Week 5: at Wisconsin (11-3, 7-1 B1G, West Division champion)
October 3, TBA, Camp Randall Stadium
Last meeting: Wisconsin 26, Iowa 24 (2014)
Hey, the Big Ten season begins. I'm sure Iowa's easing into—OH GOD WHAT DO YOU MEAN "TRIP TO CAMP RANDALL" NO NO NO.
Good News! Much like Pitt, Wisconsin's in a period of prolonged upheaval, and much like Pitt Paul Chryst is heavily involved. Chryst takes the reins from good-but-disgruntled head coach Gary Andersen, who high-tailed it to Oregon State after two seasons of having to have Barry Alvarez as his boss. Chryst was the defensive coordinator for Bret Bielema, who himself bailed to Arkansas after having to have Barry Alvarez as his boss. You may remember Chryst from such films as "Iowa 24, Pitt 20" and "The Man Who Finished 6-6 In Every Regular Season," and while the talent situation in Madison is a decided step up from Pitt, Chryst is the one with something to prove here.
Bad News! Iowa shot its best shot against Wisconsin last season and still came up two points short in a thrilling and heart-breaking loss. Now the series shifts to one of the most hostile road environments in all of college football, and there's no indication that Iowa's offensive line can take advantage of Wisconsin's losses in the front seven—meanwhile, the secondary that allowed just 168 yards passing per game last season returns nearly intact. Iowa's going to need some big and unusual plays, because sustaining drives doesn't look easy.
Risk-Reward Ratio: Nobody's expecting an Iowa win here, so as long as the Hawkeyes don't get blown out (which is plausible) the hit they take for an L is minimal compared to what picking up an upset win would provide. Also, it's not like Iowa's non-conference slate would catapult the Hawkeyes into the Top 25 by itself, so it's not as if that national standing would be on the line. If Iowa moves to 5-0 after this game though, look out.
Win Confidence: 15%
Week 6: vs. Illinois (6-7, 3-5 B1G)
October 10, 11 a.m., Kinnick Stadium
Last Meeting: Iowa 30, Illinois 14 (2014)
The Big Ten season opener comes in Week 6, and it's a rematch of one of Iowa's weirder games last season. Iowa's 30-14 win in Champaign wasn't nearly as competitive as the score indicated, and yet despite a 587-235 yardage disparity, the game was still 9-7 Iowa with three minutes left in the third quarter. Yeah, it was weird.
Good News! Tim Beckman, who has coached and behaved like he's daring the University of Illinois to fire him ever since he strolled onto campus, is somehow still the head coach. His Illini made an improbable run to the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2014 despite four of their six wins coming via a single possession (and the other two by 11 and 14 points) and getting outscored by 88 points even before Louisiana Tech laid the lumber in the bowl. Top WR Mikey Dudek may or may not be back from a spring ACL tear by Week 6; even if he is he shouldn't be the explosive playmaker he was in 2015.
Bad News! Beckman's about the only negative indicator for the Illinois season, though. The team did technically go to a bowl game and returns 15 starters, including starting QB Wes Lunt and—assuming Dudek is back at some point—five of Lunt's top six targets in the passing game.
Risk-Reward Ratio: There's no such thing as a conference win that doesn't mean much, especially for a squad like Iowa who can take as many as it can get. Illinois' schedule is rough enough that making a bowl should be difficult, and if Ferentz can hand Beckman an L here it just might take Illinois out of the mix for bowl slots by the end of the season.
Win Confidence: 65%
Week 7: at Northwestern (5-7, 3-5 B1G)
October 17, 11 a.m., Ryan Field
Last Meeting: Iowa 48, Northwestern 7 (2014)
Hey, remember last year, when Iowa hamblasted the visiting Wildcats? You... you remember that? That was awesome. It was Iowa's largest B1G victory since 55-0, and Northwestern's worst B1G loss since Wisconsin unleashed a 70-heimer to close out the 2010 season.
