The Iowa Hawkeyes had what can only be described as a "dream" regular season in 2015. Like many successful teams, the road was paved with plenty of haters and doubters along the way. Kirk Ferentz's squad was up to the challenge through 12 games, besting all comers and earning a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
It was there — in the postseason — where the dream turned into a nightmare. A crushing, last-minute loss to Michigan State was followed by a total embarrassment in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. The doubters cheered, while the Hawkeyes and their fans tried to focus on the positives that happened in 2015.
The good news is that the core of Iowa players responsible for those positives returns for the 2016 season. The bad news is that the new season's schedule includes a couple of tricky road trips, along with dates against an FCS dynasty and a national title contender. Those hurdles stand in the way of a second consecutive perfect regular season for the Hawkeyes.
Will Iowa be up to the challenge?
Here is how Iowa's 2016 schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest games to the most challenging matchups.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Miami (Ohio)
The Redhawks were only able to muster three wins last season. One of those was against an FCS opponent and another was against a school giving serious thought to shutting down its football program. Given that this will be the season opener and the home crowd will be fired up, I don't expect a talented Hawkeye roster to have any problems pushing around a lower-tier MAC squad.
11. Sept. 24 at Rutgers
The only real threat the Scarlet Knights have on offense is receiver Janarion Grant. He'll likely be neutralized by cornerbacks Greg Maybin and Desmond King all day. On the other side of the ball, first-year head Coach Chris Ash doesn't have the horses to slow down Iowa's clock-killing rushing attack. This should be a sound, methodical win for Iowa.
10. Oct. 15 at Purdue
It'll be mid-season and the Hawkeyes should be firing on all cylinders. Meanwhile, Purdue will be leaning heavily on running back Markell Jones to carry the offense. Jones will struggle to gain yards consistently against one of the better defensive lines in the conference — if not the country. Defensively, just like Rutgers, the Boilermakers don't have the personnel to slow Iowa down.
9. Nov. 19 at Illinois
Illini running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a stud, but he can't beat Iowa alone. Quarterback Wes Lunt will need to have some success through the air, and that's not likely to happen with what's going on in Iowa's secondary. The only thing working against Iowa in this game is the simplicity of the offense. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith and coordinator Hardy Nickerson are elite defensive minds that could cause Iowa some issues. In the end, however, talent should win out, tipping the scales in Iowa's favor.
8. Sept. 10 vs. Iowa State
On paper, this shouldn't be a contest. As Hawkeye fans are all too aware, however, it's almost always an anxiety-filled affair. This season comes with the added twist of facing a coach (Matt Campbell) and a scheme that Kirk Ferentz hasn't seen or scouted regularly. The Hawkeyes need to just play their game, prevent big plays and get the win. As always it'll be easier said than done.
7. Oct. 8 at Minnesota
The annual battle for the Floyd of Rosedale trophy should be an interesting matchup — just as it normally is. Jerry Kill built and left behind a solid system in Minnesota. The Gophers have a couple of home-run hitters on offense, namely running back Shannon Brooks. Additionally, Mitch Leidner returns under center for what seems like his ninth season. This will be arguably the most disciplined opponent Iowa faces.
6. Oct. 1 vs. Northwestern
To borrow a phrase from the Forrest Gump universe, Northwestern is pretty much a box of chocolates — "you never know what you're gonna get." In 2016, what you get is a sophomore quarterback coming off a freshman season that most players dream of. Standing behind him is one of the best running backs in the country. On the sidelines is one of the best motivators and game day coaches there is. This one will be fun.
5. Nov. 25 vs. Nebraska
As always lately, this one has the potential to be the deciding game for a trip to Indianapolis. The Cornhuskers have elite talent scattered all over the field on both sides of the ball. They also have a couple of glaring weaknesses that Iowa must attack in order to exploit and defeat their border rival. The outcome of this game depends on whether or not Iowa can do that.
4. Sept. 17 vs. North Dakota State
Forget the FCS label for just a moment. Outside of UConn women's basketball, the North Dakota State football team is the most dominant entity in American sport over the last decade. Quarterback Easton Stick — who went 8-0 while replacing the guy who would eventually be the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft — could start for half of the teams in the Big Ten. The Bison's best receiver could start for every team in the Big Ten. They have one of the best middle linebackers in all of college football — at any level. And they have a culture of winning. Oh, and don't look now, but this game happens a week after the Iowa State game.
3. Nov. 5 at Penn State
This will be under the lights in Happy Valley, which is scary enough on its own. Christian Hackenberg is gone, but elite players at the running back and wide receiver positions remain. We've seen lesser Penn State teams beat better teams than what Iowa will be in 2016 in this setting.
2. Oct. 22 vs. Wisconsin
The Badgers haven't changed under Paul Chryst. They are going to run the ball with an elite back and a solid offensive line. They are going to play stingy defense. They are going to match Iowa blow-for-blow. This game was decided by four points and a fumble a season ago. Don't expect this matchup to be much different.
1. Nov. 12 vs. Michigan
There is a real good chance that this will be the first of two meetings between these teams within a span of three weeks. This matchup will be like looking in a mirror for the Hawkeyes. They both play similar styles and have similar talent on both sides of the ball. Both are good enough to get to and threaten to win the College Football Playoff. The two clear advantages in this particular game will belong to Iowa. Quarterback C.J. Beathard and the home crowd in Iowa City will both need to show up and bring their A-games for the Hawkeyes to come away with a victory.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.