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InsideNU debate: Who is Northwestern's biggest challenger in the West?

The start of football season is still more than three months away, but we need something to discuss in the meantime. So let’s look at a couple of the teams Northwestern will face this season. More specifically, the Wildcats biggest challengers in the West Division of the Big Ten.



Let me start by saying that picking a team was not easy. A handful of squads could win the West. Even Northwestern, after failing to qualify for the postseason in 2013, could make a run. But the wording of this question excludes the Wildcats as a candidate.

Were we debating the all-inclusive version – who is the best team in the West? – I wouldn’t have picked Northwestern, anyway. My pick will probably rankle some Wildcats fans. Don’t get ahead of yourselves: I’m not taking Illinois. Iowa's the choice. Why am I bullish on the Hawkeyes? A few reasons.

For one, they bring back a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. The offensive and defensive lines should be among the best in the Big Ten and each includes one player projected to be a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. (left tackle Brandon Scherff and defensive tackle Carl Davis). Quarterback Jake Rudock should be better in his second year running coordinator Greg Davis’ offense, but even if he’s not, Iowa has a capable backup in C.J. Beathard.

The running back corps looks good, for now, with Mark Weissman and Jordan Canzeri, and assuming AIRHBG doesn’t strike again – which is not an assumption anyone should be making, to be clear – the Hawkeyes should have some balance on offense. And while it won’t be easy to replace linebackers Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris, Iowa looks to be in good hands with Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry.

There are questions about the secondary, but Desmond King could be an elite corner, and besides, if the line lives up to its billing, opposing quarterbacks won't have a lot of time to survey the field and exploit mismatches. Pass defense is one weakness in an otherwise solid team.

A more compelling reason to like Iowa this season? Its schedule. The Hawkeyes miss the two best teams in the East (Michigan State and Ohio State), play two of their toughest West games at home (Wisconsin and Nebraska) and have four manageable road tests (Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois). They should be favored in most of those games.

With that schedule, it’s hard not to like the Hawkeyes’ chances. But It’s easy to buy in even if you neglect the favorable slate. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that Iowa was playing in a BCS bowl (The Orange Bowl, in 2010). College football is cyclical, and maybe this is the season the Hawkeyes – after a multi-year lull, lowlighted by an ugly 4-8 campaign in 2012 – rise to the top of the conference again (they were co-runner ups with Penn State to Ohio State in 2009).

Iowa showed improvement by winning eight games in 2013; predicting at least two more is not unreasonable. It may be tempting to choose Wisconsin or Nebraska or here, just because both of those teams have had more success in recent years. But Iowa, in large part because of its soft schedule, looks like the best pick.

- Chris Johnson


A lot of people are going to want to put Nebraska here, but given the schedule (the Huskers have to play at Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa and Wisconsin) and a rebuilding project on the offensive line, as well as the return of a defense that never put it all together, Nebraska looks like it's in the same place as Northwestern this year — a step below the top tier of Iowa and Wisconsin.

Chris took the Hawkeyes, so I'll go with the Badgers as the top challenger for the West Division crown, or the "team to beat" this season.

People will be down on Northwestern because the Wildcats went 5-7 last year, though there's certainly reason to believe they'll be better in 2014. In fact, NU can beat any team on this year's schedule. But Wisconsin's conference schedule is also manageable, as the Badgers' East Division foes are Rutgers and Maryland.

College football is cyclical, and since the Badgers first set out on their current run, people have forgotten the few years of mediocrity before that. Wisconsin isn't set up to contend for a title every year, so they'll certainly fall back at some point, but this year, they'll still have enough firepower to get it done in a relatively weak West Division.

The defense will likely take a step back, as most of the front seven leaves, but the offense should be even better than last season. Breakout star Melvin Gordon returns, along with exciting rising sophomore Corey Clement. Joel Stave needs to be more consistent, but he should be better with another year under his belt.

The bottom line is, if Northwestern wants to be taken seriously as a division title contender, it's going to have to beat Wisconsin when the teams meet at Ryan Field in early October. Do the Wildcats have the run defense to do that? They'll have to prove it on the field, because nothing from last season inspires much confidence.

- Kevin Trahan