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Hawkeyes columnkst Chad Leistikow lays down his predictions for how he thinks teams will fare in the Big Ten Conference this season. Aaron Young

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Iowa football is exciting again.

A year ago at this time, nobody discussed the Hawkeyes as a potential threat to win the Big Ten Conference’s West Division and be within one yard of the College Football Playoff.

Now, after a 12-2 season and the school’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 25 years, expectations are high. The USA TODAY Coaches’ Preseason Poll put the Hawkeyes 15th in the country; the Associated Press has them 17th.

Iowa has some buzz in top-line talent in quarterback C.J. Beathard and cornerback Desmond King. And as I’ve written, 6-3 in the Big Ten West might be good enough to win the division. As I've also written, the best team in each division might not win because of schedule imbalances.

It’ll be tough — borderline impossible — to repeat what Iowa did last year. It went 7-0 in regular-season games decided in the fourth quarter: against Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska.

I’ve got Iowa winning several close ones again, but losing some, too, and going 9-3. A year ago, Hawkeye fans probably would’ve taken that deal. This year? A lot of them would probably turn down 9-3. Expectations are that high.

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Here’s how I’ve got it playing out:

Miami of Ohio, Sept. 3

The last three times the Hawkeyes played the RedHawks, Ben Roethlisberger was Miami's quarterback. Iowa escaped 29-24 early in the magical 2002 season, then famously handed Big Ben his only 2003 loss in that year’s opener at Kinnick Stadium, 21-3. This year’s Miami outfit won’t be as challenging, with third-year coach Chuck Miller coming off 2-8 and 3-9 campaigns. The RedHawks do return 80 percent of their offensive line, as well as their entire core of running backs, but this is also a program that lost 58-0 to Wisconsin a year ago. USA TODAY predicts Miami to finish fifth in the six-team East Division of the Mid-American Conference.

What Chad says

It’s almost always a hot day in the Kinnick opener, and another one of those for this 2:30 p.m. kickoff would suit Iowa well. The RedHawks don’t have much depth, and the Hawkeyes have a chance to completely wear them down in the trenches. This is the weakest opponent on Iowa’s schedule, and the lopsided outcome gives coach Kirk Ferentz the opportunity to find some depth of his own for the grind ahead. Look for Beathard to come out throwing, and for LeShun Daniels Jr. to pound his way to a second consecutive season-opening 100-yard rushing day.

Game Prediction

Iowa 45, Miami of Ohio 7

Iowa State, Sept. 10

Have you heard that there’s a storm brewing in Ames? That’s been the public mantra from new coach Matt Campbell, who is trying to reverse a losing culture. Yet for Paul Rhoads’ failures, his teams did just fine in their most recent trips to Iowa City — winning 9-6 in 2012, then 20-17 on Cole Netten’s game-winner in 2014. The Cyclones will almost certainly be riding a 1-0 record into town after dispatching Northern Iowa, and they’ll probably be pretty optimistic, too. The key players for Iowa State are different than Iowa saw a year ago, with Joel Lanning at quarterback and Mike Warren as the primary tailback (he rushed three times for nine yards against the Hawkeyes a year ago, then broke out the following week).

What Chad says

We’ll find a lot out about the Hawkeye defense in this matchup. How good is the rush D in stopping Warren, one of the best backs in the Big 12? And will Greg Mabin/Desmond King be able to contain one of the best receivers they’ll see all year in Allen Lazard? Ferentz gets criticized for not taking the Iowa State game seriously enough, but this is one time when the home team has plenty of motivation. Iowa rides a frenzied under-the-lights crowd and the better quarterback to a rare comfortable win in this series.

Game Prediction

Iowa 35, Iowa State 17

North Dakota State, Sept. 17

There will be plenty of Bison fans that make the pilgrimage to Iowa City to remind you that Bison is pronounced with a “Z” sound. But the players of the five-time defending FCS champions are the ones to worry about. North Dakota State has won five straight games over FBS competition (most recently Iowa State in 2014) and features a quarterback in 6-2, 221 Easton Stick who went 8-0 last season while subbing for injured Carson Wentz — the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Bison play good defense and return 15 starters overall. Most importantly, they believe they can win.

What Chad says

This one’s in a bad spot on the calendar — an 11 a.m. kickoff the week after an emotional night rivalry game. NDSU (preseason No. 1, of course) is a shoo-in for the FCS playoffs, so this is the Bison Super Bowl until then. Iowa needs to come out sharp and be relentless, like it was in last year’s season opener against FCS Illinois State. The Hawkeyes have to win this one in the trenches and limit their mistakes. The defense will get burned by a trick play or two, but the offense will finds a way to get it done at home — just barely.

