Iowa football embracing challenge of historically difficult schedule to start the season

INDIANAPOLIS — When Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz stepped to the podium for Big Ten Media Days, he recalled a memory from previous coach Hayden Fry. In 1979, Fry's first season, Iowa opened their season against Indiana. In present day, when beginning the season with a conference opponent is rare, Ferentz's 2021 team will do just that with a home opener against Indiana. 

The Sept. 4 kickoff is one half of what will be a historic two-game leg.

For the first time in 22 years, Iowa's football schedule begins with two consecutive Power 5 teams. After their Sept. 4 season opener against Indiana, they travel to rival Iowa State on September 11. 

"That's certainly something that's got our attention," Ferentz said. "We know we're going to have to be at our best right off the bat, or at least attempt to be." 

A formal preseason college football poll hasn't been released, but based on projections, Indiana will be within the top 15-20 and Iowa State is projected top 10. 

"Playing two ranked teams for your first two games," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said, "obviously it gets our attention. Our student-athletes in their workouts have been able to focus on that so it's going to be an incredible time. I'm glad that our first game is in Kinnick (Stadium) at home so we have a chance to have it sold out." 

Iowa is looking to reverse last year's misfortunes. The Hawkeyes started 0-2 with an all-Big Ten schedule. Even though they finished the year on a six-game winning streak, the slow start prevented them from advancing to the conference championship game. 

"I remember realizing how small the margin of victory or defeat is," defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg said. "It's really the little things you do during the week: 'How hard am I hustling during practice? How hard am I chasing the ball?' That's going to make the difference on game day when you're winning or losing by only a few points." 

This is a new year, but the lessons learned from last year are a constant reminder to lay a strong foundation early on in the season. 

"Those little things, the work in practice," VanValkenburg said. "Our work doesn't start with the first game. It starts with camp. That's when we win the first game." 

More:What to know about the Iowa Hawkeyes' 2021 football schedule

Coaches and players are excited for the start of every season, but especially this one, after what happened in 2020. However, the looming opponents to start the season have added an extra spark to offseason preparation. 

The first two games will set the tone for 2021: An 0-2 start would put them in a similar hole as last year, but a potential 2-0 start could vault the Hawkeyes to the forefront of national rankings with a pair of marquee wins. 

And the players have embraced the challenge. 

Iowa's Tyrone Tracy Jr. said Friday that, "It’s going to become a big deal pretty soon that we are all vaccinated."

"It's definitely exciting and very challenging," wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said. "To play two really great teams off the bat will challenge us in ways we haven't been challenged before. 

"Indiana is probably going to be a top-10 team and so will Iowa State, so I feel like if we can win those first two games it'll be a good push forward." 

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Unlike last year, time is on the Hawkeyes' side this year. A return to normalcy has allowed Iowa to prepare fully during the offseason for what's to come this fall. The offense especially struggled in the first two games last season in trying to acclimate with quarterback Spencer Petras, who missed half of last summer's preparation period due to quarantine. 

Another factor to consider, according to Tracy, is that the bulk of the skill players on offense are returning this year. That built-up rapport is crucial, he said.

"We had a spring, had a summer and about to have a fall (camp)," Tracy said. "With all the same guys and all of the same chemistry. I think that's something we missed last year and that's why we started 0-2. I'm not going to blame it on that but it played a part in where the chips landed." 

For the first time in 22 years, Iowa's football schedule begins with two consecutive Power 5 teams. Both of them are projected Top-15 teams.

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The premium on the first two games has created an opportunity for Iowa football to showcase itself nationally, according to offensive lineman Tyler Linderbaum. He expects the Hawkeyes to be underdogs but believes fundamentals will ultimately win out. 

"We're excited for the opportunity to show what Iowa football's all about," Linderbaum said. "I'm assuming we're going to be the underdogs going into both of those games, just my educated guess. But we'll be ready. 

"We know what to expect. It's going to be hard-fought. It's going to be a game of the turnover battle, how the offensive and defensive lines (play) and everything. So I know we're going to be ready to play, but I know Indiana and Iowa State will be ready as well."

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com