Leistikow: Iowa football's first two games are important, but they won't define the 2021 season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The early excitement and anticipation for the first two games on Iowa’s 2021 football schedule is understandable.

On Sept. 4: A top-20 matchup against Indiana, with Kinnick Stadium brimming with fans for the first time in more than 20 months.

On Sept. 11: A trip to top-10 Iowa State in what figures to be a raucous road test and the most hyped of 68 all-time Cy-Hawk meetings.

Those two games in eight days are THE topic of conversation right now.

Can the Hawkeyes get through that stretch 1-1?

What if they actually go 2-0?

Or, oh no, what about 0-2?

Tyler Linderbaum bypassed a chance at the NFL Draft to return to an Iowa team that has a realistic shot to win the Big Ten West.

Absolutely, if you’re a Hawkeye fan or player or coach, 2-0 is the dream start. That probably puts Iowa (preseason No. 18 in both major polls) firmly in the national top 10.

But whatever happens in the first two games, it’s important to take the long view.

What matters more: Winning the program’s first Big Ten West championship since 2015.

More:Here are seven reasons why Iowa Hawkeyes football can win the Big Ten

Tyler Goodson and Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa’s top two stars, were 15-year-old high schoolers when the Hawkeyes last appeared in a Big Ten Championship Game. Though the Hawkeyes lost a last-minute thriller to Michigan State, 16-13, in Lucas Oil Stadium, that game remains a really powerful (and sometimes positive) memory for Iowa fans. Because their team was there; they were in a high-stakes game with a College Football Playoff berth on the line.

The feeling hasn’t been matched since.

In 2016, Iowa was the overwhelming pick to win the West, but Wisconsin tore through a difficult schedule — including a 17-9 win at Kinnick — to rise to the top.

In 2017, the Hawkeyes rebuilt with a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator and went 8-5 while Wisconsin enjoyed a 12-0 regular season (as Iowa did two years earlier).

The three years since have been more painful for the Hawkeyes, because they had the team and the chances to win the West … but didn't.

In 2018, Iowa lost in the last minute to Wisconsin at home, then experienced a maddening 14-10 home loss to Northwestern — and watched the Wildcats celebrate their first West title on the Kinnick turf.

In 2019, a 24-22 loss at Wisconsin — epitomized by a failed two-point conversion by inches with 3:12 to go — ultimately tilted the West in the Badgers’ favor.

In 2020, a blown 17-0 home lead to Northwestern and eventual 21-20 loss left 6-2 Iowa a half-game behind the division-champ Wildcats in a strange, pandemic-shortened season.

The Big Ten West scorecard since 2015 reads: Wisconsin 3, Northwestern 2, Iowa (and everyone else) 0.

The Hawkeyes have the pieces this year to change that.

They're the No. 2 choice in the West by the media and by oddsmakers. There isn't a close third.

As Linderbaum said at the Big Ten Media Day from Lucas Oil Stadium in July: “You don’t come to the Iowa Hawkeyes to get second in the Big Ten West.”

The all-American center should understand and fans should remember that no matter what Iowa’s record is on Sept. 12 — even 0-2 — the West Division title can still be won. A loss to an East Division opponent (Indiana) and/or one from the Big 12 (Iowa State) doesn’t ultimately change the math that reaching the Big Ten title game means beating all six West opponents and at least two from the East.

More:Leistikow: 10 thoughts, predictions heading into Iowa's 2021 football season

Iowa is never a polished product in September. Whatever happens in the Indiana-Iowa State double, home matchups with Kent State (don’t sleep on the Golden Flashes) and Colorado State are a time to find its footing … or put a foot on the gas.

What matters more is how the Hawkeyes are playing on Oct. 1 at Maryland, a Friday-night fistfight in College Park. What matters is seeing them hit full stride by Oct. 9 against Penn State in a potential under-the-lights showdown at Kinnick.

After that, it’s a six-game, all-West finish (with three rivalry trophies on the line). It's at that point that Iowa really needs to be at its best.

Though I picked Purdue to finish last in the Big Ten West, the Oct. 16 Homecoming matchup could be tense. The Boilermakers have won three of four against Iowa under Jeff Brohm.

After an off week, the Oct. 30 showdown at Wisconsin in what many believe will be the battle for the West Division title looms. (Pssst, if Iowa’s playing well, it could spring to a 14-0 lead before most of the students show up for the 11 a.m. kickoff.)

Nov. 6 at Northwestern doesn’t need further explanation. Pat Fitzgerald is a longtime Hawkeye foil.

Nov. 13 against Minnesota, the third-place pick in the West, could have enormous pressure if Iowa is riding high off two road wins. You know how badly P.J. Fleck wants to end the Hawkeyes’ six-year possession of Floyd of Rosedale.

That Nov. 20 home game against Illinois has sneak attack written all over it, with Tigerhawk-tattooed Bret Bielema at the helm.

And, finally, a Black Friday finish Nov. 26 at Nebraska sends the Hawkeyes to a place they haven’t lost since 2011. Whatever the records for each team, rest assured there will be plenty of bluster.

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

With good luck and good football, perhaps the Hawkeyes will walk off the Memorial Stadium turf headed to the Big Ten Championship Game eight days later — just like they did in 2015.

If Iowa is playing Dec. 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium (probably against Ohio State), nobody in black and gold will be too bent out of shape about what happened against Indiana or Iowa State.

But it'll hurt a lot more if Iowa wins the first two games, only to see the West slip away again.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.