Game Prediction

Iowa 27, North Dakota State 24

At Rutgers, Sept. 24

Admit it: You’ve all been waiting for decades to see the Hawkeyes play in venerable High Point Solutions Stadium. The first Rutgers-Iowa football meeting will serve as the first Big Ten game as a head coach for Chris Ash, an Ottumwa native. Ash entered Rutgers camp with quarterback questions, but look for whoever runs the show in late September to direct a power-spread attack mimicking Ohio State’s. Of course, Rutgers doesn’t have anything close to the Buckeyes' personnel, but it probably enters this one on a two-game winning streak after beating up on Howard and New Mexico in previous weeks.

What Chad says

Ash has said, “We aren’t a team or a program that people respect.” You can bet Iowa will come in wary after a close call against the Bison. And there will be a surprising number of Bumblebees in attendance with so many East Coast-based Hawkeye alums. All that will be bad news for a Rutgers team that lacks playmakers and is still trying to rebuild the Big Ten’s 13th-ranked defense. That’s why this becomes Beathard’s first collegiate 300-yard passing game, and Iowa looks as good as it has all year in rolling up a league-opening win.

Game Prediction

Iowa 44, Rutgers 21

Northwestern, Oct. 1

For some reason, the Wildcats aren’t getting much love, despite returning a lot of really good players — running back Justin Jackson, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuke — from a 10-3 team of a year ago. Opinions for 2016 were probably shaped by the 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl, but you remember how people dismissed Iowa in 2015 after the TaxSlayer (or HawkSlayer, per Brian Ferentz) Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald’s guys are hungry, well-coached and seem to have found a new way of doing things in the weight room. If Clayton Thorson takes a big jump in Year 2 at quarterback and Northwestern can find a playmaker out wide, this is a West-contending outfit.

What Chad says

The Wildcats are well aware that they’ve been beaten by a combined 88-17 against Iowa the past two years. Fitzgerald chalks both up to being manhandled in the trenches by the Hawkeyes. So this 11 a.m. Homecoming game could be a brawl, but as should be the case in many of these matchups, Iowa has the better quarterback. Look for Akrum Wadley (310 rushing yards vs. the Wildcats) to be Mr. Northwestern for the third year in a row, and for the Hawkeyes to move to 5-0 and entrench themselves into the national top 10.

Game Prediction

Iowa 30, Northwestern 23.

At Minnesota, Oct. 8

The Gophers were picked by media to finish fifth in the Big Ten West, but there’s little debate they have the best schedule among the contenders. Michigan and Ohio State fell off the ledger in favor of Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers. Minnesota has a fifth-year senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner who has torched the Hawkeyes (29 of 40 for 397 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs) in two meetings. Head coach Tracy Claeys thinks his team can win between 8 and 10 games this fall, and if the Gophers can be healthier than they were a year ago (when players on their two deep lost 119 games to injury), he might be right.

What Chad says

Until the Rose Bowl last year, Iowa played 13 straight games without a stinker. That’s a first in the Ferentz era (even the 2009 team that started 9-0 scraped past Northern Iowa and Arkansas State). That luck is bound to run out, and this is a dangerous spot for the Hawkeyes, who under my scenario are 5-0 after an emotional home win and carry a top-10 target on their backs. Iowa lost 51-14 in their last trip to Minneapolis in a game in which nothing went right. Leidner wants this one badly, and he plays sharp against the off-kilter Hawkeyes as Floyd of Rosedale heads North for 12 months.

Game Prediction

Minnesota 24, Iowa 23

At Purdue, Oct. 15

The Boilermakers have two new coordinators as Darrell Hazell’s job is on the line in his fourth season. Purdue might be set at quarterback with David Blough (who was knocked from the Iowa game with a concussion), and receiver DeAngelo Yancey is a legit playmaker. The Boilers return eight starters on defense … from a unit that allowed 37 points per game. This is a program in disarray, but Hazell and the players were surprisingly confident at Big Ten Media Days.

What Chad says

Ferentz’s teams generally don’t stay in a funk for long, and after a chippy week of practice, Iowa comes to West Lafayette, Ind., in a take-no-prisoners mood. Purdue is the only team Beathard started against in 2014, so he’s 2-0 against the Boilers. Here, he'll make it 3-0. Look for Jay Scheel to have his breakout game as a Hawkeye, if he hasn’t had one already.

Game Prediction

Iowa 41, Purdue 14

Wisconsin, Oct. 22

Predictions are all over the map with the Badgers, who are coming off one of the most unimpressive 10-3 seasons in history. They lost at home to Iowa and Northwestern, and several key pieces to that squad are gone — perhaps most notably defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Some think Wisconsin still has division-winning talent, but there are questions at quarterback and on the offensive line. And then there’s that schedule: LSU, at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa and Nebraska — all before October is even behind them. If the running game doesn’t click, the Badgers’ 14-year streak of making a bowl game could be in jeopardy.

