The Hawkeyes will need to make the most of a Big Ten-friendly home slate this fall
The Big Ten West Division is starting to get pretty interesting, and the Iowa Hawkeyes sit right in the thick of things once again. Wisconsin has reigned supreme in the division the last couple of years, but Iowa is not far removed from an appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game. Can this year's Hawkeyes manage to make a return trip to Indianapolis?
There will certainly be some difficult spots, but Iowa also has a handful of key home games this fall, including ones against Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska.
Here is how the games rank against each other, from the easiest games on the schedule up to the toughest.
12. Sept. 15 vs. Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa scored an upset of Iowa State in 2016 and gave Iowa a good run in '14. This should be an easy win for Iowa, but you just never know.
11. Sept. 1 vs. Northern Illinois
The Huskies are looking for a second straight win over a Big Ten team in regular season play after upsetting Nebraska last year. NIU also beat Iowa in 2013, but Jordan Lynch isn't here to cause trouble for the Hawkeyes this time around.
10. Nov. 17 at Illinois
In mid-November, Iowa plays at Illinois. The Illini could be a dead team walking at that point, which makes this potentially the easiest game in conference play for Iowa at first glance. Iowa has won the last four meetings with three double-digit wins of at least 16 points.
9. Oct. 20 vs. Maryland
After playing two games on the road, Iowa will return home for the first game in nearly a month to host Maryland. The Terrapins have really struggled on the road since joining the Big Ten. Maryland is 1-4 on the road against Big Ten West teams since joining the conference, including a loss at Iowa in 2015.
8. Oct. 13 at Indiana
Indiana could be in for a rough season this fall, and a home game against Iowa is a tough matchup for the Hoosiers. Indiana will be coming off a road game at Ohio State and will host Penn State the following week. Iowa is hardly a team you want to play in between those games.
7. Oct. 6 at Minnesota
Both teams get a bye week to prepare for this game. Iowa may still have the upper hand on a Gophers program looking to rebuild the depth of the team, but playing on the road against P.J. Fleck and company looking for a respectable win after a bye could be dangerous.
6. Nov. 3 at Purdue
Purdue took many by surprise last season, including Iowa. The Boilermakers stunned Iowa on the road last fall, 24-15. Will Iowa return the favor, or will Purdue score back-to-back wins in consecutive seasons the series for the first time since their 20-game winning streak from 1961-80?
5. Sept. 8 vs. Iowa State
After last year's exhilarating victory to extend the winning streak in the rivalry to three, who knows what to expect next? Iowa State made some waves last season with wins over Oklahoma and TCU and looks to send the message that last year was no fluke. Getting revenge on the rival Hawkeyes would be a good way to start that initiative.
4. Nov. 23 vs. Nebraska
The last game of the season could potentially be a challenge for Iowa. But that is under the assumption Scott Frost transforms the Nebraska program fairly quickly. This game could easily be bumped down the pecking order if that takes longer to achieve in Lincoln, but for now well leave it nestled right here with the expectation Nebraska is improved this season.
3. Nov. 10 vs. Northwestern
The Wildcats have won the last two meetings with Iowa. A third could be pivotal to the Big Ten West outlook in November. Northwestern still poses a viable threat in the division, as Iowa cannot afford to make mistakes after losing the last two games in the series by one touchdown each.
2. Sept. 22 vs. Wisconsin
Iowa's first Big Ten contest is a big one. It could even help decide the fate of the division before reaching October. Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium riding a two-game winning streak in the series and having won five of the last six meetings. Last year was embarrassing for the Hawkeyes as well, so revenge will be on their mind. Tough defense and a power running game make Wisconsin tough to beat, even for Iowa playing at home. But if this game gets slotted for prime time, could there be some magic in the air?
1. Oct. 27 at Penn State
If Wisconsin presents the biggest challenge at home for Iowa, then a late October road trip to Penn State is easily the toughest road test for Iowa this season. Iowa nearly pulled the upset of No. 2 Penn State last season but a last-second touchdown gave Penn State the game in dramatic fashion. After holding the edge on PSU for the first decade of the 21st century, Penn State has now won four straight meetings to regain control. Iowa's last trip to Happy Valley resulted in a 41-14 demolishing in 2016. This one should be closer, but leaving with a win could prove to be extremely difficult.
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.