A few months ago, ESPN wrote about the most critical three- or four-game stretches on each Big Ten team's schedule and their entry on Iowa got me thinking. ESPN ultimately chose Iowa's closing stretch, a three game slate against Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska. The logic behind that choice largely boils down to this:
The Hawkeyes' finishing kick isn't quite as clear cut as it was in 2014, when they hosted Wisconsin and Nebraska in the final two weeks with the West Division title up for grabs. Still, Iowa's chances of getting to the Big Ten championship game likely will once again come down to the end.
You can also note (as ESPN did) the need for Iowa to beat Minnesota and/or Nebraska in order to have "a memorable season," and there's certainly some truth to that.
I certainly understand the logic behind ESPN's choice and I do think that it could be a very important stretch for Iowa football. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, wins in those games could put the finishing touches on a turnaround campaign that eases the heat on Ferentz and his coaching staff and positions Iowa for a trip to a quality bowl game. Or wins in those games could be a vital necessity to ease the flames raging under their seats after too many costly losses earlier in the season.
But as important as those games could be, I wonder if there might be a more critical stretch of games earlier in the season. There are two chunks of games in particular that leap out at me. Success in those games could position Iowa for a good season, while failure in those games could lead to a complete meltdown from the fanbase and a collapse by the program.
STRETCH #1: SEPTEMBER AND THE HOT START BLUES
Slow(ish) starts under Kirk Ferentz are as much an Iowa tradition as a base 4-3 defense and running the stretch play. Since he arrived at Iowa in 1999, Iowa has managed a perfect record in non-conference play just three times (2003, 2006, 2009). This is despite not exactly playing a murderer's row of opponent in non-league play. This year's slate of opponents doesn't include any headline raisers, but it does include a host of sneaky-tough teams.
9/5: Illinois State
9/12: at Iowa State
9/26: North Texas
Illinois State was the runner-up in the FCS National Championship Game last season (falling to the mighty North Dakota State empire) and they return a host of key players from that team, including their top running back, Marshaun Coprich, an All-American performer who ran for 2274 yards and 27 TDs, and noted Hawkeye tormenter Tre Roberson (formerly of Indiana). Obviously, Illinois State is an FCS program and Iowa is a Big Ten program and decent Big Ten teams should always beat FCS programs and yadda yadda yadda... but Illinois State looks to be a very good FCS team and Iowa is a team with a lot of question marks at the moment. Iowa should win, but this is undoubtedly one of the hardest FCS games they could have scheduled this season.
Iowa State is not a good team, but that hardly matters when they play against Iowa. They've won three of four against the Hawkeyes and the game is in Ames (although the road team has won the last three games in a row in that series, strangely enough). This also figures to be a game that both teams enter with immense pressure. A third straight loss to Iowa State (and a fourth in five years) could be the final straw for Ferentz at Iowa and could see a full-on revolt from the fans and boosters. On the other hand, a win over Iowa has been the only saving grace of Iowa State's last two miserable campaigns and removing that could expose how empty their seasons have been. Plus, it's hard to find a path to them having a decent season that doesn't involve a win over Iowa.
Pitt is the most talented opponent Iowa faces during the non-conference stretch; RB James Conner and WR Tyler Boyd will seriously test the Iowa defense. If Iowa is going to drop a game in September, Pitt is the most likely opponent to hand them a loss, even if the game is at Kinnick. The non-conference stretch closes with North Texas and while they look like the easiest opponent in non-conference play and a team Iowa absolutely should beat... it's hard to tell what might happen if Iowa enters that game badly. What if Iowa posts an unconvincing win over Illinois State, loses another close game to Iowa State, and isn't able to summon enough comeback mojo to beat Pitt for the second-straight year? If Iowa enters that game 1-2, leaking oil and bleeding fan support, all bets are off. All those games are very winnable for Iowa... but it also doesn't take much to see how those some of those games could go badly for Iowa and get them off to a very rocky start.
STRETCH #2: LATE OCTOBER AND THE TRAP GAMES
There's another stretch of games that I've been looking at very warily ever since we began peeking ahead to the 2015 schedule after last year wrapped up and we began projecting how this season might go. There's a trio of games around Halloween that induce some anxiety in me.
10/17: at Northwestern
11/7: at Indiana
All three games are against teams that have given Iowa grief in recent years. Iowa posted lopsided wins over Northwestern and Indiana last year (in Iowa City), but those results haven't necessarily been all that indicative of the way those series have gone over the last 5-10 years. Northwestern is a popular sleeper pick to make noise in the Big Ten West and they've been a thorn in Iowa's side since Fitzgerald took over a decade ago. Iowa also hasn't won in Evanston since 2007. Northwestern never seems to lack for motivation when they play Iowa, but avenging last year's 48-7 trouncing in Iowa City should put some extra pep in their step, too.
Maryland is widely projected to take a step back this fall, having lost several key contributors from a year ago and most of their recruiting success stories not expected to make a big impact on the field for another season or two... but they did beat Iowa 38-31 in a game where Iowa had few answers for what the Terps were doing on offense. That game also comes after a bye week for Iowa, which should be an advantage, although that hasn't always been the case in recent years.
Iowa beat Indiana decisively last year, 45-29, and the good news is that Indiana's main weapon in that game (Tevin Coleman) has departed for the NFL. The bad news is that they bring back QB Nate Sudfeld, who had their offense humming before getting hurt early in that game against Iowa. (Put it this way: Sudfeld missed the remainder of the season after that injury -- six games and change -- and his passing stats were still more than twice as good as their next-best passer last year.) Like Northwestern (and Iowa State), Indiana is another team that has given Iowa fits in recent years, especially in Bloomington (Iowa escaped with a skin-of-their-teeth win there in 2010 and ate a loss there in 2012 during the great second half implosion). The Indiana game is sandwiched between the Halloween home game against Maryland and the big night game clash with Minnesota on 11/14; they might as well put "TRAP GAME" in large, blinking neon letters on that big rock at Memorial Stadium.
These games also feel especially important because Iowa's season figures to be at a key crossroads when they arrive. Let's assume that the bottom doesn't fall out in September and that Iowa is at 4-2 halfway through the season, going 3-1 in non-conference play and splitting their first two games of Big Ten play against Wisconsin and Illinois. (Let's briefly acknowledge that there are different ways to reach those records and that some would feel better than others. If Iowa beats Iowa State but loses to Pitt is there less grumbling than if those results are flipped? Probably.) That record seems like a fairly reasonable projection.
This Northwestern-Maryland-Indiana stretch is vital if Iowa is going to have a good season. If they can build some momentum with those games and enter the final three games of the season at 7-2 or even 6-3, there's a chance for Iowa to put together a good season (9 wins, pre-bowl game) or at least a decent season (8 wins, pre-bowl game). If they stumble in that stretch, though, and enter the closing kick of games at 5-4 or 4-5 (or worse)... oof. Odds are November is going to be very, very painful. The Northwestern, Maryland, and Indiana games are all games that Iowa could (and arguably should) win, but there's reason to be leery of them, too.
What about you? Which stretch of games for Iowa is the most important in your eyes?