Iowa didn't even show up as a blip on the radar of most national publications entering the 2015 season. And given recent history, that's probably a well-deserved slight. But even as Kirk Ferentz’ name comes up repeatedly when talk turns to coaches on the hot seat, there's a very quiet renewed confidence in this edition of the Hawkeyes, who secretly feel they could be wearing Cinderella's slipper by the time December rolls around.
Given the Hawkeyes’ proven ability to win as underdogs, it'd be hard to count them out with a schedule that goes a long way toward providing them opportunities to break out of the pack and become part of the Big Ten West Division title conversation for the first time since the East-West Division format and conference championship game was introduced.
Can they make it from contention in the West Division race all the way to a date in Indianapolis on Dec. 5? Possibly, but not without some help from their opponents along the way. And there's virtually zero chance the Hawkeyes make the gigantic leap from middle of the Big Ten pack all the way to the College Football Playoff discussion in 2015.
So let's talk about each of those 12 guaranteed games on the Hawkeyes’ schedule and handicap them from easiest to most difficult:
12. Oct. 10 vs. Illinois
The Illini were just plain horrible in 2014, ranking dead last among all Big Ten teams in scoring defense, rushing defense, and total defense and allowing their opponents to score on 90.0 percent of their red zone possessions. This year doesn't look much better for Illinois. And if Iowa's offense is hitting on all cylinders by October, it could be explosive. Expect it to be the Hawkeyes cruising to an easy win on Homecoming and most likely one of their highest scoring offensive performances of the season.
11. Nov. 21 vs. Purdue
To many followers of Big Ten football, the Boilermakers are more commonly known as “Pur-don't.” They haven't done much in recent years to shed that unfortunate nickname either. While they have sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby back under center, they have virtually nothing else to work with from an offense that averaged just 23.8 points per game last season. This might just be the Hawkeyes’ first Big Ten shutout in a very long time.
10. Sept. 26 vs. North Texas
The Mean Green will unveil new uniforms this season, but the issue of a new, winning attitude is still up for debate. They were picked to win Conference USA’s West Division in 2014, but finished at the bottom of the heap instead. Don't expect this to be the year head coach Dan McCarney sees his record against his alma mater get any better. It'll be all Hawkeyes, going away.
9. Sept. 5 vs. Illinois State
The 2014 Missouri Valley Football Conference champs bring a loaded roster for an FCS team, so watch for them to give the Hawkeyes a game for 60 minutes. Just like fellow MVC member Northern Iowa in 2014, this could be decided in the final few minutes with Iowa pulling out yet another season-opening squeaker that on paper should be all Hawks.
8. Sept. 12 at Iowa State
The Cyclones spent the offseason focused on improving fans’ “game-day experience.” If they really want to improve it, they should start by winning more than two games this season. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, one of those victories in 2014 came against the Hawkeyes. Expect Ferentz to turn to the wily skills of fourth-year offensive coordinator Greg Davis and throw some Texas-sized surprises at the Cyclones to avoid back-to-back upsets to their in-state rivals and a team that’s expected to finish near the bottom of the Big 12 this season.
7. Oct. 17 at Northwestern
2014 may have been the year Northwestern returned to the days of “Mildcat” football. Or it could've been just a blip on an otherwise respectable few years for head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his crew. The Hawkeyes simply dismantled the Wildcats en route to a 48-7 victory last season. Given the relative youth and inexperience of this year's edition of the Wildcats, don't look for much improvement against a much more talented group of Hawkeyes.
6. Nov. 7 at Indiana
The Hoosiers couldn't catch many breaks in 2014, especially in conference play, unless you count their lone quality win over eventual SEC East champion Missouri. They did improve tremendously in nearly every statistical category however, setting numerous single-season records on offense. While those improvements have been fairly impressive, the Hawkeyes have won all but one game against the Hoosiers since 2007, and most of those weren't even close. 2015 is unlikely to be the year that changes.
5. Oct. 31 vs. Maryland
Another Big Ten East Division team, the Terrapins were expected to hold court at the bottom of the standings in their first year in the conference. Not so fast they told critics. Maryland's offense tore apart the Hawkeye rushing defense, amassing 212 yards on the ground, while holding Iowa to 116 rushing yards before Iowa resorted to the air regularly in what ended up an old-fashioned 38-31 offensive shoot-out. This season’s game looks primed for a repeat of last year's air show. But give the home-field advantage to the Hawkeyes, in one of the most entertaining offensive displays of the year.
4. Sept. 19 vs. Pittsburgh
Pat Narduzzi is a proven defensive genius, helping put Michigan State on the championship map in his time there. Now he's at Pitt, and comes into his first season with an offense loaded with talent and led by Maxwell, Walker, and Heisman Trophy watch list running back James Conner. The Hawkeyes had to play from behind for most of last year’s meeting, and could find themselves in the same situation again this season.
3. Nov. 14 vs. Minnesota
In 2014 the Gophers leap-frogged Iowa to land in third in the Big Ten West after crushing the Hawkeyes 51-14 in what Hayden Fry used to call “a good ole fashion butt-kickin'!” Jerry Kill has his team thinking like champions since his arrival, and Dinkytown's not looking nearly as dinky any more. But these games have been back-and-forth romps in each direction the last couple of years, and Iowa's got a bone to pick with their neighbors to the north. Iowa could be looking at an 8-2 record after this one.
2. Nov. 27 (Friday) at Nebraska
The importance of this game to both Husker and Hawkeye faithful was evident the second Nebraska entered the Big Ten and immediately supplanted Minnesota as “the rivalry” for Iowa fans. Travel across Western Iowa's rolling cornfields and you're likely to see just as much Red and White as you are Black and Gold. Played on the Friday after Thanksgiving in front of a national television audience, these games have not disappointed. But the winds of change are blowing in both Iowa City and Lincoln, and first-year Nebraska head coach Mike Riley may not care for their direction in 2015. Bring on the Hokey Pokey Hawkeyes, it's Iowa in the upset of the season.
1. Oct. 3 at Wisconsin
Gary Andersen's tenure at Wisconsin was short-lived. One could argue he saw the writing on the wall for the next few years in Madison, and bolted for greener pastures before being handed any blame for a downturn in Badger victory totals. But it's hard to ever rule out these big, athletic, and physical Badger players. Paul Chryst most likely has another Big Ten West Division champ on his hands, but Iowa plays them right to the end with the notoriously rowdy fans in Camp Randall Stadium giving the Badgers the winning edge.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a native Iowan currently living in Los Angeles. A University of Iowa graduate, Boleyn is a Hawkeye fanatic and former contributing writing for The Daily Iowan. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.