For months, I’ve known this time would come — the time to put keystroke to website and ink to paper on where the Iowa football team would finish in the Big Ten Conference race in 2018.
As someone who incessantly covers the program, it can be a tricky annual exercise.
I don’t cover Wisconsin or Nebraska or Northwestern. I cover Iowa. Most of my professional time is spent understanding the Hawkeyes, then sharing my findings and opinions with all of you. Now's the time of year when I try to transpose that information onto three months of fall Saturdays.
So here we are.
I take these picks seriously. The last two years (also the first two years) I’ve done this for publication, I’ve gotten Iowa’s Big Ten record correct — 6-3 and second place in 2016; 4-5 and third place in 2017.
This week, in advance of Big Ten media days that begin Monday in Chicago, I’ve delved deeper into other conference programs — particularly Wisconsin's. I knew the Badgers have been picked by at least 99 percent of the media to win the West Division, as they bring back almost every key piece to a team that went 13-1 last season.
I wondered: Could I justify picking Iowa — or any other team — to win the Big Ten West?
Because here’s the deal: While I have concerns about Iowa (more on those in a bit), there’s a lot I like about the 2018 Hawkeyes.
I think their most important player, Nate Stanley, could be the best quarterback in the West Division (and I’m counting Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, who some think could be a first-round NFL Draft pick).
I think the overall mastery of the Brian Ferentz offense in Year Two will be substantially more consistent and surgical, especially through the air. (Last fall, it was 487 yards one week vs. Ohio State, 66 the next at Wisconsin.)
I think there’s a lot of high-end talent that preseason magazines are missing now — guys like safety Amani Hooker, tackle Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa — but won't in 2019.
I think for all the hand-wringing over Iowa's maligned receiver group, outsiders haven't grasped that Iowa might have the two best tight ends in the Big Ten in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. And they're usually on the field together.
Lastly, I like Iowa’s schedule. While there is easily potential for six or more losses, there’s also opportunity. Save for Penn State, Iowa's most challenging opponents must come to Kinnick Stadium.
And that includes Wisconsin, on Sept. 22.
Could I do it?
Could I be the loner that picks the Hawkeyes to win the Big Ten West?
Objectively … I couldn’t quite get there.
When I clicked "send" on my preseason ballot to the media-poll compilers at Cleveland.com, I had Wisconsin in first place, Iowa in second. That's how the rest of the media voted, too, with 28 of 28 panelists putting the Badgers No. 1 in the West. (My picks for all 14 Big Ten teams will be released next week.)
The Badgers are, indeed, loaded.
They return their entire mauling offensive line (three of them had NFL decisions last winter, and all chose to return to school). They return a running back in Jonathan Taylor that went for nearly 2,000 yards last fall and both starting wide receivers.
Alex Hornibrook may be imperfect, but he’s a third-year starting quarterback who most recently carved up Miami’s turnover-chain defense with an Orange Bowl MVP performance.
I looked to poke holes in Wisconsin’s defense, which only returns four starters. But there’s too much historical evidence favoring the Badgers' system.
Here are their national total-defense finishes since switching to a 3-4 scheme in 2013: Seventh, fourth, second, seventh and second.
OK, but ...
What about that Iowa-Wisconsin game at Kinnick? Couldn't that be the game-changer? Couldn't Iowa upend the Badgers for just the second time since 2009?
Absolutely. Kinnick magic has happened before against the Big Ten's best. (Hey there, Jim Harbaugh. Greetings, Urban Meyer.)
But in the last two head-to-head meetings, Wisconsin has outgained the Hawkeyes, 805-302. That's too one-sided to ignore.
I’m also concerned that Iowa's season could sink quickly if No. 4 (Stanley) gets hurt. I’m concerned about a running game that averaged 3.76 yards per carry (104th in FBS) and lost its two best linemen and one of the program’s most prolific and dynamic running backs in Akrum Wadley. I’m concerned about a run defense that was pedestrian in 2017 when it had three senior linebackers, including consensus all-American Josey Jewell.
I think Iowa being a 10-to-1 underdog to win the West is a good value, should you find a legal betting window.
I do like this Hawkeye team.
I really did almost pick them to win the West.
Because if the Hawkeyes find a way to beat the Badgers Sept. 22, I would like their chances to get to 7-2 in conference play. And that would be enough to reach the Big Ten title game — projecting that Wisconsin will lose at least once among later trips to Michigan, Northwestern and Penn State.
But without enough compelling evidence, it'd be disingenuous to pick any team but Wisconsin to rule the West.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Iowa's 2018 football schedule
(All known times CT)
Sept. 1: vs. Northern Illinois, 2:30 p.m. (BTN)
Sept. 8: vs. Iowa State, 4 p.m. (Fox)
Sept. 15: vs. Northern Iowa, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)
Sept. 22: vs. Wisconsin, TBD
Oct. 6: at Minnesota, 2:30 or 3 p.m. (TBD)
Oct. 13: at Indiana, 11 a.m. (ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
Oct. 20: vs. Maryland, 11 a.m. (TBD)
Oct. 27: at Penn State, TBD
Nov. 3: at Purdue, TBD
Nov. 10: vs. Northwestern, TBD
Nov. 17: at Illinois, TBD
Nov. 23: vs. Nebraska, 11 a.m. (Fox)