- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We've been taking a look at which Big Ten teams will be contenders and which will be pretenders in the 2013 season. Our series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For every other league team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict.
Now it's time to examine the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Why they're a contender: Last year's 4-8 season was an aberration for a team that as recently as 2009 won 11 games and went to the Orange Bowl. These Hawkeyes have the building blocks for success under Kirk Ferentz: an experienced offensive line and what looks like a strong running game. A drama-free offseason so far at running back means Iowa is for once deep at the position, with Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri and others. The quarterback competition rages on, but it won't be hard to replace James Vandenberg's numbers from last season. The players should have a better time implementing Greg Davis' offense, and Davis has made some tweaks to fit the players he has. Iowa will have the most experienced linebacking corps in the Big Ten, as James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens all return. Carl Davis had a breakout performance in the spring game at defensive tackle, and C.J. Fiedorowicz should be one of the league's top tight ends. Other than a trip to Ohio State on Oct. 19, the Hawkeyes' toughest conference road games before the finale at Nebraska are at Minnesota and Purdue. Ferentz's teams have surprised us before.
Why they're a pretender: Last year's 4-8 season was the continuation of a three-year decline, and the program's lack of top-end talent at key positions is evident. Iowa had one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten last year and now will be employing a quarterback who's never played a down in college. Davis' system, which relies heavily on speedy receivers making plays, remains an odd fit for a team that lacks great athletes at wideout. The defense has major concerns at defensive end and in the secondary, and despite their experience, those linebackers haven't yet played at an All-Big Ten level. Iowa just wasn't very good in most phases last year and only won four games despite a plus-12 turnover margin. The Hawkeyes have to play Wisconsin and Ohio State as crossover opponents, and they've got tricky nonconference games against Northern Illinois and at rival Iowa State.
Verdict: We don't expect Iowa to go 4-8 again. If the Hawkeyes can stay healthy and get off to a good start, they should have a good chance at getting back to a bowl. Ferentz's teams seem to have a habit of confounding your expectations, both good and bad. But the Hawkeyes simply have too many holes to compete with the best teams in the Legends Division. Pretender.