Leistikow: An Iowa football road map to a 10-win season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s lone bye week of the college football season comes fresh off Saturday’s stinging home loss to Wisconsin.

It’s a week for coaches to take a more big-picture look at the program.

On the outside, we can do the same. As in: Where is this Hawkeye season headed?

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is in charge of keeping Hawkeye players focused, one week at a time, for the rest of the football season. The rest of us are OK to look ahead.

Iowa stands 3-1 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten Conference after falling, 28-17, to the West Division-favored Badgers. That loss hurts. But the Hawkeyes should be favored against seven of their final eight opponents, an open door of an opportunity for a special season.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the Hawkeyes’ remaining strength of schedule ranks 60th — easier than all but five other Power Five teams: Wake Forest, Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama.

Is this a 10-win team or even better? Could it become another ho-hum eight-win team … or worse?

Of course, that’s why they play the games.

Below is Iowa’s road map ahead. Emphasis on “road” — as five of its next seven games are away from Kinnick Stadium.

Oct. 6: At Minnesota

Kickoff: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 66.4 percent

About the Gophers: Like Iowa, they’re on a bye week. And while there’s been stuff to like in a 3-1 start, a young team has now lost the program’s two veteran stars for the season in running back Rodney Smith and cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. And … the Gophers just got routed at Maryland.

How I see the matchup: Plain and simple, this should be a case of men against boys. Iowa’s defensive-line strength should be able to make it a tough Saturday for true freshman quarterback Zach Annexstad. Minnesota has a play-making receiver, Tyler Johnson, that must be contained. Although ESPN says this is Iowa’s fourth-toughest remaining game, I’ve got it as the second-easiest.

Oct. 13: At Indiana

Kickoff: 11 a.m., ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 64.5 percent

About the Hoosiers: They’re 3-1 with some notable nonconference wins but had trouble (at home) against their first brute conference foe in Michigan State. Tom Allen’s defense was supposed to take a step back, yet it’s allowing opponents to complete just 54.7 percent of passes.

How I see the matchup: In the preseason, I picked this as one of the Hawkeyes’ three Big Ten losses. The matchup comes on the heels of Iowa playing three trophy games out of four, with a morning kick and in a half-empty stadium that has been a Ferentz-era challenge. The Hoosiers are pesky, but Iowa can win this with a patient running game.

Oct. 20: Maryland

Kickoff: 11 a.m., TV TBD

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 74.2 percent

About the Terrapins: Watching their game vs. Minnesota, the huge advantage in team speed was apparent. Maryland has some athletic play-makers, starting with running back Ty Johnson. This is a mercurial team that beat Texas but couldn’t score an offensive touchdown at home against Temple.

How I see the matchup: How Iowa fared in its previous two road games will change the setup. Are the Hawkeyes riding high with a 5-1 record with heavyweight Penn State on deck? If so, this could be a dangerous trap spot against a talented roster. If they’re coming off a road loss, though, I’d expect a sharp, emphatic home performance.

Oct. 27: At Penn State

Kickoff: TBD

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 11.4 percent

About the Nittany Lions: Penn State’s Trace McSorley is the prototype quarterback that gives Iowa fits — a guy who can run and make tough, clutch throws. If they upend Ohio State this week, there’s a good chance the Nittany Lions enter their game against Iowa with a 7-0 record and top-five national rating … with a road game at Michigan on deck.

How I see the matchup: This is a major revenge spot for the Hawkeyes, considering the past two losses to Penn State in both humiliating (41-14 in 2016) and heartbreaking (21-19 in 2017) fashion. Iowa’s win chance being around 1 in 10 seems too low, given the circumstances. That said, this will be the toughest challenge for the Hawkeye defense all season.

Nov. 3: At Purdue

Kickoff: TBD

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 62.2 percent

About the Boilermakers: It’s been a statistically impressive September; a 1-3 start that could just as easily be 4-0. But the recent thrashing of Boston College stands out as what the Boilermakers are capable of. True freshman receiver Rondale Moore is spectacular.

How I see the matchup: Iowa’s lone 2017 loss as a favorite came against Purdue, so this is another revenge spot. The Hawkeyes will have to stay aggressive on offense against the league’s 12th-ranked defense, because Jeff Brohm’s Boilers can score points in a hurry.

Nov. 10: Northwestern

Kickoff: TBD

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 76.1 percent

About the Wildcats: At 1-2, they’re going to have a tough time making a bowl game after back-to-back home losses to Duke and Akron, and with four ranked opponents plus Iowa on the remaining schedule. But Pat Fitzgerald’s teams typically get markedly better as the season goes on.

How I see the matchup: Make it three straight revenge spots for Iowa. This will be a game about the Hawkeye defense, which has only created one Northwestern turnover in back-to-back series losses. Iowa’s first November home games the past two years (Michigan, Ohio State) have worked out pretty well.

Nov. 17: At Illinois

Kickoff: TBD

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 84.3 percent

About the Illini: They’re 2-2, young and very inconsistent. It’s hard to know where the program will be by Week 11. Ready to give up after another humbling year under Lovie Smith? Or on the upswing with something to prove in their home finale?

How I see the matchup: The most winnable of Iowa’s remaining eight games. The Hawkeyes are better built for games like these — cold-weather, hard-nosed battles for space at the line of scrimmage.

Nov. 23: Nebraska

Kickoff: 11 a.m., Fox

ESPN’s FPI win probability: 88.9 percent

About the Cornhuskers: They’ve got good pieces, just not all the right pieces yet. A 0-3 start, capped by last week’s 56-10 drubbing at Michigan, had new coach Scott Frost already declaring that this would be rock bottom. Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez is going to be a good one, but staying healthy is another challenge.

How I see the matchup: ESPN’s metrics see this now as an easier win than I do. Frost could have things clicking well enough by late November to present a tough challenge, perhaps serving as the Huskers' bowl game. That said, the Hawkeyes’ significant advantage in the trenches should be enough to win for a fourth straight Black Friday.

So, what to make of the remaining road?

Being a favorite in seven out of eight games is encouraging. But …

Since Iowa’s lone BCS bowl win under Kirk Ferentz (the 2010 Orange Bowl), the program has lost outright 17 times as a Vegas favorite — roughly twice per season. Ten of those losses came as a substantial favorite (by six points or more).

Conversely, Iowa has eight straight-up wins as an underdog in that span — one a year, on average.

So, typically, Iowa has suffered one more net loss in a season than oddsmakers suggest. That’s partly because the Hawkeyes are favored far more often than they’re not.

Do the math and, historically speaking, Iowa is on track for a 9-3 season, with a shot at a 10th win in a bowl game. And that would be pretty good, compared with recent history.

Iowa’s regular-season win totals since that Orange Bowl team are 7, 4, 8, 7, 12, 8 and 7.

Based on what we’ve seen from this Hawkeye team through four weeks — improving quarterback play, a better-than-expected offensive line and a dominant defensive line — anything less than a nine-win season with this remaining schedule would be a disappointment.

And a 10-win regular season is well within reach.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.