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What Northwestern — and the rest of Big Ten West — can learn from Iowa

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By the end of the third quarter, the season was over. Tennessee was rolling and there was little indication it could be stopped. Running back Jalen Hurd was too big and too strong. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs was too efficient and too explosive. There wasn't an area of the game in which the teams looked to be at least even.

This episode played out twice in the span of a year.

The first time it happened was on Jan. 2, 2015 in the Taxslayer Bowl, a game in which the Volunteers throttled Iowa. They led 42-7 after three quarters. The final score, 45-28, undersold the blowout. The second time was the Jan. 1, 2016 beating Tennessee gave Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. The Wildcats went into the fourth quarter down 24-6 and ended up losing 45-6.

Iowa's loss to Tennessee was its sixth of the season, finishing with a disappointing 7-6 record. On the other hand, the bowl game loss to the Volunteers was just Northwestern's third of the season, as it finished with a surprising 10-3 record.

The Hawkeyes' disappointing season brought out peak frustration from the Iowa faithful. The narrative all offseason detailed the fall of the program, headlined by the feeling of regret after giving head coach Kirk Ferentz a 10-year deal after finishing the 2009 season ranked No. 7 following an Orange Bowl victory.

The always measured Bill Connelly wrote this when previewing Iowa's 2015 season:

The Hawkeyes have been to four bowls in five years (with a 4-8 dud in the middle), winning either seven or eight games alongside each. They haven't been ranked since late in 2010, no, and despite the Big Ten having approximately 17 January 1 bowls, they have only once played on January 1 in this span. They beat three 10- or 11-win teams in 2010-11 but have only done so once since (and that was NIU).

During the same offseason, Northwestern — on a much smaller scale — experienced that same frustration. When 2014 ended in a second 5-7 season in a row after a 10-win 2012, frustration mounted and prospects for 2015 didn't look much brighter.

But you know what happened next.

Iowa produced an undefeated regular season before losing back-to-back games in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State and the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Similarly, Northwestern rattled off one of the program's best seasons ever, winning 10 games.

Neither program changed much. The coaching staffs remained intact, the schemes stayed the same. An attitude of "run the ball and play good defense," as Connelly wrote, persisted.

While Northwestern is not yet on the same level as Iowa as a program in terms of historical success and reputation, the Big Ten West foes are getting more and more similar. So similar, in fact, that Northwestern could look to Iowa as an example of what it would take to win a Big Ten Championship, a possibility that looks much more likely after the run the Hawkeyes just made. Northwestern, and the rest of the Big Ten West, can learn a lot from Iowa's run to the Big Ten Championship, a feat that symbolizes the current egalitarian landscape of the Big Ten West.

When the Big Ten decided to reorganize the conference into geographic divisions for the 2014 season, the East got the elite national brands (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State) and also the newbies and a perennial cellar-dweller (Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana). The West got the second- and third-tier names (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue). Wisconsin won the first Big Ten West title, going 5-1 against divisional rivals.

The Badgers, going back to the first Big Ten season with divisions in 2011, have been to three Big Ten title games, tied with Michigan State for the most appearances in that span. Of the current Big Ten West teams, Iowa (2015) and Nebraska (2012) have also made an appearance.

The Badgers are also tops in the West when it comes to head-to-head matchups against each other, dating back to 2012. Wisconsin has won almost 85 percent of its games against West opponents, followed by Iowa's 64 percent, Nebraska's 62 percent and Northwestern's 52 percent. Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois have won 41 percent, 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of their games against Big Ten West teams.

It seems that Wisconsin, up with Nebraska as the division's best recruiter over the past several seasons, should be the consistent measuring stick atop the division. But that's not so clear. Wisconsin is on its third coach since 2011. Nebraska fired its successful coach in Bo Pelini after the 2014 season. Minnesota and Illinois replaced their coaches in 2015, albeit they were on-staff promotions in both cases. Purdue should probably be looking for a new head man again after Darrell Hazell, who took over in 2013 and has gone a combined 6-30 in three seasons.

The two constants amid the turbulence: Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, the two longest-tenured head coaches in the Big Ten. Especially with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois all having new coaches in 2015, it's really not that surprising that Iowa and Northwestern finished first and second in the Big Ten West.

The coaching changes have created uncertainty about Wisconsin's and Nebraska's holds on the top two spots in the Big Ten West, leveling the playing field for the top four (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern) in a big way. Iowa and Northwestern shot through to the top of the division this season helped not only by strong play, but also by scheduling.

As conferences grow and become split up into divisions, schedules become more and more unbalanced. Iowa was a perfect example of getting a remarkably favorable schedule in 2015. Along with playing the requisite divisional teams (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue), Iowa's two "crossover" games in 2015 were easy draws. The Hawkeyes played at home against Maryland and at Indiana (and avoided the other Big Ten East teams, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Rutgers).

Next year, the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference slate, meaning the six divisional games remain but one more intra-division game is added. Iowa, again, is blessed with what seems like an easy schedule, playing at Rutgers and Penn State and also hosting Michigan. The Hawkeyes also get Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. Northwestern, by contrast, has a much tougher schedule, having to play two of the elite programs in the country — Michigan State and Ohio State — on the road. Wisconsin has it even tougher, having to travel to Michigan State and Michigan while playing Ohio State at home.

As of now, Northwestern — as well as Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska — just needs the right combination of recruiting success, player development and a favorable schedule to have the opportunity to make a Hawkeye-esque run to the Big Ten Championship.

In recruiting, the Wildcats have been impressive since 2012, having caught up to Nebraska and Wisconsin in terms of ratings.

Average recruiting ratings per class
2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 Rough 5-year average
Nebraska 86.74 83.34 84.72 81.7 87.02 84.704
Wisconsin 82.98 83.91 83.98 85.3 85.32 84.298
Northwestern 82.37 84.09 85.77 84 84.45 84.136
Minnesota 81.21 82.46 82.29 82.94 84.77 82.734
Iowa 82.79 81.33 82.05 83.11 84.02 82.66
Illinois 80.76 82.41 81.61 83.5 82.18 82.092
Purdue 81.6 81.73 82.61 81.83 81.78 81.91

But the next part of the equation is developing players. Iowa's consistency in player development showed up this season, especially at the running back position where numerous players filled in when one went down. The Badgers, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, do the best job of any team in the country in over-performing their projections based on recruiting between 2005 and 2014. Northwestern, which has continually retained its coaching staff, was the ninth-best team using that measure.

And lastly, you need the schedule. For Northwestern, that schedule won't show up next season. But look at 2017. The Wildcats play at Maryland and are home against Penn State and Michigan State in the crossover games. That season, Northwestern's 2013 recruiting class — which has already outperformed expectations — and 2014 class — the program's highest-rated class — will be upperclassmen.

That's what makes the Big Ten West so interesting over the next few years and gives Northwestern the opportunity to follow in Iowa's footsteps. Each team — especially those in the division's top tier — can find the magic Iowa found this season. And with so many changes happening around them, the Wildcats have a golden opportunity to make some noise very, very soon.