Iowa columnist Chad Leistikow offers records and insights for each of the Big Ten Conference's 14 teams. Wochit
With three new assistant coaches, a first-year offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and completely unproven receivers, this Iowa football season is tougher-than-usual to predict.
But that doesn't mean we can't try.
Las Vegas has already weighed in, putting Iowa's regular-season over-under win total at 6.5.
Would Hawkeye fans stomach a 6-6 season?
I am predicting we won't have to find out, even though Iowa is facing by far its toughest schedule since the 2013 season. Iowa's three Big Ten Conference East Division opponents: Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Last year, I pegged the Hawkeyes for 9-3 overall, 6-3 in the Big Ten Conference ... and caught a lot of heat for not picking them to collect at least 10 wins. In reality, they were one game short of the prediction: 8-4, 6-3.
It wouldn't shock me to see this 2017 team go 5-7 ... or maybe 9-3. After all, we're all conditioned to believe that Ferentz has his best teams when we don't expect them, right?
So I'll go right down the middle. Iowa will finish a tad better than the experts think: 7-5, 4-5 and a tie for third in the Big Ten West.
Wyoming, Sept. 2
Kirk Ferentz has kept the joke running this summer: Whose idea was it to schedule these guys? (Hint: Your boss, the ex-Wyoming athletic director, may have an answer.) It’s hardly a soft-launch into the Hawkeyes’ 2017 season, with one of the most highly touted players in the country coming in.
Cowboys quarterback Josh Allen, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah says, “has the highest upside of any player in the country. He has rare arm strength and his ability to extend plays is unique for his size.”
Well, then. The good news for Iowa is Wyoming — surprising divisional champs in the Mountain West Conference a year ago — graduated its other top playmakers, has a lot of inexperience and stinks defensively (it allowed an average of 42.5 points in 2016 road games).
What Chad says
We know about Allen’s enormous passing potential, but keep in mind he rushed for another 523 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016. The last time Iowa faced such a highly touted pro-prospect QB?
Probably Ben Roethlisberger of Miami of Ohio in 2003, and Iowa won that game, 21-3. The Hawkeyes have excellent linebackers who should be able to force Allen into a high-risk passing plan, and that'll benefit a secondary that will play the opener without suspended cornerback Manny Rugamba.
Iowa’s physicality wears down the Cowboys as the game goes on, and Akrum Wadley and James Butler each get into the end zone.
Iowa 38, Wyoming 22
At Iowa State, Sept. 9
Unlike last year, the Cyclones will be 1-0 after an opening-night win over Northern Iowa. They should be improved over last year's 3-9, with Vegas expecting 5.5 wins. And they may have the best collection of wide receivers Iowa faces all year, with Allen Lazard leading the way.
Matt Campbell has Iowa State trending up, and there’s a lot of emphasis being placed on this game behind Cyclone walls. Iowa State is so confident in quarterback Jacob Park that it moved last year’s starting QB against Iowa, Joel Lanning, to No. 1 middle linebacker.
The Hawkeyes counter with a fifth-year, Butkus Award finalist at middle linebacker (Josey Jewell) and more muscle in the trenches.
What Chad says
While I don’t expect the Hawkeyes to be a great team in Week 2, I think the mismatch at the point of attack tips the scales in their favor. Iowa deploys a bull-dozing, ball-control attack — much like they did in 2013 in building a 20-point lead in Ames before hanging on for dear life.
Anthony Nelson racks up three sacks against the program he once committed to, and tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson each pull down TD grabs as Iowa plays a mostly-clean road game in improving to 2-0.
Iowa 28, Iowa State 20
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North Texas, Sept. 16
This isn’t Dan McCarney’s Mean Green. Two years ago, Iowa thumped the former Cyclones’ head coach by a count of 62-16 in Kinnick Stadium, and honestly it wasn’t even that close.
A few weeks later, McCarney was fired. That chain of events led to the hiring of Seth Littrell, who took North Texas to a 5-8 record and a bowl game (thanks to APR scores) in his first season. Look for Littrell’s offensive system, the Air Raid (think Texas Tech), to put Iowa’s secondary to the test.
In a consistent nonconference theme though, Iowa’s opponent is shaky defensively and in the trenches; the Mean Green yielded 43 sacks a year ago.
What Chad says
Coming off a rivalry win, Iowa could get off to a sleepy start. But it shouldn’t take long to start plowing through North Texas’ base 3-3-5 defense that is built to stop spread attacks.
Unlike the Game 3 shocker of a year ago against North Dakota State, Iowa’s two-best offensive linemen (James Daniels and Sean Welsh) actually suit up for this one. After a lackluster first half, look for Wadley to scamper for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half (and, news flash, it’s not called back). Toren Young adds two more TDs on the ground, and the Hawkeyes wrap up nonconference play with a satisfying 3-0 record.
