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The early view

This year's champion won't be crowned until Monday night but Athlon Sports is already taking an early look at the college football landscape for 2016 and it ranks Iowa as a top-20 team nationally at the team to beat in the Big Ten West Division. In its early top 25 released this week, Athlon ranks the Hawkeyes 17th overall and has Iowa fourth among four Big Ten teams in its poll. From where things stand in early January, the Hawkeyes probably do rate as the favorite in the West Division based on their success this season and a collection of returning starters that includes eight players on one of the league's most dominant defenses. In its assessment, Athlon writes, "Kirk Ferentz 3.0 was nearly enough for Iowa to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Hawkeyes won't fly under the radar in 2016, as Iowa should open next season as the favorite in the Big Ten's West Division. "Quarterback C.J. Beathard had a breakout season in 2015 and returns to anchor the offense. Replacing running back Jordan Canzeri, receiver Tevaun Smith and offensive linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe top the priority list for coordinator Greg Davis this spring.'' It goes on point out that the Hawkeye defense "received a boost with the announcement top cornerback Desmond King would return for his senior year'' and mentions the possibility of Drew Ott returning as well. The publication also notes Iowa's changing schedule. "The schedule is also a huge advantage for Iowa, as Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2016.'' Athlon lists Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State as its top four heading into 2016, but points out the Buckeyes have plenty of holes to fill following nine early exits for the NFL and a schedule that includes a road trip to Oklahoma as well as consecutive games with Michigan State and Michigan in the final weeks of the regular season. Athlon ranks the Wolverines seventh and the Spartans 11th in its early poll. It includes Northwestern and Wisconsin in an alphabetically listed group of 10 teams to watch just outside of its top 25.

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