It looks like it's going to be another one of “those years” for Iowa Hawkeye fans in Iowa City. Once again the pundits and prognosticators are placing Iowa, as they always do, in the “wild card” category when discussion turns to which team can win the Big Ten West Division, and attempt to challenge the mighty Buckeyes of Ohio State for the Big Ten crown. Adding insult to injury for the Hawkeye faithful, Iowa is now consistently mentioned beneath Northwestern, to the dismay of head coach Kirk Ferentz, who has failed to find a way to win against Pat Fitzgerald in the recent past.
But there's probably good reason to question the Hawkeyes’ capabilities. While they return an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball, they have what is arguably the most difficult path to Indianapolis, with Big Ten crossover games against Penn State and Ohio State coming at Kinnick Stadium as well as huge road tests coming late in the season in Madison and Lincoln.
The good news for Ferentz and his new-look coaching staff of overachievers is that three of the aforementioned games come in November, when the Hawkeyes have consistently proven to be virtually unstoppable, even in down years. And this team has shown that it is sometimes at its best when everyone else is ruling it out. So can 2017 be another of those come-from-behind Cinderella seasons for Iowa?
For starters, let’s take a look at Iowa’s upcoming regular season schedule, ranking the 12 games from easiest to most difficult:
12. Sept. 16 vs. North Texas
Now in his second season, head coach Seth Littrell enjoyed some initial success with the Mean Green, going 5-8 and playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. But while North Texas may appear headed in the right direction, it's just too early to believe this offense can contend against Iowa’s defense, especially at home.
11. Nov. 18 vs. Purdue
New head coach Jeff Brohm is on a mission to take the “don't” out of Purdue. And while his resume indicates he very could be the man for the job, it's still Purdue playing in Kinnick in mid-November. Advantage Iowa in every category. Maybe next year Jeff.
10. Sept. 2 vs. Wyoming
This is the game that every Hawkeye player, coach, and fan needs to pay close attention to. The elements are there: a heavy underdog from a non-Power Five conference, coming into Kinnick, in a season opener against an Iowa team with plenty of questions on offense. That's been a recipe for success for similar teams in the recent past. But probably not this time around.
9. Sept. 9 at Iowa State
Although it would be a refreshing sign of progress to see the Cyclones play this game toe-to-toe against their in-state rivals, it's probably not all that realistic to expect as Matt Campbell’s rebuilding project enters Year 2. And the Hawkeyes probably aren't ready to surrender the Cy-Hawk Trophy just yet.
8. Oct. 7 vs. Illinois
Although it was a rough debut for Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini, his track record speaks for itself. He’s a well-respected head coach who knows football, and knows how to win. And Illinois is a program investing big in its revenue-generating sports right now to guarantee just that. Can this investment pay off in Iowa City in 2017? Unlikely.
7. Sept. 30 at Michigan State
On paper this edition of the Spartans appears beatable. And the Hawkeyes get them after what will unquestionably be a physical, goal line-to-goal line game against Notre Dame. But Iowa comes into this game after hosting defending Big Ten champion Penn State. Whichever team comes in the least battered from the prior week will likely come out victorious.
6. Oct. 28 vs. Minnesota
Take the coin and give it a toss, because this game will undoubtedly be another squeaker between two very physical rivals in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale. But it's quite possible Iowa will be trying to rebound from the prior week, and if so will have something to prove. It figures to be a close call either way.
5. Oct. 21 at Northwestern
The second half of Iowa’s schedule kicks off in the pesky confines of Ryan Field against a Northwestern squad expected to contend for the Big Ten West Division. If popular favorite Wisconsin trips up at any point, the winner of this game could make it a two-team race. And the Hawkeyes are tired of losing in Evanston.
4. Nov. 24 at Nebraska
Iowa put the big hurt on the Cornhuskers in Iowa City last year, so there’s no doubt the sting of that 40-10 loss linger. Kirk Ferentz is 2-0 against Mike Riley’s Huskers, including a 28-20 win in Lincoln in 2015. This is a fitting season finale given the Hawkeyes’ rough November slate, so you can expect them to be fired up and ready to finish strong in front of a national television audience on Black Friday.
3. Nov. 11 at Wisconsin
This is the game every Hawkeye and every Badger is circling on the calendar right now. The winner likely goes to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. That's been the case for the last three years, and this season looks no different, at least on paper. But no matter which team wins, get ready to hang on to your seats cause it's going be a wild ride.
2. Nov. 4 vs. Ohio State
If Urban Meyer knows what's good for him, he's on the phone to Jim Harbaugh right now asking how you play against the Hawkeyes at home in November and win. The fans at Kinnick have had to wait a few years for this one, and they're hungry for a signature victory over the perpetual national title contender Buckeyes. If Iowa plays the way it did against the Wolverines last November, there's a very good chance they'll get it.
1. Sept. 23 vs. Penn State
Yeah the Nittany Lions are defending conference champs. Yeah this is a Big Ten opener. Yeah Penn State is in the national title discussion. No, it's not a given James Franklin and crew escape Iowa City with a 1-0 Big Ten record. Kirk Ferentz always has his team ready to play Penn State. This one's going to be a close call, but give Iowa the opportunity and the game is the Hawkeyes’ to lose.
— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. He attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and after nearly 25 years in Southern California once again calls the Greater Chicago area home. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.