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Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz looks out to the Northern Illinois opener after the Aug. 11 scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s an interesting dynamic surrounding 2018 Iowa football — one that, I’ll be honest, is difficult to grasp even for those of us who cover the team regularly.

There are a lot of reasons to be bullish about the Hawkeyes.

A quarterback in Nate Stanley who might become one of the best in program history.

The best collection of tight ends, led by Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, since at least 2015 — and you know what happened that season.

And maybe one of the deepest defensive lines in nearly a decade under 20th-year coach Kirk Ferentz.

But, boy, there are plenty of reasons to splash wild optimism with cold water.

Gone are arguably the five best players off last year’s team that went an unspectacular 8-5.

The back seven of Iowa’s defense is almost completely unproven.

Thanks to a pair of suspensions, the Week 1 offensive line with career starts at their position might be (from left to right) 0, 1, 1, 0 and 1.

Iowa’s schedule — most of the tough ones at home, the moderately tough ones on the road — makes for a feast-or-famine type of season.

I could definitely see this Hawkeye team clicking in Year Two of the Brian Ferentz offense on the way to a 10-2 or 11-1 record and a Big Ten West Division title.

I definitely see a lot of toss-ups throughout the schedule.

I don’t see a total flame-out, though … unless QB1 gets hurt.

The folks in Las Vegas set Iowa’s over-under win total at 7½ games in the regular season. Last year, I exactly nailed Iowa’s record at 7-5 overall, 4-5 in the Big Ten in my preseason prediction. This year, I’ve got the Hawkeyes slightly beating experts’ expectations again, at 8-4, 6-3.

But it wouldn't surprise me if they crushed expectations, either. Win all the toss-ups and beat one of the two heavyweights on the schedule, and it could be a special season in Iowa City.

Here’s how I see it playing out.

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vs. Northern Illinois, Sept. 1

Criticizing Iowa’s non-conference schedule is fair game some years but not in 2018. Ferentz faces a challenging 1-2 punch to open his 20th season, and escaping 2-0 would be a notable success. What makes this matchup especially intriguing (alternate translation: scary) is the Huskies having a dynamic pass-rusher in defensive end Sutton Smith … and Iowa starting tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are suspended for Week 1. Sutton, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound junior, tied for the FBS lead in sacks a year ago with 14, and the Huskies as a team were tied for fifth nationally with 43. Buckle up.

What Chad says: The Hawkeyes opened as 13-point favorites for this game, but the line has since been bet down to 10½, which still seems generous considering Iowa's uncertainty up front. A year ago, Northern Illinois went into Lincoln and beat Nebraska; now, it enters this season as the favorite (2 to 1) to win the MAC outright. The Huskies are especially stout in the trenches. But even though NIU stunned Iowa to open the 2013 season in its last trip to Kinnick Stadium, there will be no such upset this time ... as long as Nate Stanley protects the ball better than he did in last year’s opener. Iowa has the better offensive playmakers. Look for Ihmir Smith-Marsette to score on a long play and for talented tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson to keep NIU’s pass rush on its heels.

Game Prediction: Iowa 27, Northern Illinois 17

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vs. Iowa State, Sept. 8

It’ll be hard to top last year’s Cy-Hawk thrills. A 44-41 overtime win by Iowa showcased electric performances by two fantastic running backs — Akrum Wadley and David Montgomery.  Only one, Montgomery, is back — and if you thought he was tough to stop last year (25 touches, 165 yards), wait until Iowa tries to wrap him up with a brand new batch of linebackers.

The Cyclones’ 8-5 campaign in 2017 reminded me of Iowa’s 2001 team that went 7-5 — nice wins and lots of close losses (all five for both teams were by 10 or less), then a tight bowl-game win that served as a notable benchmark in a new coach's rebuild. And you know what happened with the Hawkeyes in 2002.

What Chad says: The early line shows Iowa as a 3½-point favorite, so the folks in Vegas view this as a toss-up before factoring in home-field advantage — which has rarely meant much in the recent history for this series (five of the last six have been won by the road team).

For the Hawkeyes to win, they’ll need their offensive line to be able to move perhaps Iowa State’s best position group — the defensive line — backward. While I think Iowa has the better quarterback, it’ll still have a lot of kinks to work out on both sides of the ball as it re-introduces four impact linemen from suspension.

Iowa State is one of the few Big 12 teams that plays defense, and you know Matt Campbell has this one circled. Montgomery (like Wadley was last year) could be the difference in another Cy-Hawk classic.

