One of the early signs that the college football season is drawing closer is the annual release of the preseason magazines.
Athlon Sports was one of the first magazines to hit the newsstands, arriving this week.
The magazine Iowa picked to finish in third place, but that’s just among the six teams in the Big Ten’s new Legends Division.
Athlon Sports has Nebraska winning the Legends Division in its debut season in the Big Ten followed (in order) by Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota.
“I think Nebraska was the easy choice at No. 1 and Michigan State was an easy choice at No. 2,” said Mitchell Light, managing editor for Athlon Sports. “And then there was a lot of debate in our predictions meeting about Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern.”
Ohio State is picked to win the Leaders Division and also to defeat Nebraska in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game despite the distractions hanging over the Buckeye program. Wisconsin is picked to finish second in the Leaders Division followed by Penn State, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.
Nebraska is picked to finish 11-2 overall and 7-1 in conference play, and Michigan State is picked to finish 9-3 and 6-2, respectively.
Iowa and Michigan, which is led by new coach Brady Hoke, are picked by Athlon Sports to finish 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, but the magazine still gives Iowa the edge for third place.
“Michigan is a difficult team to figure out this year because they’re so good on offense and so bad on defense,” Light said.
Iowa proved to be a hard team to figure out last season.
Athlon Sports had Iowa ranked 12th nationally in its 2010 preseason magazine and picked to finish in second place in the Big Ten behind Ohio State.
The fact that Iowa fell way short of those expectations by finishing 8-5 overall with a senior-laden team has a carryover effect into the 2011 season.
Iowa also returns the fewest number of starters — five on both offense and defense — among all the Big Ten teams.
The 2011 Iowa squad will feature a new starter at quarterback, receiver and fullback, along with three new starters on the defensive line, two at linebacker and at the safety positions.
Combine that with also having to replace all-Big Ten punter Ryan Donahue, who started in each of the past four seasons, and with Iowa being up and down over the past six seasons, and Light says there is reason for doubt.
“I think there are certain programs that people just have preconceived notions on,” Light said. “Iowa I might group in there with Clemson and Texas A&M, kind of those second-tier, not the elite programs, but very solid programs that sometimes have trouble when expectations are high and kind of overachieve when expectations aren’t great.”
Light gives Nebraska a decisive edge in the Legends Division largely because of its defense and because of speedy sophomore quarterback Taylor Martinez, who was a force last season when healthy.
Martinez rushed for 870 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in the first seven games last season. He was then slowed by injuries in the final seven games and rushed for just 95 yards and didn’t score a touchdown.
“Taylor Martinez is the key there,” Light said.
Ohio State is the highest ranked team in Athlon Sports’ preseason magazine at No. 9 nationally even though five key players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and coach Jim Tressel, are suspended for the first five games.
Nebraska is ranked 10th nationally followed by Michigan State at No. 22, Wisconsin at No. 23 and Iowa at No. 26.
“I think Michigan State is more proven at the skills positions,” Light said when asked why the Spartans were picked ahead of Iowa despite losing to the Hawkeyes 37-6 last season. “They’ve got a better receiver core and they’ve got a good quarterback, too.
“This team is sort of trending upward. But I don’t think there is a huge gap (between Michigan State and Iowa).”
Light considers Iowa’s schedule, which doesn’t include Ohio State or Wisconsin, as a positive, along with the emergence last season of running back Marcus Coker.
Coker solidified himself as the starter as a true freshman by rushing for 219 yards to lead Iowa to a 27-24 victory over Missouri in the 2010 Insight Bowl in December.
His presence should help ease the transition for new starting quarterback James Vandenberg.
“It’s always tough to evaluate new quarterbacks,” Light said. “But I think what Marcus Coker did at the end of the year really made a big impact.”
Athlon Sports has Iowa facing Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football