Iowa 44, North Texas 14
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Penn State, Sept. 23
Iowa fans will be excited. Iowa players, especially the defenders, will be revved up for revenge after being shellacked for 599 yards and a 41-14 loss in Happy Valley. ESPN will start to take notice of the newly ranked Hawkeyes on College GameDay.
Meanwhile, preseason No. 6 Penn State could be in the top five after its own 3-0 start. The Nittany Lions will bring a confident swagger into Kinnick Stadium, behind coach James Franklin (who just signed a long-term extension at $5.8 million a year) and multiple Big Ten player-of-the-year candidates in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
What Chad says
At this point, I’ve got the Hawkeyes averaging 36.7 points a game. And I see this is a reality check, one that’ll expose Iowa’s inexperience at defensive tackle for the first time this season.
The Hawkeyes will have trouble containing Barkley, and that’ll present enough of a problem that McSorley can pop a few deep throws over the head of Iowa’s safeties for some back-breaking touchdowns. Kinnick gets a little surly after a humbling home loss.
Penn State 31, Iowa 13
At Michigan State, Sept. 30
If you haven’t heard the name Brian Lewerke yet, you probably will by late September.
Lewerke started gaining steam as Michigan State’s starting quarterback last fall before breaking his leg against Michigan. Now he’s back, and this is what coach Mark Dantonio said about him at Big Ten media days: Lewerke “compares very favorably with Kirk Cousins in a lot of ways, and really Connor Cook.” Like Ferentz, Dantonio isn’t known for hyberbole — so that statement is worth noting.
Just about everyone thinks this Spartan team can’t possibly go 3-9 again. This game is in the heart of a three-Saturday stretch that will serve as a Sparty barometer: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Iowa, at Michigan.
What Chad says
The Hawkeyes come out strong after the Penn State loss, with Matt VandeBerg catching an early TD pass. But this turns into the usual slugfest between these programs.
The team with the superior quarterback holds the edge, and for now that edge goes to Michigan State.
And for the first time since the 2008 season, when Iowa also began with QB uncertainty between Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi, the Hawkeyes are 0-2 in the Big Ten after a tough-to-swallow, three-point loss in East Lansing.
Michigan State 20, Iowa 17 (OT)
Illinois, Oct. 7
Sticking with the 2008 analogy, here’s a good history lesson: After Iowa fell to 0-2 with a 16-13 loss at Michigan State, the Stanzi-led Hawkeyes came home and blew out a team from the state of Illinois (45-9 over Northwestern).
The Illini are a welcomed opponent in this spot, on the heels of Iowa's challenging, five-game September slate. Lovie Smith has termed his second season with Illinois as a rebuild, and that’s after a 3-9 opening act. There are questions all over the place, including at quarterback. This should be Iowa's easiest win of the Big Ten schedule.
A.J. Epenesa flashes speed for 4th sack at Iowa's Kids Day open practice. Main Bain/HawkCentral
What Chad says
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker realizes it’s time to fully unleash A.J. Epenesa. And the true freshman phenom wreaks havoc in the backfield of his home-state Illini.
Offensively, you’ll remember two seasons ago that Jordan Canzeri piled up 256 rushing yards on 43 carries to thwart Illinois at Kinnick Stadium. This time around, Wadley and Butler go for 128 apiece — for 256 total. This serves as a get-well week before the bye week.
And most Hawkeye fans exhale and realize that a 4-2 start is not a bad start.
Iowa 31, Illinois 10
At Northwestern, Oct. 21
By now, Iowa is used to playing against good quarterbacks. And it gets another one in Clayton Thorson. There’s talk he may turn pro after this season. The junior threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns with just nine interceptions a year ago, but the biggest question is who the ‘Cats can find to replace star receiver Austin Carr. If there's an answer, this Pat Fitzgerald outfit can compete for a Big Ten West title. We’ll have a good idea by this point, considering Northwestern’s first two Big Ten matchups are even tougher than Iowa’s: at Wisconsin, home against Penn State.
What Chad says
Even though Iowa won 40-10 in its last Evanston trip, Hawkeye fans know never take anything for granted against the Wildcats. The onside-kick disaster in 2005; the five-turnover game in 2008; the Stanzi sack-and-injury to ruin the 9-0 start of 2009; and Dan Persa’s heroics in 2010. This should be a pretty even matchup, but on a windy day in the Windy City, Northwestern wins for the second straight year by a touchdown as Thorson and Justin Jackson account for two scores apiece.
Northwestern 28, Iowa 21
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Minnesota, Oct. 28
This is often the point of the season in which Ferentz’s Iowa teams tend to pick up the pace. At 1-3 in the Big Ten and with P.J. Fleck coming in for a trophy game, there’s ample motivation to get moving.
Count me among those who are impressed with what Fleck is doing to overhaul the football culture in Minneapolis. But this particular Gophers team is young and shaky (underscored by Fleck’s decision to alternate quarterbacks early in the season) and is at least a year away from rowing the boat to the front of the West pack.
