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The Prologue 2012: The Schedule, It Is Good, No?

Let's just get to it.

Sept. 1: Northern Illinois (at Soldier Field, Chicago)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
11-3 (7-1) 9 (2 O, 7 D) #54 #57

More to come tomorrow, of course, but there's little doubt that, in a vacuum, NIU is Iowa's most difficult non-conference opponent. They're even less experienced than Iowa, though, with a new offensive coordinator and quarterback, a completely new offensive line, and a defense that returns from last season but wasn't particularly good then. With that said, they remain extremely well-coached (former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is head coach, and former Northwestern OC Mike Dunbar is the offensive coordinator) and hungry for a win over a BCS-conference opponent after last season's meltdowns. And while the game will be played in front of an Iowa-heavy crowd, it's not at Kinnick. That still means something.

Sept. 8: Iowa State (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
6-7 (3-6) 12 (7 O, 5 D) #81 #85

And this is why we qualified NIU with "in a vacuum". Iowa State is always a bit of a timebomb to begin with. Throw in that Steele Jantz -- who played the greatest game of his life against Iowa last year and then went back to being a JUCO transfer -- is back at the controls after losing his job last year, and it looks dangerous on its face. But ISU loses Osemele and Hicks on the line; they remain big up front, but ISU isn't the same in protecting the quarterback without them (especially Osemele, who was probably the best tackle in team history). They also lost their offensive coordinator, with Tom Herman making just a slight step up by going to Ohio State. Again, they have replacements -- they promoted wide receiver coach Courtney Messingham -- but that's a pretty big piece of the puzzle gone. ISU's defense is built for stopping the old Iowa offense: Strong up the middle but susceptible to the pass, and extremely susceptible to teams that play sideline-to-sideline. If Iowa's offense does what Greg Davis usually does, it might be exponentially better prepared for dealing with the Cyclones. And the game is in Iowa City, where ISU hasn't won in a decade.

Sept. 15: Northern Iowa (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
10-3 (7-1) ? N/A N/A

UNI finished last season in the I-AA top 5, and opens the season as a I-AA top 10 outfit. They also open the season at Wisconsin. And if I'm head coach Mark Farley, from the moment they get back on the bus in Madison to the moment they kick off at Kinnick, I'm playing the 2009 game on a loop. This UNI team is better than that one. This Iowa team isn't as good. And it still took two blocked field goals in a row for Iowa to win. They're not going to be afraid of Iowa after seeing Wisconsin. They're still extremely talented for a I-AA team. This isn't Tennessee Tech. This isn't a complete pushover.

Sept. 22: Central Michigan (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
3-9 (2-6) 16 (8 O, 8 D) #99 #84

CMU was pretty awful last year: Their quarterbacks threw 18 interceptions, their running game never got started, and their receivers took most of the season learning their quick-pass offense. Quarterback Ryan Radcliffe was especially bad against non-conference competition, throwing nine of his 15 picks against Kentucky, Michigan State, and N.C. State. His receivers, mostly freshmen last season, are slowly rounding into form but probably not there yet. And the defense is experienced but not talented; the defensive line looks especially vulnerable. As PSR put it, "This unit sidestepped away while MAC opponents ran at will." This could be the game where Greg Garmon finally takes over.

Sept. 29: Minnesota (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
3-9 (2-6) 9 (4 O, 5 D) #84 #96

Two losses in a row. Two awful Minnesota teams have won games over clearly superior Iowa squads in 2010 and 2011, both in TCF Bank Stadium. The series finally returns to Iowa -- where the Gophers haven't won since 1999 --and Floyd should come with it. MarQueis Gray is back -- another week, another running quarterback -- but his novelty may have worn off, and there's no sign he's going to suddenly learn how to throw the ball, and even if he did, he's going to have trouble finding someone to catch it. Everything up the middle of the defense -- both defensive tackles, the middle linebacker, and both safeties -- need repacement, and if Minnesota isn't strong up the middle by the end of September, Iowa can quite easily be Iowa. This is an up-and-coming program, with a good coach who is quite literally the face of a new program. If this game was in November, it could be extremely interesting. As it is, Iowa should be in good shape here.

Oct. 13: Michigan State (Spartan Stadium, East Lansing)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
11-3 (7-1) 13 (5 O, 8 D) #7 #19

I know everyone wants to classify this team as 2010 Iowa: Kind of a surprise last year, launched into the preseason stratosphere this year on the back of what may be the conference's best defense. But PSR's comment on this team draws comparisons to another Iowa squad:

Now, after 22 wins over two years, those same rivals have only questions: How have the Spartans done it? How can we copy it? The simple answer: Take a system, add a serious heaping of patience and throw in a helpful dash of senior leadership. Add more patience.

This team has been through the battles and come out stronger for it, even winning its bowl game after being destroyed the year before. Nobody doubts the defense, led by William Gholston and Marcus Rush at end, three experienced linebackers, and the entire two-deep in the secondary. Andrew Maxwell takes over at quarterback, but there was no doubt he was getting the job, and MSU fans seem confident that he's ready to fill Kirk Cousins' largish shoes. He'll throw from behind one of the conference's best offensive lines. Dantonio has built this team in the trenches, and they'll dominate there on both sides of the ball. This looks much more like 2004 Iowa than 2010 Iowa, to be honest. That team was pretty good. This team looks awfully damn good, as well.

Oct. 20: Penn State (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
9-4 (6-2) 8 (4 O, 4 D) #51 (with Redd) #37 (with Redd)

Who the hell knows? They don't have that much talent; between the semi-exodus (which surprisingly hurt quality far more than quantity) and typical graduation and attrition, they're thin. They're young. They have a new staff. And they're still playing McGloin under center. Penn State has won just once in Iowa City since Kirk Ferentz took over, and that was 1999, so it doesn't really count. But that was also Paterno, and this isn't Paterno's scheme anymore. Do not underestimate the fact that Iowa's new offensive line coach, Brian Ferentz, spent the last three years as an offensive assistant on O'Brien's staff at New England. In a game where both teams are young and slightly talent-deficient, all the intangibles fall Iowa's way.

