The Iowa softball team is 27-5 and ranked 19th nationally but the Hawkeyes face a difficult challenge to open the Big Ten race. Iowa plays the first of two games at Michigan Friday afternoon and will close the weekend on Sunday at Northwestern. Michigan is 32-1 and is the nation’s top ranked team. Iowa coach Gayle Blevins says it’s the first time a Big Ten team has been ranked number one. Blevins says the conference is much deeper this year, and she expects it to be a good race. Pitching depth is a key in conference play and that’s one of the reasons Iowa expects to challenge for the title. Senior Lisa Birroci, junior Ali Arnold and freshman Stephanie Ackerson have given up only 34 earned runs in their first 32-games. Blevins says the pitchers compliment each other well because they’re so different in style and strength. Michigan and Iowa have dominated the Big Ten race for the last decade. Either the Hawkeyes or Wolverines have won the conference regular season title since 1995.