You could make a fair argument that Iowa, and not Wisconsin, has the easiest path to the Big Ten's West division title.
After all, the Hawkeyes have a significantly easier non-conference schedule, and they hit the jackpot in drawing the Badgers at home in the Big Ten's 2014 division reshuffling. And just like the Badgers the Hawkeyes also avoid having to play the heavy hitting teams from the Big Ten East.
It's a nice recipe for an improved win total and a potential trip to Indianapolis, but the Hawkeyes will have to prove that last year's rebound was more than just a dead cat bounce. They'll need to work on their offensive efficiency and recover from losing some experienced players on defense, but at the very least the pieces are there for another successful season in Iowa City.
In looking at Iowa's recruiting map you should notice some similarities to the rest of their fellow Big Ten members and one major difference. Like a lot of their conference mates, the Hawkeyes have devoted most of their time to prospects living in the Big Ten's footprint. 54 percent of their total offers went to prospects from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.
On top of that, the Hawkeyes have also staked out some territory in one of the nation's biggest recruiting hubs. Texas prospects picked up 14.8 percent of Iowa's scholarship offers over the last four years, which edged out Illinois for the top spot on Iowa's list. It hasn't been for nothing, either. Iowa has signed eight Texas natives since 2011, which is pretty good for a team that doesn't send out a lot of offers in the first place.
But the Hawkeyes differ from the rest of the Big Ten, and a good chunk of Division 1 football, in how little recruiting time they've spent in Florida over the last four years. A six percent offer rate is easily the lowest we've seen for far. Northwestern had the previous low mark at 10.4 percent: they offered five more prospects than Iowa did in four years.
That's not to say that a smaller presence in Florida spells long-term doom for a program like Iowa, it's just a little surprising. Kirk Ferentz and his staff have a plan for how they want to build their team, and not every recruiting plan will fit at every school.
But when the Hawkeyes were able to sign four prospects from Florida between 2011 and 2012 relative to just 26 offers, I have to wonder if they made the right call in only offering four players from Florida over the last two years. That's a pretty big talent well to ignore, and while they've had some success in Texas I'm not sure if that will be enough to keep a program at a high level for the foreseeable future. The Midwest as a whole doesn't produce as much talent as the south and southeast, so you'd think that teams would take any chance they could get to tap into out of state pipelines.
The Iowa Hawkeyes got back to basics last year. After seeing the program slide from 11 wins in 2009 to just four in 2012, Iowa bounced back to win eight games at a time when many thought that they would have been better served to move on from head coach Kirk Ferentz and start from scratch. A massive buyout on Ferentz's contract probably stopped that from even becoming a possibility, but the Hawkeyes are probably feeling a little better about the state of their program now than they were a year ago.
Offensively the turnaround was modest but marked. The Hawkeyes got better at quarterback, where Jake Rudock took over for James Vandenberg and threw for 2,383 yards as a sophomore. Rudock averaged 6.9 yards per attempt with a relatively limited supporting cast, and he even scored five rushing touchdowns. With a year's worth of experience under his belt you'd hope that his 3.6 percent interception rate would dip a little, but on the whole the Hawkeyes should be set at quarterback for the next two seasons.
Apart from Rudock, though, the passing game could use some work. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowitz is gone, leaving Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith as Iowa's top returning receivers with experience from last season. Neither player was a big-play threat last year: they combined to average 10.9 yards per catch and scored six touchdowns, but Martin-Manley brings a little extra to the table as a punt returner. Iowa would look a lot more dangerous on offense if they could find another receiver to take the top off of a defense.
The running game looked a lot better last year as well. Iowa's running backs were able to stay remarkably healthy for once, which allowed their top three rushers to rush for 4.59 yards per carry. Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri were all two-star prospects out of high school, but they were able to develop into a unit that was reminiscent of the strong running games upon which Iowa built its early and mid-2000s success.
Defensively there are a few concerns, though. Iowa brings back three of four starters from last year's defensive line, but there are quite a few holes to fill in the back seven. All three linebackers are gone from last season, which could hamper their rush defense even if the defensive line produces like it did last year. That could be a key matchup in their game against Wisconsin- Iowa will need their linebackers to improve by the end of the season to stop Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in the second level.
The secondary also looks like it might be a bit of a work in progress. Two starters are back: cornerback Desmond King and strong safety John Lowdermilk. It'll be tough to overcome losing a first team All-Big Ten starter like cornerback B.J. Lowery, and Iowa will need to find some other defensive players to step up if they want to keep their defense performing somewhere close to last year's level.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.