Rick Brown: Predictions for 2014 Hawkeyes all over the map

Rick Brown
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz looks up at the big screen to watch a replay against LSU in the Outback Bowl.

I'm tired of talk and ready for action.

Iowa's football opener against Northern Iowa on Aug. 30 at Kinnick Stadium can't get here soon enough.

Once the season starts, play on the field will replace the wide range of speculation about how this 2014 season will go for Iowa. And the Hawkeyes are at the center of a great debate.

Earlier this week, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit circled Iowa as a sleeper pick to make this season's four-team College Football Playoff. That came after the Chicago Sun-Times picked the Hawkeyes to finish sixth in the Western Division of the Big Ten and rated Kirk Ferentz eighth on its list of the league's best coaches.

Back in the first week of August, Sports Illustrated picked Iowa as one of five unranked teams that could rise up and make the playoff.

But early last week, Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports picked Northern Iowa to upset the Hawkeyes in the season opener.

You remember Mandel, right? In July 2013, when Iowa was coming off a 4-8 season, he wrote that Ferentz was one of the five worst coaches in college football.

A week later, Mandel (then at Sports Illustrated) wrote, "Never in a million years did I expect the entire state of Iowa to come after me on Twitter."

Asked about making Mandel's list, Ferentz snorted, "I don't stay awake at night worrying too much about what anyone writes, with all due respect. I worry about what we're doing as a program and a team. About how we can get better and get back on the good list, back in the positive column."

The Hawkeyes went 8-5 after an Outback Bowl loss to LSU, and return 13 starters. But Mandel isn't sold just yet.

"For an early upset pick I'll go with Northern Iowa over Iowa," he wrote Aug. 13. "We know there will be a handful of FCS over FBS results that first weekend, and the Panthers always play the two power-conference in-state schools tough."

If anything, Mandel and other Iowa doubters are playing right into Ferentz's hand. It's something Iowa's 16th-year head coach can point out to his team. (Although I imagine the two blocked field goals at the end of the 2009 game against Northern Iowa probably gets more conversation in meeting rooms.)

The fact that Iowa is unranked by both the major national polls is another motivational chip, and a way for Ferentz to keep his team grounded.

I admittedly got involved in this mind-numbing speculation when I predicted that Iowa would head into bowl season 10-3. I did that, even though the Hawkeyes have a slug of games that could tip either way. And that starts with the season opener against Northern Iowa.

Anyone who thinks that game will be a cakewalk isn't paying attention. There are a ton of swing games on the schedule, like Iowa State and Indiana at home and Pittsburgh and Maryland on the road. In fact, most of the schedule is made up of swing games — including Northwestern at home and Minnesota on the road..

A crazy schedule it is, with just one home game between Sept. 13 and Nov. 1. Road games at Minnesota and Illinois follow Northwestern's visit on Nov. 1, setting the stage for potentially monster home games with Wisconsin and Nebraska.

By then, we'll know where the Hawkeyes are sitting on the prediction roller-coaster.

No matter what, I'm ready to get the ride started.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.