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Leistikow: A game-by-game analysis of Iowa's revised Big Ten football schedule

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa’s football road map in the Big Ten Conference starts against a crafty coach and ends with an old nemesis.

The Hawkeyes’ eight-game lineup of regular-season opponents was unveiled Saturday morning on Fox’s pregame show, a reminder that this relaunched, shortened season is coming fast. And every game will matter.

Obviously, a lot of positive developments amid the COVID-19 pandemic are needed for the schedule to occur without a hitch. But there’s something exciting about seeing actual games ahead and discussing them.

So let’s do just that and dissect the Hawkeyes' revised-revised 2020 slate. (*—Note: The Big Ten for now is listing all games on Saturdays, but some matchups could be moved to Fridays, according to a University of Iowa spokesman.)

Oct. 24*: at Purdue

First thought: As long as Jeff Brohm is Purdue’s coach, Iowa fans should be nervous. He’s 2-1 vs. Ferentz, the lone loss coming last season in a dogfight at Kinnick while using a freshman backup quarterback.

The matchup: Time to revisit the scene of what some Hawkeye backers saw as officiating crimes of Nov. 3, 2018. Even normally-reserved Kirk Ferentz expressed his displeasure over three questionable flags in the final five minutes of a 38-36 loss in West Lafayette, Indiana, a holding penalty on Keegan Render especially egregious as Iowa tried to run out the clock. A developing story is whether speedy star receiver Rondale Moore will choose (and be allowed) to opt back into the season after hiring an agent. Another wrinkle: Former Hawkeye Bobby Diaco is Purdue’s new defensive coordinator.

Early lean: A toss-up. You can't like giving Brohm a month to prepare for the Hawkeyes, but be encouraged that the last time Iowa faced a Diaco-coached defense, it throttled Nebraska, 56-14, in 2017. 

Oct. 31*: vs. Northwestern

First thought: In a Big Ten game without fans, Northwestern (bad joke alert) should feel right at home.

The matchup: The Wildcats went from the top of the West Division (in 2018) to the bottom with last fall’s putrid 3-9 performance. But the terrible quarterback play should be a thing of the past with Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey coming aboard. The Wildcats and Hawkeyes typically play fundamentally-sound styles and battle for field position. Northwestern was picked sixth in the West in the original preseason media poll.

Early lean: Iowa has more skill-position talent and should enjoy a happy Halloween. An early-season matchup with the Wildcats, who have a new offensive coordinator, seems like an advantage. 

Nov. 7*: vs. Michigan State

First thought: The Spartans will be coming off a rivalry game vs. Michigan, which should benefit Iowa.

The matchup: Scoring points against the Spartans has been like pulling teeth for the Hawkeyes in the last three meetings, all losses (including in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game; sorry to bring that up). But with Mark Dantonio departed, Iowa should be favored to beat rebuilding Sparty for the first time since 2012. Former Valley High School quarterback Rocky Lombardi is the front-runner to win the Spartans’ starting job.

Early lean: Phil Parker will have the Hawkeye defense tuned up against his alma mater. And with the Spartans under new direction in Mel Tucker, it'll be good to have two games of film to evaluate. Iowa wins.

Nov. 14*: at Minnesota

First thought: Iowa could very well be 3-0 at this point, and now the stakes and degree of difficulty ramp up. This matchup was originally supposed to happen this past Friday night.

The matchup: P.J. Fleck is 0-3 against the Hawkeyes, with last year’s 23-19 loss at Kinnick ending a 9-0 Gophers start. Iowa jumped out fast in that one and survived despite 368 Minnesota passing yards from Tanner Morgan (who returns). Receiver Rashod Bateman, an expected first-round NFL Draft pick, is trying to play this season after hiring an agent. Floyd of Rosedale has remained in Hawkeye hands since Nov. 14, 2015.

Early lean: The Gophers will be coming off games against Maryland and Illinois; you know Iowa will be in their crosshairs. Fleck will pull out all the stops to get Floyd in his boat.

Nov. 21*: at Penn State

First thought: Of Iowa’s four maddening losses in 2018, the one in Happy Valley (capped by a goal-line interception in the final minutes) might have topped the list.

The matchup: Iowa has lost six straight to the Nittany Lions, who should have plenty of roar — especially if stud linebacker Micah Parsons decides to opt-in after declaring for the NFL Draft. Sean Clifford proved to be an excellent successor to Trace McSorley as Penn State’s quarterback. Iowa’s biggest problem vs. the Nittany Lions in last year’s 17-12 loss was offensive-line play, but that should be vastly improved this season. Beaver Stadium will be at about 1/100 of capacity, another Hawkeye benefit.

Early lean: Penn State will be favored, but it'll have a possible lookahead factor with a trip to Michigan on deck. If Iowa lost at Minnesota, I like a bounce-back win here.

Nov. 28*: vs. Nebraska

First thought: A good chance this game slides up to Black Friday. The Huskers were handed a brutal schedule, with matchups against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State in three of the first four weeks.

The matchup: Are the Huskers licking their wounds already or flying high? How are the Hawkeyes holding up after back-to-back road games? Both Ferentz vs. Scott Frost battles have come down to Iowa kicking a last-second field goal to win (Miguel Recinos in 2018 at Kinnick; Keith Duncan, with a kiss, in 2019 in Lincoln). Perhaps the biggest wild card is Nebraska’s quarterback play; if Adrian Martinez is healthy (he wasn’t last year), the Huskers have shown they can rack up big yardage.

Early lean: Give the Hawkeyes the edge to win their sixth straight Heroes Trophy game.

Dec. 5*: at Illinois

First thought: It seems like Iowa's trips to Champaign are accompanied by bitter-cold temperatures and howling wind, doesn't it? 

The matchup: Under fifth-year coach Lovie Smith, Illinois has not scored a home point against the Hawkeyes ... having lost 28-0 in 2016 and 63-0 in 2018. The Illini finally have a veteran presence and showed last year that they can be plucky (using incredible rallies to knock off Wisconsin and Michigan State). Ferentz has won 11 of his last 12 against Illinois.

Early lean: If all goes well, Iowa is still in contention for a division title and continues its Illinois mastery.

Tyrone Tracy Jr. (3) and the Hawkeyes fell two points short against Wisconsin last year in Madison; will the two West Division counterparts play a winner-take-all game in the (new) regular-season finale Dec. 12?

Dec. 12*: vs. Wisconsin

First thought: In a year with no fans, this is an unfortunate year to catch the Badgers at home. Camp Randall Stadium is easily Iowa’s toughest West road test.

The matchup: The Badgers continue to block Iowa’s path to division supremacy. The Hawkeyes’ last two losses in this matchup have been heartbreaking — a last-minute touchdown at Kinnick in 2018, a failed Iowa two-pointer in 2019. At least Jonathan Taylor has departed to the NFL, but Wisconsin was voted in the original preseason media poll as the West favorite.

Early lean: Until Iowa proves otherwise, Wisconsin is the best in the West. It sure would be a lot of fun if this game, outdoors in the middle of December, determines the division title.

Dec. 19*: Champions week, East Division opponent TBD

The ninth-game matchups will be determined by the standings, lining up first place vs. first, second vs. second, etc. The Big Ten said it will try to avoid rematches.

Iowa was originally supposed to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the first time since 2013. That's not happening on the revised schedule. But if the Hawkeyes can win the West, maybe they can draw Ohio State after all.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.