Game Prediction: Iowa State 28, Iowa 24

vs. Northern Iowa, Sept. 15

Hey, didn’t Jim Delany say Big Ten schools couldn’t schedule FCS opponents? Please, that was 2015. FCS opponents are A-OK now (in years like this one where Iowa plays five of nine Big Ten foes on the road). This is all good news for the state of Iowa, and it’d be great to see these programs continue to meet. UNI was 8-5 a year ago and has six preseason first-teamers in the always-tough MVC; Mark Farley’s team is never a slouch.

What Chad says: With a bye week before this game, UNI should come out firing. And Iowa might experience a post-Cyclone hangover. But after a tight first half, the Hawkeyes should be able to break it open. A.J. Epenesa and Anthony Nelson will combine for four sacks, and the Hawkeye defense scores a touchdown and starts to find its footing entering Big Ten play.

Game Prediction: Iowa 45, Northern Iowa 10

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In three-plus minutes, Iowa's always-insightful offensive coordinator talks Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mehki Sargent, Toren Young and Bill Belichick. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 22

THIS is the game of the season for the Hawkeyes. Whatever happened in non-conference play, it’s a fresh slate for Iowa now. The winner of this game gets control of the Big Ten West race … going into its bye week. We’ve been over this before: Wisconsin is loaded. The return of a third-year quarterback, a near-2,000-yard back in Jonathan Taylor and the entire offensive line off a 13-1 team does — and should — inspire confidence in the Badgers.

What Chad says: It’s hard to memory-wipe what happened in Madison in November — thorough Wisconsin domination limiting Iowa to 66 total yards, the lowest offensive output of the Ferentz era. For good reason, Iowa has this one circled. A big game from running back Wisconsin native Toren Young provides the Hawkeyes with their first offensive touchdown in this series since 2015. But Wisconsin still has the far better defense and is built to wear teams down in the second half on both sides of the ball.

Game Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 19

at Minnesota, Oct. 6

Minnesota second-year coach P.J. Fleck continues to tout the rebuilding that’s needed in Minneapolis, although the program won nine games in the year before his arrival. The Gophers were shut out by a combined 70-0 to divisional opponents Northwestern and Wisconsin to finish last season and have quarterback questions. Since a 51-14 loss in 2014, Iowa has won the last three in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale by margins of 5, 7 and 7 points.

What Chad says: After recently re-watching the 2017 Iowa-Minnesota game, it became apparent that the Hawkeyes were an eyelash or two away from turning the 17-10 actual final into something far more lopsided. The talent level and coaching tip heavily toward Iowa in this one. After a 2-2 September filled with some frustration, I think the Hawkeyes come off their bye week with vengeance. Brian Ferentz should be able to call just about any play and find success. Which means it'll be a day for the tight ends to go wild. Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson and one other tight end (hello, Drew Cook?) will find the end zone for the Hawkeyes.

Game Prediction: Iowa 42, Minnesota 13

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Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz talks about his offensive line during media day. Brian Powers, bpowers@dmreg.com

at Indiana, Oct. 13

It’ll be interesting to see what Indiana’s quarterback situation looks like at this point in the season. Will it be Peyton Ramsey, who beat out Richard Lagow at one point last season? Will it be Brandon Dawkins, the dual-threat grad transfer from Arizona? Or is it freshman Michael Penix, who was getting No. 1 reps in fall camp? The Hoosiers return their entire offensive line, and a sleepy atmosphere at Memorial Stadium can lead to uninspired football by the visitors.

What Chad says: With the exception of 2015 and a few other seasons under Kirk Ferentz, you can count on one head-scratching Hawkeye loss per year. In 2013, it was Northern Illinois. In 2014, it was Iowa State. In 2016, it was North Dakota State. In 2017, it was Purdue. After playing for three rivalry trophies in the first five games, this feels like a letdown spot for a young Hawkeye team still seeking an identity.

Game Prediction: Indiana 22, Iowa 20.

vs. Maryland, Oct. 20

Although the 2017 season was full of bad quarterback luck for Maryland, that doesn’t explain how bad the Terrapins’ defense was — 13th in total yardage (only better than Nebraska) and last in points against (37.1). That's emblematic that Maryland’s program had issues even before allegations of a "toxic" program culture were reported by ESPN and led to head coach D.J. Durkin being placed on paid leave.

What Chad says: Who knows where Maryland's program will be by this point? As for the Hawkeyes, this is their only home game in a span of 48 days. And after a 3-3 start there will be some pent-up frustration inside Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes’ offensive line will start to come together against a team that allowed 4.7 yards per rush a year ago. Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin will each top 100 rushing yards, and freshman quarterback Spencer Petras gets a few possessions in the fourth quarter to develop, thanks to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule.