Oct. 27: just Northwestern (That Place Next to the Library, Evanston)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
6-7 (3-5) 11 (5 O, 6 D) #59 #68

Does it matter than Dan Persa and his balky Achilles have left the building? Does it matter that their top running back might be a good named Mike Trumpy? Does it matter they return only five defensive starters, including almost no one in the secondary? No, it does not. Because they are Northwestern and they still have the Evil Wizgerald and it will take many years of dominance and/or hypnotherapy for us to not feel a cold, creeping dread at the thought of this game. The hope is that 2012 Iowa, with new coordinators, new schemes, and new ideas is better able to contend with jNW, that jNW's (relative) mastery of old Iowa won't transfer over. That's the hope. The reality is that the thought of Kain Colter running circles around Iowa's front seven and Kyle Prater catching a bazillion passes will make us anxious, until proven otherwise. Much like last year's game, this smells like a shootout; let's hope Greg Davis and James Vandenberg remember to pack some extra ammunition.

Nov. 3: Indiana (Memorial Stadium, Bloomington)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
1-11 (0-8) 15 (7 O, 8 D) #109 #98

There is a thought that Indiana will be better this season. On one level, that seems undeniable: they went 1-11 last year, lost by single digits only once in Big Ten play (a 16-10 close call against Penn State), and return 15 starters, including budding Antwaan Randle El wannabe, Tre Roberson at QB. There's nowhere to go but up for them, right? Maybe, but there's still a long climb from "abject horror" to "decent" and there's a good chance Indiana will find out just how long that climb is over the next few seasons. Like Northwestern, Indiana is a team that often bedeviled "old Iowa," so the hope is that the new look 2012 incarnation of Iowa has an easier time with them. This game could be a fascinating test for the new Iowa defense, which has seemingly been constructed with opponents like Indiana in mind. Oh, and if you have a few spare dollars hanging around, you might want to drop them on Iowa to have a 100-yard rusher in this game. Since 2005, Iowa's failed to have a 100-yard rusher in this game only twice, in 2006 and 2007, and both times the leading rusher had... 94 yards.

Nov. 10: OUR MOST HATED RIVAL (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
7-6 (4-4) 15 (8 O, 7 D) #73 #70

Ah, old frenemy, we meet again. If the usual script plays out, Iowa will be starting a fourth-string walk-on at RB for this game while Purdue will be rolling out a fifth-string converted WR at QB. Suffice to say, neither of these teams has made much good fortune when it comes to injuries in recent years. QB jokes aside, though, Purdue does have a top-notch defensive tackle (Kawann Short) and a pair of good cornerbacks (Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson). They also have the Big Ten coach on probably the shortest leach; Danny Hope and his luxurious lip-warmer may be running out of time in West Lafayette if he can't get things turned around (at least to a bowl game) this season. What that means for Purdue at this point in the season is anyone's guess: they might be fighting to save his job or they might have totally checked out on the season.

Nov. 17: Michigan (Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
11-2 (6-2) 12 (5 O, 7 D) #18 #12

One last shot at glory, aka Denard Robinson's last opportunity to beat Iowa. That would be a strange resume, right? "Orange Sugar Bowl champion, 0-4 against Iowa?" The man once known as "Shoelace" nearly led a spirited comeback by a bad Michigan team over a very good Iowa team in 2009, gave way to Tate Forcier in the 2010 Iowa game (who also nearly led a spirited comeback by a slightly less-bad Michigan team over a less-very good Iowa team), and then got totally stymied by a so-so Iowa team last year. Iowa's won three in a row in this series by feasting on Michigan's defense (bad under RichRod, but much better under Hoke) and stymieing (for a while) the Michigan offense. Like every game against Michigan for the past four years, this game probably comes down to Iowa's ability to contain Robinson in the pocket and force him to be a pocket passer. We'll know long before November 17 whether Iowa's defensive front seven is up to that challenge.

Nov. 23: Nebraska (Kinnick Stadium)

2011 Record Ret. Starters Pre Snap Read Football Study Hall
9-4 (5-3) 14 (7 O, 7 D) #16 #24

Nebraska loses arguably their three best defenders from a year ago: tackling machine LB Lavonte David, top cover CB Alfonzo Dennard, and DL mainstay Jared Crick, which seems problematic for a team that's ostensibly built on its defense. (No team that's reliant on Taylor Martinez to be its offensive fulcrum an expect to have a consistent, high-quality offense.) But Crick missed most of last season and Dennard missed several games, too, so they're accustomed to playing without them. Replacing David seems like a tall order (remember him being everywhere against Iowa last year? I do), but still: they're Nebraska. They return seven starters on defense and they've recruited well there, so this should still be a good Nebraska defense. The interesting thing is the Nebraska offense, which returns seven starters, including their leading passer (Martinez), leading rusher (Rex Burkhead), and leading receiver (Kenny Bell). If T-Magic stops arm punting quite so much and if Burkhead remains the reliable workhorse he was last year (1357 yards, 15 TD), they could be a handful on offense.

Honestly, though, the bigger questions here seem to be less about depth charts and more about less tangible factors. Will either of these teams be playing for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game at this point? Is Iowa still pissed off about getting whipped in Lincoln last fall? Does it matter that this is the first Iowa-Nebraska game in Kinnick in over a decade? On paper, Nebraska looks like a much better team than Iowa in 2012. But this just feels like a game where paper comparisons aren't going to mean a damn thing.