Good News! Northwestern has the most tumultuous quarterback situation in the Big Ten, with redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson looking like a slight front-runner to Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver. If so, that's probably great news for Iowa, as Northwestern hasn't been able to sustain a passing game with a non-mobile QB in lord knows how long, and Alviti's the candidate with the best wheels. One-dimensional quarterbacks behind mediocre offensive lines were basically lunch for Iowa's front seven last year, and that's what looks on tap until the 'Cats prove otherwise.
Bad News! We remember 55-0 much more easily than the fact that Iowa
lost the next time it played Minnesota came back to Kinnick to face Minnesota the next year... and eked out a 12-0 groaner. Year-to-year results vary wildly, so the Hawkeyes' rampage in 2014 only means so much. Northwestern's defense should be even stronger with eight returning starters, and if Godwin Igwebuike can be the stopper at SS that Ibraheim Campbell was, this'll be a defense without many flaws. Meanwhile, Justin Jackson rushed for 96 yards against Iowa last year as a true freshman, and he's a legit talent. Iowa needs to find a way to slow him down.
Risk-Reward Ratio: Surprisingly high. A brutal non-conference slate (vs. Stanford, at Duke) will push Northwestern out of the national consciousness early and a Week 5 trip to Michigan won't help it back into the mix. But talent-wise, top to bottom the 'Cats aren't wholly different from Iowa, and the Hawkeyes are 9-11 on the road in B1G play in the last five seasons. Jackson should be a chain-mover for Northwestern, and it's not as clear who'll be reliably sustaining drives on the other side of the ball.
Win Confidence: 40%
Week 8: BYE
October 24, all day, wherever the road takes you
TV: Don't you have a family to spend time with?
Last Meeting: The entire offseason (2015)
I feel like someone was telling me about something that was happening this weekend. Ah right, it's Jason Isbell and Ryan Adams at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, three shows: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Oh, mind you, they're sold out. Have been for months and months. But that's a thing going on. I guess you can also watch Auburn at Arkansas, but until Bret Bielema comes out with his own Taylor Swift remake album like Adams is working on, it'll be a consolation prize at best.
Week 9: vs. Maryland (7-6, 4-4 B1G)
October 31, TBA, Kinnick Stadium
Last Meeting: Maryland 38, Iowa 31 (2014)
It's Halloween in Iowa City! Expect lots of fun and exciting costumes in the stands in accordance with the very serious and important holiday. It would be foolish to wear a costume to Kinnick in, say, Week 2. Who would ever do such a thing?
Good News! Maryland loses a ton of production from last year's team on both sides of the ball, including six of seven starters up front on a defense that had several rough afternoons in 2014. If Iowa can't run on Maryland in 2015, it probably can't run on anybody in the conference—and if there's one thing Kirk Ferentz loves to do, it's exploit a running game mismatch.
Bad News! Cornerback Will Likely returns for his senior season, which means I Will Likely spend the whole game making puns. Also he took a pick to the house last season against Jake Rudock, so that wasn't fun. Maryland's secondary and pass rushers have enough ability to create catastrophes that if the Terps even keep this one close, they can stay in the mix—and an experienced offensive line should keep them from falling hopelessly behind to begin with—plus returning Lou Groza Award winner Brad Craddock should give Maryland an edge in special teams.
Risk-Reward Ratio: This season can only be going one of two ways for a team with unusually low expectations like Maryland—"overmatched and on the wrong end of .500 by Week 9," or "Big Ten Coach of the Year Candidate Randy Edsall." This is half the lottery of first-year starters' performances and half the whims and vagaries of the W-L gods, but it's probably fair to say we're not entirely sure where Maryland will be with its team at this point. But Iowa badly, badly needs home victories, especially with attendance flagging and so many games feeling like coin flips.
Win Confidence: 70%
Four-Game Sweep Confidence: 2.7%
8-0 Confidence: 0.7%
Up next: Iowa makes some clutch trade deadline deals and brings in Chase Utley to shore up the offensive line. Also, the Big Ten Championship Game is re-branded the Historic Weight Room And Community Classic.