If the Iowa Hawkeyes are going to make a run to the Big Ten West Division crown in 2020, they will have a difficult road ahead of them. Not only does Iowa have to face one of last year's top teams on the rise in the Big Ten on the road this season, but the Hawkeyes draw the unfortunate back-to-back road schedule against, arguably, the top two teams in the entire conference.
Yes, Iowa's path to a Big Ten West title is not particularly easy. Road games against Minnesota, Ohio State, and Penn State figure to be matchups against top-20 teams (with the latter two potentially starting the season in the top five or six). Iowa also has other challenges in the division with perennial West contender Wisconsin along with potentially improving Illinois, Nebraska, and Purdue.
To add to the degree of difficulty, two of what were expected to be Iowa's easiest games are no longer on the docket following the Big Ten's decision on July 9 to proceed with conference-only schedules for fall sports, including football. That means the Hawkeyes won't be facing FCS Northern Iowa for their opener or Northern Illinois on Sept. 26, nor will they get a chance to extend their winning streak against in-state rival Iowa State to six.
So which games left on the slate are the most difficult for this year's Iowa squad, and which ones should be a bit easier to manage? Following is a ranking of Iowa's Big Ten-only schedule (which is subject to change) for this fall, starting with the easier games and working our way up.
9. Oct. 3 vs. Michigan State
Iowa has run into some bad luck against the Spartans in recent meetings, having lost four of the last five games in the series dating back to 2011. But Michigan State could be vulnerable this year when they head to Kinnick Stadium in early October. This should be a win for the Hawkeyes.
8. Oct. 24 vs. Northwestern
Iowa snapped a losing streak to those pesky Wildcats last season with a 20-0 victory in Evanston. Iowa's first home win against Northwestern since 2014 is likely to come this season, but if Northwestern is healthy, then they should remain a tough out for the Hawkeyes.
7. Nov. 21 at Purdue
Purdue may have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Rondale Moore, and he will be a major factor when the Boilermakers host Iowa in late November. Purdue can be a dangerous team late in the year, and Iowa could be in for a tough one.
6. Nov. 7 at Illinois
If the Fighting Illini can carry over some of the momentum they established in the second half of last season, then Iowa could have their hands full. Head coach Lovie Smith has reason to feel good about his team's offense, although Iowa handled it well last November.
5. Nov. 14 vs. Nebraska
Iowa and Nebraska square off earlier this season instead of over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Nebraska also is hitting the road after back-to-back games against Ohio State and Penn State (a theme we will revisit shortly), so the Cornhuskers are not exactly coming off some easy contests. If the Huskers continue to grow and quarterback Adrian Martinez blossoms in his junior year, Nebraska could be dangerous.
4. Nov. 28 vs. Wisconsin
The team to beat in the Big Ten West could be Wisconsin. Fortunately, Iowa will get a chance to take down the Badgers at home this season, and the division title could very well be on the line for one or both teams. But beating the Badgers has proven difficult lately, with Wisconsin taking four straight wins in the series, and seven of the last eight.
3. Sept. 18 at Minnesota
If not Wisconsin, then the team to beat in the Big Ten West could be P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota. The Golden Gophers made some serious noise in the Big Ten last season before stumbling a bit down the stretch, including a loss to the Hawkeyes. But Minnesota's offense should remain one of the most competent in the division and the Big Ten. And this time, Iowa has to travel to Minnesota. They better bring their own oars.
2. Oct. 17 at Penn State
The two toughest games of the season for Iowa will be played in back-to-back weeks. They will also both be on the road. The second of those games will be the longest road trip of the season when Iowa heads to Happy Valley to face Penn State. The days of terrorizing the Nittany Lions are a fading memory now with Penn State winning the last six games in the series, and James Franklin's team figures to be one of the top teams in the Big Ten once again this season.
1. Oct. 10 at Ohio State
Having to make a road trip to Penn State is difficult enough, but the game preceding that is the biggest challenge of the year for Iowa. Iowa heads to Columbus to take on Ohio State, the runaway preseason favorite and among the top College Football Playoff contenders. Ohio State has not lost to Iowa in The Shoe since 1991. Maybe Iowa is due, but it would be a Big Ten-changing and playoff-changing result if the Hawkeyes are to pull it off on the road.
Note: Schedule subject to change. Prior to the Big Ten's decision to go with a conference-only schedule, Iowa's scheduled opener with Northern Iowa (Sept. 5) would have ranked last (12th) on this list. The Hawkeyes' Sept. 26 home date with Northern Illinois would have been next (11th) and the rivalry game at home against Iowa State would have checked in at No. 5.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB, and Like him on Facebook.