Badgers’ first four challenges in Big Ten play — an immediate and significant hurdle for a program that’s appeared in three of the Big Ten’s five title games.
Of course, what’s fair is fair. Wisconsin’s two crossovers in 2014 and 2015 were Maryland and Rutgers.
On top of the scheduling challenge, the Badgers have to replace quarterback Joel Stave and the coordinator of the nation’s No. 1 defense in Dave Aranda. He left for LSU, which, by the way, opens against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field on Sept. 3.
Northwestern, another 10-3 West outfit last year, also drew a stiff October schedule with road dates at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State.
What about Nebraska?
But the Cornhuskers have big question marks in the trenches. They were decimated along their defensive line (two early departures to the NFL, plus a graduate-transfer to Michigan State, of all places), and one of their biggest concerns coming off a 6-7 season in 2015 was the offensive line.
Add those issues to the nation's No. 122-ranked secondary, and it might not matter that four-INTs-against-Iowa quarterback Tommy Armstrong and his best receivers are back.
Yes, the Huskers got a cushy Big Ten home schedule. But it’s not hard to find three losses among road opponents Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa.
Minnesota probably drew the easiest crossover schedule among West contenders in Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers (they combined six 2015 Big Ten wins). Plus, the Gophers get Iowa at home (Oct. 8).
What it means for Iowa
While waiting for next week's radio breakdown (6-7 p.m. on 1460-AM in Des Moines; or catch the podcast via iTunes or Stitcher), you could read up on the Big Ten’s divisional tiebreaker rules with a possible 6-3 logjam on the table.
The Hawkeyes' schedule is manageable, but it's tougher than last year’s. Michigan as the only East opponent at home is no picnic. The heavily hyped Wolverines could well be the nation’s No. 1 team when they visit Kinnick Stadium for a November night game. You can also bet border rivals Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska will come to Iowa City seeking retribution. And that’s just the home schedule.
The road lineup can be conquered. Iowa repeating its 5-0 conference road record of 2015 isn’t unthinkable when this fall’s opponents are Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois.
But remember: It probably won't take perfection to win the West.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.