Schedule analysis: Week-by-week breakdown of Iowa's 2015 season

Rick Brown

The first two games on Iowa’s 2015 football schedule are against unranked opponents. But they are Top 25 important.

Granted, it’s not Ohio State and Michigan State. It’s Illinois State and Iowa State. The Redbirds were the FCS national runners-up last season. The Cyclones won just two games, but one of them was at Kinnick Stadium.

These two games will be pivotal in the success or failure of coach Kirk Ferentz’s 17th season at Iowa.

Win them and the Hawkeyes will take a full head of momentum and confidence into the remainder of the season. And the schedule doesn’t include a game the Hawkeyes can’t win. No Ohio State. No Michigan State. No Penn State.

Iowa defensive lineman Drew Ott gets to quarterback C.J. Beathard during the Iowa Hawkeyes football practice at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, in Iowa City.

But stumble the first two weeks, and getting to a 13th bowl game under Ferentz becomes even more challenging.

Here’s our analysis of how the season will shake out for the Hawkeyes:

vs. Illinois State, Sept. 5

Iowa has a history with Redbirds quarterback Tre Roberson. He led the Hoosiers in rushing (82 yards in 15 carries) and passed for 196 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman in Indiana’s 45-24 loss at Kinnick Stadium in 2011. Roberson returns with a team that went 13-2 after a loss to North Dakota State in the FCS title game. Roberson will be a big first test for Iowa’s linebackers. He passed for 3,221 yards and rushed for 1,029 last season. The Redbirds also return running back Marshaun Coprich, who rushed for 2,274 yards and 27 touchdowns. Iowa’s rebuilt offensive line will be challenged by Redbird linebackers Pat Meehan and Alex Donnelly and lineman Teddy Corwin.

What Rick says: Iowa is a two-score favorite over Illinois State, but this is a dangerous opener. The Hawkeyes will wear down Illinois State at the point of attack and make quarterback C.J. Beathard’s debut a positive one.

Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino talks with quarterback Sam Richardson (12) before a game last season.

at Iowa State, Sept. 12

Iowa won on its last trip to Jack Trice Stadium, 27-21, and did so with an experienced set of linebackers that kept Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson in check. Richardson played that game on a sore ankle. If he’s healthy, and if the Cyclone line can give him time to find an underrated group of receivers, it will be up to Iowa’s offense to keep up in what could be a high-scoring affair. We’ll find out how good the Hawkeye secondary is in this game. Richardson is a dual-threat weapon, and the Hawkeye defense will get good experience playing against Roberson the week before.

What Rick says: Iowa’s defense will learn some valuable lessons, and the running game will show some life. But it’s not enough to get out of Ames with a victory.

vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 19

Night football returns to Kinnick Stadium, against a team that Beathard has fond memories of. He replaced an injured Jake Rudock at Pittsburgh last season and turned a 17-7 halftime deficit into a 24-20 victory. But Pitt brings a two-grand headache to town. Bruiser James Conner rushed for 1,765 yards last season — and 155 against Iowa — and wide receiver Tyler Boyd had 78 catches for 1,261 yards. Ten of those catches, and 153 of those yards, came against the Hawkeyes. Boyd is the only player in ACC history to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons. New Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi also knows the Big Ten landscape. He was Michigan State’s defensive coordinator.

What Rick says: Conner will rush for three figures, but Boyd will get extra attention from Iowa’s secondary, Drew Ott will be in quarterback Chad Voytik’s grill all day and it will be a good “Back in Black” night for the Hawkeyes.

vs. North Texas, Sept. 26

Homecoming arrives early for North Texas coach Dan McCarney, who grew up in Iowa City and played and coached for the Hawkeyes earlier in his career. It will also be a homecoming for Mean Green quarterback Andrew McNulty, who graduated from Iowa City High. North Texas lost three four-year starters on the offensive line, meaning that Iowa’s defensive line and linebackers hope to have McNulty running for his life. North Texas will counter with a very good defensive line that recorded 33 sacks a season ago. Defensive ends Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson will test Iowa’s new tackles. Keep an eye on wide receiver Carlos Harris, too.

North Texas Mean Green head coach Dan McCarney talks on the sideline during the second quarter against the Houston Cougars at Robertson Stadium.

What Rick says: McCarney, who beat Iowa six times as the head coach at Iowa State, won’t get No. 7. The defense will set the tone, and Iowa heads into Big Ten play on a winning note.

at Wisconsin, Oct. 3

The Badgers are perched on the top of most prognosticators’ Big Ten West Division standings. All bets are off if Iowa can go to Camp Randall and win. Wisconsin had some key losses from last season, but running back Corey Clement (949 yards) will be a effective replacement for Melvin Gordon (Big Ten record 2,587 yards). Expect the Badgers’ running game to keep churning out the yards, even though there’s been a coaching change (Paul Chryst for Gary Andersen). Maybe not at the 6.9 yards per carry of last season, but effective nonetheless. Wisconsin’s secondary, led by strong safety Michael Caputo, is stout but its defensive line is in rebuild mode.

What Rick says: Iowa has lost three straight games to the Badgers, all played at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes won on their last visit to Camp Randall (20-10 in 2009). But Wisconsin makes it four straight in the series.

Illinois fired coach Tim Beckman on Aug. 28, about a week before the start of the season. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is the interim head coach.

vs. Illinois, Oct. 10

Illinois coach Tim Beckman, became former Illinois coach Tim Beckman on Friday. So much for survival mode in Champaign. Quarterback Wes Lunt will be there, though, if he stays healthy. Lunt had 14 touchdown passes to three interceptions, but missed five games with a broken leg. One of his best receiving options, Mike Dudek (two TDs vs. Iowa last season), is coming off ACL surgery and is out until mid-season. One way to beat Illinois is to control the ball. Illinois was last in rush defense last season (288.1 yards per league game) and lost ace defenders in Austin Teitsma and Earnest Thomas III. Seven teams rushed for at least 200 yards against the Illini last season (including a season-high 304 for Iowa).