What Chad says
With a rival in town and the first home game in 21 days, the Kinnick crowd brings passion. Quarterback Nathan Stanley, literally, is getting his legs under him — and rushes for a long touchdown on a well-timed and unexpected quarterback draw early in the game.
Defensively, Jewell creates the game’s poster image. After forcing a fumble on a QB sack, Jewell scoops it up and dashes to the end zone, a moment that is followed by TV cameras panning to a befuddled Fleck.
Iowa feels good again, and for the second straight year (and just like in 2008 and 2013 with first-year sophomore QBs), it goes into November with a 5-3 record.
Iowa 35, Minnesota 16
Ohio State center Billy Price talks about the Buckeyes' record-setting starting quarterback at Big Ten Media Days earlier this summer. Jon Spencer/News Journal
Ohio State, Nov. 4
It’s no wonder the Buckeyes are preseason No. 2 in college football; they’re loaded, especially at the positions of importance — quarterback and defensive line. If Ohio State can win an early-season home game vs. Oklahoma then get revenge on Penn State on Oct. 28, it’s likely the Buckeyes will roll into Kinnick Stadium with an 8-0 record.
This is the “Blackout” game on Iowa’s schedule; it’s a good guess it’ll probably be at night, possibly with Iowa wearing its Ferentz-confirmed alternative uniforms.
What Chad says
The first Saturday in November didn’t go so well a year ago for Iowa (see previously: Penn State). This time, the Hawkeyes are much more competitive. And this game becomes a classic.
While I have Iowa losing, it’s one of those games that provides a lot of hope for the future. Young guys — maybe a Brandon Smith or a Matt Hankins — come of age. But the Buckeyes are the Buckeyes, just too much. Fans leave this game disappointed but encouraged; much like Iowa-Wisconsin in late 2014, with the same final score.
Ohio State 26, Iowa 24
At Wisconsin, Nov. 11
It’s possible that Iowa will, for the second straight week in November, face an unbeaten opponent.
The Badgers’ schedule isn’t overly daunting to this point — at BYU and at Nebraska might be their toughest prior tests. The Badgers have been so stingy over the past four years — with national total-defense rankings of 7, 4, 2 and 7 — that success has become expected, even with a first-year defensive coordinator in Jim Leonard and the season-ending loss of middle linebacker Jack Cichy.
What Chad says
The Badgers are catching Iowa at a good time, with the Hawkeyes expending a lot of emotion against Ohio State.
Still, I think Iowa keeps it close with Albert the Bull on the line. Down eight driving late, Ferentz decides to go for it on fourth down after the ill-fated field-goal decision in a similar situation last October (in a 17-9 loss). But Stanley’s final pass is knocked away against his home-state team, as the Badgers survive a key test on their way to the Big Ten Championship Game.
Wisconsin 21, Iowa 13
Purdue, Nov. 18
Iowa’s 2-5 conference record to this point seems a lot worse than it is. The team is playing well, but losing close games against good teams. This week, Iowa welcomes yet another pass-heavy test into Kinnick.
But the Boilermakers are not yet the dynamic offense that it one day could be under new coach Jeff Brohm. It’s Senior Day at Kinnick, and Iowa has a lot of culture-changing seniors with a lot of Hawkeye pride.
What Chad says
Three senior starters on the offensive line — Boone Myers, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger — enjoy an appropriate sendoff with a mauling in-the-trenches performance.
Like Iowa did a year ago in West Lafayette, Ind., it controls the line of scrimmage and breaks open gaping holes in the Boiler defense. And it looks as easy as one, two, three … yes, three 100-yard rushers in one game. Wadley (a senior), Butler (a senior) and Young each topple the century mark. Jewell receives a standing ovation as he leaves Kinnick as a player for the final time.
Iowa 45, Purdue 14
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At Nebraska, Nov. 24
Black Friday in Lincoln will be a matchup of 6-5 teams. But no matter, eight months from now at Big Ten media days, Nebraska TV reporters will continue to ask Ferentz and Iowa players what they think of this rivalry.
The Huskers will by now be acclimated to their new 3-4 defensive scheme under Bobby Diaco, and we’ll have a good idea of quarterback Tanner Lee’s impact on the Mike Riley system.
What Chad says
As mentioned, this Iowa team is rounding into form. If not for a meltdown in 2014, mostly on special teams, Iowa would have a four-game win streak in this series.
In this one, the Hawkeyes record a special-teams TD and — just like in 2013 with three senior linebackers named Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey — pick up a satisfying win in Lincoln. During these last four meetings, Iowa has averaged 35 points per game. That’s what I’ll predict for this win, which launches Iowa to a 7-5 overall finish and a late-December bid to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
Iowa 35, Nebraska 20
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.