Game Prediction: Iowa 45, Maryland 21

at Penn State, Oct. 27

Since Penn State came onto Iowa’s schedule as a six-year Big Ten East crossover partner, the Hawkeye defense has yielded big chunks of yardage in this matchup — 599 in a 41-14 humiliation in 2016, then 579 more yards in last year’s 21-19 loss on the game’s final play at Kinnick.

The good news for Iowa? Two prime pieces of those offenses — running back Saquon Barkley (now playing for the New York Giants) and coordinator Joe Moorhead (now the head coach at Mississippi State) — are gone.

What Chad says: The bad news? Quarterback Trace McSorley, the Big Ten’s preseason offensive player of the year, is still around.

I do think the Hawkeyes will provide an inspired performance after what happened two years ago. Stanley will keep them in the game with three touchdown passes. But a still-young team playing in its most imposing environment of the season has its upset bid fall short.

Game Prediction: Penn State 31, Iowa 24

at Purdue, Nov. 3

Jeff Brohm’s second season could be a reversal of sorts from his first. It was the defense that powered Purdue’s resurgence (which included a bowl win) in 2017, but now that same defense needs rebuilding with the Brohm-inspired offense should take a step up. I really like Purdue QB Elijah Sindelar, who came into Kinnick a year ago on a torn ACL and beat the Hawkeyes.

What Chad says: Iowa plays its best football in November … right? Not always, but I do think this is a year when that Ferentz’s oft-stated adage rings true. In Game Nine together, Iowa’s linebackers (led by Amani Jones and Nick Niemann) are becoming more decisive, and Matt Hankins is beginning to look like the next dominant Iowa cornerback. On the other side of the ball, Stanley leads Iowa to 21 fourth-quarter points in his 22nd career start to sew up a reassuring road win.

Game Prediction: Iowa 38, Purdue 24

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vs. Northwestern, Nov. 10

The last two years, Iowa has delivered flat, puzzling performances against the Wildcats — both resulting in seven-point losses. Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson should be fully recovered from his offseason ACL surgery by this point. The best guess is this will be Iowa’s alternate-jersey game for 2018 as the Hawkeyes play at home for just the second time since Sept. 22.

What Chad says: The 2017 loss in Evanston especially stings for one Hawkeye — Fant. The tight end dropped an overtime pass that ended that game, and the junior with NFL aspirations comes up big in this one with three touchdown catches. The only bad news for Iowa? The writing is on the wall for Fant to turn pro early. But that's OK. Beating the Wildcats is important for the program.

Game Prediction: Iowa 35, Northwestern 21

at Illinois, Nov. 17

The tally of consecutive Big Ten losses for Illinois could very well be at 19 at this point. If that’s the case, then Lovie Smith’s stay in Champaign might be coming to a close. That said, a team that started 16 freshmen in 2017 has to be getting better by late 2018 … right?

What Chad says: Ferentz’s Hawkeyes are typically built to win these types of physical games in (likely) poor weather. Punting is winning, and Ryan Gersonde flips the field a few times on a windy day at Memorial Stadium. That helps Kelly-Martin, a Chicago-area prospect, have his best game as a Hawkeye — scoring once on the ground and once through the air.

Game Prediction: Iowa 30, Illinois 13

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The Cornhuskers' first-year head coach addresses the Iowa rivalry and how to make Big Red great again. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

vs. Nebraska, Nov. 23

One of the most fascinating stories in the Big Ten this season is how quickly Scott Frost will turn things around in Lincoln. He said at the league’s media days that “people better get us now” because the Cornhuskers were coming. No matter how the season’s going for Nebraska, the players won’t be checked out like they were a year ago in Mike Riley’s final game — a 56-14 Hawkeye rout.

What Chad says: I’ve got both teams with a 7-4 record going into this one, with the Huskers coming off a big home win against Michigan State. But the Hawkeyes are heating up and still have the better team at this point. Fant gets one final Kinnick sendoff against his home-state Huskers with a 75-yard touchdown catch on the game’s first play. It’ll be a fight to the finish, but Iowa’s huge advantage at quarterback pays off in the fourth quarter, as Stanley finds Hockenson for the game-winner. A few weeks later, Iowa accepts a bid to play in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego for the first time since 1991.

Game Prediction: Iowa 29, Nebraska 28

 

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.

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