Picking Big Ten dark horse candidates: Iowa, Minnesota could surprise this season

Finding a dark horse in the Big Ten is hard.

On one side of the conference, there's a division (the East) with three programs that consider themselves national title contenders. Then there's the West Division, which is the one that's largely considered to be more flexible, but the history of the division suggests otherwise.

The Big Ten has had the divisional format for six seasons. Wisconsin has won its division (initially the Leaders) in four of those six years, and twice in the three years it's been in the West. So, while the perception may not agree, the truth is that Wisconsin has been somewhat dominant within its division.

Even so, the West is still the most vulnerable. So you will not be surprised to learn that the three dark horse candidates in the Big Ten all call the West their home.

Iowa

The Big Ten does not release a traditional preseason media poll as other conferences do. I don't know if it offends the conference's midwestern values or something, but it's the way it always has been. Thankfully, the <em>Cleveland Plain-Dealer</em> has taken up the matter for the conference, and in this year's poll, Iowa is picked to finish fourth in the West.

I have a sneaking suspicion this could be one of those years for Kirk Ferentz and company, though.

Iowa must replace C.J. Beathard at quarterback, as well as other key contributors from the skill positions, but you know what Iowa will have? An experienced offensive line. In fact, the Hawkeyes have the most-experienced line in the entire conference, and when this Iowa team is strong up front, it can accomplish a lot. Furthermore, while Iowa has some key players to replace, it's still one of the most veteran teams in the conference.

As far as the schedule goes, there are some concerns. Iowa draws both Penn State and Ohio State from the East, but if there's a silver lining, it's that both will travel to Iowa City. Of course, that's offset by the fact that the Hawkeyes will have to play Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road.

Minnesota

Minnesota is a wild card. I can see this team playing well enough to be a real threat in the West, and I can also see it struggling to even reach a bowl game. It's just hard to predict when a team is undergoing a coaching transition, and for some reason, I have an even more difficult time reading it when P.J. Fleck is involved.

One thing the Gophers have going their way this season is their schedule. The draw from the East features a road trip to Ann Arbor, but home games against Michigan State and Maryland are far more palatable. Minnesota will also play host to both Nebraska and Wisconsin, which will help a bit.

Another factor working in Goldy's favor is that it has four returning starters on its offensive line, as well as running back Rodney Smith.

Of course, none of this is to say that there aren't concerns.The biggest, for me, is a defense that only has four returning starters, with only two in the front seven.

Fleck showed us at Western Michigan that he can turn things around quickly, but he still managed to win only one game with the Broncos in his first season. At Minnesota, he's inheriting a far better squad than the one he took over in Kalamazoo, but the competition is a lot stiffer as well. It'll be interesting to see how things unfold for the Gophers this season.

Northwestern

Considering Northwestern finished second in the West in the Big Ten's media poll with five first-place votes, this horse may not be as dark as I originally believed. Or maybe those voters just see the same things I do when looking at these Wildcats entering 2017.

Some will worry about Northwestern's offense losing its security blanket in Austin Carr, and on the defensive side of the ball, Mr. Do Everything Anthony Walker is gone as well. These are legit concerns and neither player will be easy to replace, but even without them, this is still an experienced roster.

In fact, using Phil Steele's formula for rating a team's experience, the Wildcats roster has more of it than any other team in the Big Ten. Like Ferentz above, give Pat Fitzgerald a veteran team, and he can win some games.

The Wildcats also have a favorable cross-divisional draw, getting Penn State and Michigan State at home, while having to hit the road to take on Maryland. Within the division, there are road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska that should be cause for concern.

Still, this is a team that will have a solid defense, a workhorse running back in Justin Jackson, and a quarterback with one of the highest ceilings in the conference in Clayton Thorson.

Should things break right, this could be a special season in Evanston.

CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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