Why Iowa can win the Big Ten West

Key returnees, rising recruits and favorable slate make Hawkeyes contenders

Updated: February 20, 2014, 6:12 PM ET
By KC Joyner | ESPN Insider

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk FerentzLeon Halip/Getty ImagesHead coach Kirk Ferentz's team has a good chance to win the Big Ten West.

The combination of the decline of Wisconsin and the new Big Ten conference alignment placing the two teams that finished the 2013 regular season unbeaten in conference play (Michigan State and Ohio State) into the East division may open the door for a West division underdog to surprise the world by earning a spot in the Big Ten title game.

One strong contender for that role is the Iowa Hawkeyes. Returning 14 starters from a team that went 8-5 last year earned Iowa the No. 19 spot on Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25 and gives the program a shot at 10 wins. However, a closer look at the game tape, metrics and recruiting illustrates why this club should be aiming even higher than a top-20 finish in the 2014 campaign.

Offensive outlook

It starts at quarterback. Jake Rudock showcased some talent in his first year as a starter, as he posted seven games with an Adjusted Total QBR of 64 or higher. This metric adjusts a quarterback's Raw Total QBR by the relative strength of the opposing team and thus indicates Rudock was in the 64th performance percentile or higher in more than half of his starts.

Rudock also fared reasonably well in the bad decision rate (BDR) metric that measures how often a quarterback makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team. His 2.8 percent BDR in Big Ten games last season was a bit higher than the 2.0-to-2.5 percent BDR that serves as the median performance level for quarterbacks in a passing offense like the one Iowa operates, but there is a clear path for improvement.