One of the biggest preseason story lines you’re going to hear about the Iowa football team’s 2019 prospects centers around the schedule.
That daunting, difficult schedule.
It’s true, Iowa is facing a tougher batch of Big Ten Conference East Division opponents than most of its West Division brethren.
And yes, the Hawkeyes’ Sept. 14 matchup at Iowa State is in the conversation with Northwestern at Stanford as the most challenging nonconference road game confronting any Big Ten team.
But don’t be sucked too deeply into all that talk.
The truth is, Iowa’s path to Indianapolis is actually quite straightforward.
And history backs it up.
It all boils down to the same six games the Hawkeyes play every year — the ones against West Division opponents.
Just like always.
In the five seasons since the Big Ten expanded to 14 teams and divided into West and East, the West has never been decided by crossover games.
How has the West always been won? By the team that dominates the division.
In fact, West champions are a spectacular 29-1 in divisional games since expansion.
The only loss was chalked up in 2014, when 11-3 Wisconsin’s lone Big Ten hiccup was against a Northwestern team that wound up 4-7. An outlier.
Ever since, West perfection has gotten it done.
In 2015, Iowa went 6-0 in the West. Even with a 12-0 regular season, the Hawkeyes wouldn't have won the West had their 40-10 mid-October win at Northwestern gone the other way.
In 2016, Wisconsin faced a relentless crossover schedule. But despite one-score losses to Michigan and Ohio State, the Badgers’ 6-0 mark vs. the West helped them hold off Iowa and Nebraska by a full game.
In 2017, Wisconsin again flexed its muscles, this time with a 9-0 Big Ten regular season. But it wouldn't have won the West without a late-September win against 7-2 Northwestern.
And in 2018, Northwestern beat every West opponent (including Iowa, 14-10, in Kinnick Stadium) to win the division at 8-1 despite an early crossover loss to Michigan.
The 2019 reality for Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes: Two of their toughest games (at Iowa State and at Michigan) will have little to no impact on their chances at a Big Ten championship — which is the stated, primary program goal every year.
Remember, Northwestern went 0-3 in nonconference play last year and still won the West with three games to spare. So while Iowa’s Week 3 game in Ames carries obvious importance for many reasons, it’s essentially meaningless for its chances to reach the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 7 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Iowa could lose in Ann Arbor, too, and would still rule the West as long as it goes 6-0 in division games and takes care of home business against Rutgers and Penn State.
Of course, this might be the toughest year since expansion to achieve West perfection. Six of the division’s seven teams (sorry, Illinois) can make a credible preseason case for a division championship.
Iowa is a great example of the wide range of predictions. At least one major magazine picks the Hawkeyes to win the West; another has them sixth.
It’s being billed as the Wild West this year.
Northwestern? Loaded defending champs, great coach, five-star quarterback.
Nebraska? A trendy pick with the hot quarterback and on-the-rise coach.
Purdue? Could easily go 3-0 vs. the East and has all kinds of firepower on offense.
Minnesota? A sneaky-good roster in Year 3 for P.J. Fleck, plus has the West's friendliest crossover lineup.
Wisconsin? Never count out the division juggernaut, even with a freshman QB.
The Hawkeyes, though, don’t have to be world-beaters to take care of each of these West opponents. They just need to be very good. And there’s still plenty of time to get there.
Because guess what?
Iowa doesn’t play its first divisional game until Oct. 19 — nearly four months from now. That Homecoming matchup against Purdue kicks off the second half of Iowa’s 12-game schedule, all against West opponents.
It's Purdue, at Northwestern, bye week, at Wisconsin, home against Minnesota and Illinois, and Black Friday at Nebraska. Six pivotal games in 42 days.
Iowa went 6-0 against the West with this exact road/home split in 2015. And, in my estimation, this roster has better players and better assistant coaches than that Rose Bowl team did.
This isn't a column predicting Iowa will win the Big Ten West. Far from it. we'll get a closer look at every team at the league's media days July 18-19 in Chicago.
Until then, don't get caught up in all the summer talk about Iowa's schedule. And even once the season starts, the heightened focus should be on those final six games.
Can the Hawkeyes stop the bleeding against Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin? Can they keep their feet on the throats of Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska?
If the answer is yes to both, I'll see you in Indy.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.