Football season is coming! This could be one of the most pivotal seasons in Hawkeye history, one that stands to frame the state of the program—especially if the Kirk Ferentz era is as much in its twilight as many fans suspect. But there's 12+ games to play, and those each matter a whole lot more than narrative.
So with that in mind, here's what to expect in the first stretch of the season, before Iowa careens into Big Ten play.
Week 1: vs. Illinois State (13-2, 7-1 MVFC) (FCS)
September 5, 11 a.m., Kinnick Stadium
TV: Big Ten Network
Last Meeting: [first time teams have met]
Iowa's season opener comes against Illinois State, who will likely be the best FCS team Iowa has ever faced. Former Indiana starting quarterback Tre Roberson led the Redbirds to the FCS Championship last year and put up massive numbers in the process—3,221 yards and 30 touchdowns passing, plus 1,029 rushing yards and 11 more touchdowns on the ground.
Good News! Iowa should have a distinct talent advantage, especially once depth comes into the picture in the hot summer sun. The Redbirds defense is not spectacular, and they gave up at least 21 points in eight of their last 10 games in 2014. If the Hawkeyes can't establish a ground game, it'll be Iowa's own fault.
Bad News! Roberson might not even be the best player the Redbirds have on offense; they also boast tailback Marshaun Coprich, who was an FCS All-American, the Missouri Valley Football Conference offensive player of the year and the leading rusher in all of FCS play. Iowa had tremendous struggles with dynamic running backs in 2014, and while the ones who terrorized the Hawkeyes last year are all in the NFL now, Coprich should provide a difficult task for a linebacking corps that, like internet service in Iowa City, is still hurting for speed and reliability.
Risk-Reward Ratio: Terribly high. Illinois State is capable of challenging for a bowl if it were in the FBS, but since it's "just" an FCS team, it does Iowa's strength of schedule no favors, nor will a Hawkeye win impress anybody unless it's by 42 or more—and given that Iowa's favored by all of nine points, it's fair to assume Iowa will not win by 42 or more.
Win Confidence: 75%
Week 2: at Iowa State (2-10, 0-9 Big 12)
September 12, 3:30 p.m., Jack Trice Stadium
TV: Fox Sports
Last Meeting: 2014, Iowa State 20, Iowa 17
Iowa's lone road trip of the non-conference season takes it all the way to scenic Ames, Iowa, because how else are the Cyclones supposed to sell out a home game?
Good News! Paul Rhoads is having the sort of career that would get most coaches fired (into the sun from a comically oversized cannon), and this season's version of the Cyclones looks scarcely better than last year's wretched mess, which gave up at least 30 points in 11 of its 12 games and finished off the season getting throttled 55-3 by TCU. Iowa State is ranked No. 119 in the Orlando Sentinel's rankings of all 128 FBS teams this season, and another winless conference slate is easily possible. On paper this might be Iowa's easiest game of 2015. On paper.
Bad News! That one game where ISU didn't get lit up? The 20-17 win at Kinnick Stadium. Yeah. Senior QB Sam Richardson is back, as are most of his top targets. Kirk Ferentz has a 115-85 record at Iowa. In the same time, Iowa State is 78-118. And yet Kirk Ferentz has a losing record of 7-9 against ISU.
Risk-Reward Ratio: At this point, "didn't lose to Iowa State" has become a badge of honor for an Iowa football season, and the trophy case sure could use whatever it is these two teams play for every year. Bring back the pewter corn farmer. We miss him and his whole pewter family. Anyway, Iowa averages 5.9 wins per season it has lost to the Cyclones, and 8.9 wins per season with a victory over ISU. This game is a good (not perfect, but good) bellwether for the upcoming Iowa season, and a W matters.
Win Confidence: 65%
Week 3: vs. Pittsburgh (6-7, 4-4 ACC)
September 19, 7 p.m., Kinnick Stadium
TV: Big Ten Network
Last Meeting: 2014, Iowa 24, Pitt 20
Iowa gets a chance to complete a two-game sweep against the Panthers as Pitt comes to town. With the upcoming nine-game Big Ten schedule, Pitt is the last power-conference team (other than Iowa State, obviously) that Iowa is facing in non-conference games.
Good News! This is a Pittsburgh team in flux, and catching the Panthers in September might be a much more attractive proposition than in a bowl game, once the team's had a full season to find its identity. QB Chad Voytik is a returning starter but never looked like the type of player that should strike fear into Iowa's defense, especially with most of the secondary returning. The Pitt defense must replace several starters from a 2014 unit that wasn't too great to begin with.
Bad News! 2014 First Team All-American RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd might be the best players at their respective positions that Iowa will face all year. Pat Narduzzi is Pitt's fourth head coach in the last six seasons, but he also may end up being the most successful—and as the longtime defensive coordinator for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State, he's quite familiar with Iowa's game plan. Narduzzi's the kind of guy who knows how to put together a defense, and even if he can't do that by the third week of the season, Ferentz has spent too much time lately making bad defenses look good.
Risk-Reward Ratio: As single non-conference games go, this is about as meaningful as it gets for the Hawkeyes this season. Pitt's a visiting power conference team, and picking up another victory firmly establishes Iowa as a bowl contender and should put the rest of the Big Ten West on notice. A loss isn't the worst thing in the world, of course—it wouldn't be nearly as embarrassing as against everyone else the Hawkeyes face in September—but a good team protects its home field in this situation.
Win confidence: 60%
Week 4: vs. North Texas (4-8, 2-6 C-USA)
September 26, TBA, Kinnick Stadium
Last Meeting: [first time teams have met]
These teams have never met, but there's more history here than one might expect. North Texas was where Hayden Fry last coached before being hired by Iowa, compiling a 40-23-3 record there in Denton. Moreover, UNT is coached by Dan McCarney, who like Kirk Ferentz was an assistant to Fry at Iowa in the early '80s and who later become something of a nemesis to the Hawkeyes at ISU before his career there ran out of steam. So this should be fun.
Good News! UNT is firmly in rebuilding mode after a wretched 2014 campaign, and it's still a mystery who'll be picking up the slack at QB. The Mean Green should be better-ish, but there's not much star quality on the roster: only center Kaydon Kirby and kicker Trevor Moore made Phil Steele's preseason All-C-USA first team.
Bad News! There are only two coaches to beat Kirk Ferentz at Iowa four times in a row. One is Jim Tressel, and the other is, you guessed it:
Frank Stallone Dan McCarney. McCarney knows a thing or two about maximizing performance from mediocre rosters, and if he can get some stability from his QB situation, the UNT offense is the type of up-tempo, pass-happy attack that has long bedeviled Ferentz's defenses (though to be fair, it's not like Iowa's still running the Norm Parker 4-3 on every single snap anymore).
Risk-Reward Ratio: This, like the kickoff time and television situation, depends on what happens in the first three weeks. If Iowa's coming in at 2-1 or worse (god help us if it's worse), then a win here is mainly only important in terms of Iowa getting to the six win mark. But if Iowa's one game away from running the non-conference table—which would be only the fourth time Kirk Ferentz has accomplished such a feat, and only the second time since 2006. Yeahhhh.
Win confidence: 90%
Cumulative win confidence for all four games: 26.3%
Up next: Iowa shocks the world and joins the SEC; we preview upcoming battles against Alabama, Florida, LSU, and fellow surprise SEC entrant UNLV.