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B1G mailbag: Iowa's rings, improvement in MSU secondary

Behold the Big Ten mailbag:

Mitch Sherman: I feel good about it. They look nice and recognize the first 12-0 regular season in program history.

I understand your gripe. We’ve come to expect backlash any time an organization celebrates after something less than a championship. But what’s the problem here? Iowa appeared in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years. It won the Big Ten West. That’s a championship, by the way, and its season was tainted only slightly by the lopsided loss to Stanford on New Year’s Day.

If you’re into examining margin of victory, don’t ignore the three-point defeat against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. All that stood between a 13-0 record and Iowa headed to the College Football Playoff was a stretch of L.J. Scott’s right arm on a third-down run with 27 seconds to play in Indianapolis.

The Hawkeyes were so close to the unthinkable. Let 'em wear their rings.

Mitch Sherman: Let’s start with upset. I can see it coming in Week 3 against Oregon. The good vibes of the offseason figure to carry through the first two weeks of the season for Nebraska, with Fresno State and Wyoming headed to Lincoln. The Ducks come calling after opening with UC Davis and Virginia, and they’ll have a new quarterback again trying to learn the system. Nebraska coach Mike Riley is familiar with the Oregon style -- and Memorial Stadium will be alive at kickoff. Riley’s team have a history of playing well in big games. See the Cornhuskers’ win over Michigan State last year. And Oregon, despite six straight wins down the stretch last year, has slipped a notch in three years under Mark Helfrich.

As for the trap game, I’ll go with Indiana. You probably noticed that the Huskers didn’t play especially well away in road games last year, finishing 2-3 with losses at Illinois and Purdue. For the Hoosiers, it’s homecoming, and the visit from Nebraska comes a week after Indiana goes to Ohio State -- which could work as an advantage or disadvantage for the Huskers. Regardless, it’s Nebraska’s first game against Indiana as a member of the Big Ten -- yes, this is Year 6 -- so, of course, it’s a new environment for the Huskers. And if Nebraska struggles in Bloomington, look out, because the next two road games take it to Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Sherman: Statistically, the Spartans were mediocre, yes, against the pass last season, ranking 76th nationally in yardage allowed and the same in yards per attempt. Its interception rate of 3.4 percent ranked third in the Big Ten, though, and Michigan State battled injuries and inexperience in the defensive backfield to win the league title. Not bad, but far from the standard that earned the MSU secondary its “No Fly Zone” moniker. Harlon Barnett did not forget how to coach the secondary, though his added responsibility last season as co-defensive coordinator may have contributed to some of the midseason trouble the Spartans endured in defending the pass. But in nine games against Big Ten competition, including the conference title game, MSU posted its top three defensive QBR figures in the final four games.

So improvement has already occurred, and Michigan State loses just cornerback Arjen Colquhoun and safety RJ Williamson from its playing rotation. Three starters return -- safeties Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson and corner Darian Hicks, plus Vayante Copeland and Jermaine Edmonson with experience. Look for MSU's 2016 secondary to more resemble the group that played well down the stretch in 2015 than the bunch that struggled against the likes of Indiana and Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman: Sure, but it’s mid-May, so this is subject to change. I’ll go with Ohio State and Iowa as the division winners. I know Michigan is the hot pick and probably will be favored to win the league, but I’m going to say the East boils down to Nov. 26 at the Horseshoe. And nobody works better with young talent than Urban Meyer.

Most improved? Well, in terms of its record, I expect Nebraska to make a three- to four-game jump in the regular season. And in the East, let’s go with the aforementioned Wolverines. Despite my division pick, I look at Michigan as a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff. Obviously, Jim Harbaugh’s team has more ground to gain than Ohio State, evidenced by the Buckeyes’ 42-13 win last year in Ann Arbor.