What Chad says

Iowa hasn’t gotten the best of Wisconsin inside Kinnick Stadium since 2008. That changes this time around. The Hawkeyes’ stout defensive tackles and excellent linebackers should match up well with the Badgers, as they did last year in holding them to six points in Madison. It helps Iowa’s cause that Wisconsin should be relatively beaten-up at the back end of a scheduling gauntlet. Madison-born George Kittle helps Iowa move the chains enough to win this defensive struggle.

Game Prediction

Iowa 20, Wisconsin 10

At Penn State, Nov. 5

After a bye week, any nicks the Hawkeyes have collected in a 7-1 start have somewhat healed. But the November stretch is the toughest part of Iowa’s schedule, and it starts with a game under the lights in Happy Valley. Penn State is trying to remake its image with Christian Hackenburg gone after three years as the quarterback. By November, the up-tempo offense behind new QB Trace McSorley will be more polished, though running back Saquon Barkley is the key Nittany Lion to stop.

What Chad says

When the schedule came out, Iowa’s players were excited about playing a road night game. I think they’re amped up big-time for this one, and there’s extra motivation: The last time these teams met, in 2012, it got ugly in Iowa City. Fifth-year seniors like Beathard, Kittle, Mabin and Jaleel Johnson surely remember the feeling of Penn State’s 38-14 win at Kinnick four years ago, and Iowa gets its signature revenge in 2016.

Game Prediction

Iowa 27, Penn State 20

Michigan, Nov. 12

The Wolverines’ only main question mark, at quarterback, will be settled by mid-November (probably by Houston transfer John O’Korn). Almost everything else is in place for Michigan to make a College Football Playoff run. O’Korn has a bevy of receivers, including Jehu Chesson, Dowling grad Amara Darboh and all-Big Ten tight end Jake Butt. Jim Harbaugh’s defense should be tremendous, with roving linebacker Jabril Peppers and cornerback Jourdan Lewis leading the way. The schedule also plays nicely into the Wolverines’ hands, with five consecutive home games to start, followed by a trip to Rutgers, a bye, then Illinois at home. If Michigan can win at Michigan State on Oct. 29, it’ll likely head to Kinnick Stadium with a 9-0 record — and perhaps a No. 1 national ranking.

What Chad says

Michigan is the only opponent on Iowa’s schedule with a clear edge in talent. Harbaugh, for all his zany antics, is a terrific coach, too. Iowa will have just come home from an emotional win at Penn State, and the Wolverines will be loaded with too much for the Hawkeyes. For some reason, the 2006 home night game against then-No. 1 Ohio State (when Iowa was No. 13 and 4-0) is a flashback here. The Troy Smith-led Buckeyes picked off Drew Tate three times and dominated that one, 38-17. This game isn't quite as lopsided, but it's humbling.

Game Prediction

Michigan 31, Iowa 14

At Illinois, Nov. 19

Lovie Smith is a man with a plan in Champaign, and it’s worth watching how it pans out. The Hawkeyes have benefited from the Illini’s program regression in recent years, but a new culture is being installed. How long will the rebuild take? Well, Smith has a good Year 1 starting point with fifth-year senior quarterback Wes Lunt and play-making running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Smith’s NFL teams have always had opportunistic, aggressive defenses.

What Chad says

Trap game. After two emotional night kickoffs, Iowa finds itself in a dangerous spot — Senior Day in Champaign, Ill., maybe at 11 a.m., facing a program hungry to make a new mark. We saw Iowa come down from last year’s 10th game (a home night win over Minnesota) with a so-so performance in Game 11 against Purdue. Illinois, a team that pushed Iowa to the brink a year ago at Kinnick, is better than a lot of people think. And with Iowa lacking a consistent pass rush, Lunt has time to move the chains as he did last year. The Illini win the turnover battle — and the game — to stagger the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten West hopes.

Game Prediction

Illinois 28, Iowa 24

Nebraska, Nov. 25

By the time this matchup comes around, it'll have been four months since the death of punter Sam Foltz rocked the Husker program. When tragedy happens, emotions can sometimes crash toward the end of the season — at least that’s what Northwestern’s Fitzgerald said, and he has experience in this area. Where will Nebraska’s program be in late November? It’ll be tough to say, but we’ll know by then if Tommy Armstrong Jr. has stopped his interception-happy passing and if the Huskers' defensive line has been rebuilt. Nebraska is picked as Iowa’s top challenger in the West, so a lot of people think the division title comes down to this game.

What Chad says

Until Nebraska builds an identity under coach Mike Riley, I’m selling on this program. I see an inconsistent quarterback and major question marks in the trenches. After the loss at Illinois, the Hawks will rally the troops on Senior Day and remember the lesson of 2014 — to play an entire 60 minutes at home against Nebraska. The Hawks will finish with a bang and a 9-3 record. A few weeks later, Iowa is extended an invite to the Dec. 31 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl.

Game Prediction

Iowa 34, Nebraska 24

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