What Rick says: Iowa beat the Illini last season, 30-14, and expect more of the same this time around as the running game gets clicking The Hawkeyes get their first Big Ten victory of the season.

at Northwestern, Oct. 17

Iowa has often been a paper tiger against Northwestern in the last decade. Dyche Stadium hasn’t been a fun place lately, either. The Hawkeyes have lost three of their last four games there. Iowa seems to have reversed the curse the past two seasons at Kinnick Stadium, winning in overtime and then pasting the Wildcats last season, 48-7. Northwestern hasn’t been to a bowl game in two seasons. There will be a new quarterback this season (freshman Clayton Thorson beat out Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver), handing off to a legit threat in Justin Jackson (1,187 yards as a true freshman). Eight defensive starters return, but the Wildcats must find replacements for defensive stalwarts Chi Chi Ariguzo, a linebacker, and Ibraheim Campbell, a safety.

What Rick says: Iowa snaps a three-game losing streak at Dyche Stadium, and wins a third straight game in the series for the first time since early in the Ferentz era (2000-2002).

vs. Maryland, Oct. 31

Iowa led 14-0 at Maryland last season. That was the highlight. The Terps then outscored the Hawkeyes, 38-7, before Iowa tacked on a couple of late touchdowns to make the game appear closer than it was. Iowa’s meltdown at Maryland should be fresh in the minds of everyone when the Terps come to Kinnick Stadium for the first time. Maryland lost 12 starters, seven on defense, from a 7-6 team. Those losses include quarterback C.J. Brown, the team’s leading passer and rusher, and top receivers Stefon Diggs, Deon Long and Marcus Leak. Three of the four returnees on defense are in the secondary, led by special teams standout Will Likely.

What Rick says: Maryland’s rebuilt defense won’t be able to keep up with Beathard and company. Iowa wins this one, flushing the bad taste of a season ago.

at Indiana, Nov. 7

Quarterback Nate Sudfeld would like to exact a measure of revenge against the Hawkeyes. He injured his shoulder in last season’s sixth game, at Kinnick Stadium, and was done for the year. The Hoosiers took to the ground even more after that. Tevin Coleman was the nation’s second-leading rusher, with 2,036 yards. That includes 219 yards in just 15 carries in a 45-29 loss to Iowa. He left school with a season of eligibility remaining to chase his NFL dream, which means “Air Indiana” might be returning to Big Ten stadiums this fall. Coach Kevin Wilson has eight starters back on offense, and outscoring people might be the best approach because the defense must replace six starters.

What Rick says: This is a scary game for Iowa, at a venue that lacks rabid home-team support. The Hawkeyes have lost at Indiana three of the last four times. Make it four of the last five, in an upset.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, left, and Minnesota coach Jerry Kill will see their teams play on Nov. 14 in what should be a key game for both programs.

vs. Minnesota, Nov. 14

The roles have been reversed of late. Minnesota looks like Iowa. And Iowa looks like Minnesota. Gophers coach Jerry Kill has methodically built a solid program in the Twin Cities entering his fifth season. He has defeated the Hawkeyes three times. The first two were upsets. Last season’s 51-14 domination was not. That’s the stage for the first November night game in Big Ten history. Minnesota has a solid pass-run threat in quarterback Mitch Leidner, and wide receiver K.J. Maye is a playmaker Iowa’s got to keep an eye on. But it’s the defense that will be a tough nut for Beathard to crack. Seven starters return, including Eric Murray, Damarius Travis, Theiren Cockran and Briean Boddy-Calhoun in the secondary.

What Rick says: Minnesota thinks it can replace Wisconsin as West Division kingpin. That might be on the line in this late-season clash at Kinnick Stadium. But Iowa plays its best game of the season and takes the air out of those hopes.

vs. Purdue, Nov. 21

Beathard’s one and only career start heading into the opener against Illinois State came at Purdue last season, when he bounced back from an early pick six to engineer a 24-10 victory. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 245 yards. The Boilermakers have struggled to get traction under coach Darrell Hazell as he enters his third season. Purdue returns eight starters on offense, but lost its top two running backs in Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. Austin Appleby has won the starting quarterback position. Top receiver Danny Anthrop is coming back from ACL surgery. Tackle Jake Replogle is one of eight starters back on defense. So the Boilermakers return a lot of experience. Just not winning experience.

What Rick says: Purdue stunned Iowa in a late-season visit in 2012, 27-24, one of six straight losses to end that forgettable campaign. Lightning won’t strike again as the Hawkeyes end the home season on a winning note.

Mike Riley coaches in the Red-White spring game in April with nearly 77,000 fans in attendance.

at Nebraska, Nov. 27

Nebraska has won at least nine games for seven straight seasons. But that’s not enough in this football-crazy neck of the woods. The Bo Pelini era has been flushed, and in comes the anti-Pelini in nice guy Mike Riley. He inherits starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., who must adapt to the new pro-style attack. Look for Riley to take advantage of Armstrong’s legs as well as his arm. He’s got an electric playmaker in wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, who will miss several games with a foot injury. He was a game changer at Iowa last season. Riley also inherits defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins, who will test the Hawkeyes’ defensive line … and everyone else they play.

What Rick says: Iowa will be looking for bookend wins in Lincoln, not to mention adding spark to a rivalry that hasn’t caught fire with Nebraska’s three victories in four games as a Big Ten school. The Cornhuskers extinguish that spark.