Leistikow: Nebraska has the media love, but here's why I've got Iowa winning the wild Big Ten West
CHICAGO — As Scott Frost took questions at his assigned podium Thursday afternoon at the Hilton Chicago, I counted at least 50 media members who had created a horseshoe-shaped horde around Nebraska’s second-year football coach.
The buzz surrounding a program that a year ago went 4-8 was hard to miss.
And the Cornhuskers seem to be happily charging into the spotlight.
“The hype is good,” Nebraska athletics director Bill Moos said from behind an earlier swarm at the Big Ten Media Days. “Nebraska is definitely on our way back in the sport of football. I’m looking for a real big year.”
A year ago at this annual event, Frost drew attention by saying: “People better get us now, because we’re going to get better.”
This year, he charted change with what he’s seen on the field and in the weight room.
“We’re starting to look like a Nebraska football team’s supposed to look,” he said Thursday. “We’re starting to run like a Nebraska football team’s supposed to run.”
There is a widespread belief that Nebraska is ready to win the Big Ten West … now. A panel of 34 media members in this week’s Cleveland.com poll predicted that the Huskers would narrowly edge Iowa — both teams got 14 first-place votes — in the West.
(My ballot differed from the crowd; I'll explain shortly.)
Frost laughed off the predictions, calling them guesses. And he's right. The media picks are rarely correct. You know how division-favorite status worked out for Iowa in 2016. Last year, Wisconsin was a unanimous pick in the West, and the Badgers wound up three games behind division champ Northwestern.
“I know we’re better,” Frost said. “We’re better than we were a year ago. But we still have to go out and earn (everything).”
The media love for Nebraska makes sense.
The Huskers have a friendly schedule. They should go at least 2-1 in East crossover games (Ohio State, Indiana, Maryland) and will welcome traditional West leaders Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin to Memorial Stadium.
They have a dynamic leader in Adrian Martinez, the only quarterback listed on the league’s 10 preseason players to watch.
And Frost has shown he can take a big jump from Year 1 to 2, as he did with Central Florida: from 6-7 to 13-0.
But, with all due respect to the voters, I think most of them overlooked the boring team that didn’t get mentioned once by any of the seven coaches in Thursday's 1 hour, 45 minutes of introductory press conferences.
For the first time in my four years as a columnist and pollster, my ballot had Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes winning the Big Ten West. I put Northwestern second. I had Nebraska tied for fourth.
2019 BIG TEN PREDICTIONS
- Division winners and conference title-game result
- This fall's projected all-Big Ten teams and coach of the year
This is hardly a knock on Big Red. I don't think there's much argument that the Cornhuskers are trending up. But let's not forget this is a program that's lost at least four games in 15 consecutive seasons.
It's tough to go 9-3 or 10-2, especially in what figures to be an extremely competitive West Division this year. Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck accurately called it the Wild West.
Just how narrow is the margin for error? For example, I've got Iowa winning at Nebraska to finish 7-2 in the conference, which drops the Huskers to 5-4. If that result is reversed, both teams finish 6-3 and Nebraska edges Iowa on the tiebreaker.
More than any other West team, it's got the most important pieces in place.
It's got a third-year starting quarterback and a calm leader in senior Nate Stanley, who is on pace to break Iowa’s all-time record for touchdown passes.
It's got the best set of offensive tackles in the league in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.
It's got a potential top-10 NFL Draft pick in defensive end A.J. Epenesa, and a more-than-capable rush-mate in Chauncey Golston.
Frost on Thursday was confident that his defense would be significantly improved from a year ago, when it allowed an obscene average of 433.5 yards a game (12th in the Big Ten).
But Iowa is already good in the trenches. It also has Phil Parker, the proven defensive mastermind who cranks out NFL defensive backs and a year ago led the Hawkeyes to the seventh-best defense in college football.
Of course, I'm aware like all of you that the Hawkeyes face a difficult schedule. But one of their toughest games, at Iowa State on Sept. 14, won't mean a lick in the conference standings.
Perhaps the team's biggest weakness a year ago was at punter, and that deficiency has been addressed with the addition of graduate transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton.
In one sense, I'm actually in agreement with Frost's comments here a year ago: The Hawkeyes better get their Big Ten West title now. Because the Cornhuskers (not to mention Minnesota and Purdue) are indeed coming.
But this fall, the Hawkeyes have the quarterback. And a line to protect him. And a fierce pass rush. And they've had a drama-free offseason.
Give me proven results, then, over projected ones.
Give me Iowa.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.