As the Big Ten enters its nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener.
ANALYSIS: The presumptive West Division favorite had two weeks that went to form, mauling Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State to open the 2016 slate. Iowa had one weekend that flipped the script: a 23-21 home loss to reigning FCS national champion North Dakota State. More problematic, the Hawkeyes were challenged — actually, they were beaten up — in the trenches against the Bison. That would be considered sacrilege for a typical Kirk Ferentz team. Then again, Iowa has been outrushed 174.3 to 148 yards per game on average in what was supposed to be the easiest part of its schedule. Maybe this isn’t such a typical Ferentz team after all.
KEY GAME: at Minnesota, Oct. 8
Sure, you could argue an Oct. 22 visit from Wisconsin and a Nov. 12 visit from Michigan offer more sizzle. But that was before an FCS team — the Alabama of FCS, mind you — walked into Kinnick Stadium and shot down the Hawkeyes’ College Football Playoff dreams before the season was 4 weeks old. Iowa faithful can be a bit, um, reactionary, but they’re not wrong to be more than a little freaked out that one of the more powerful and respected offensive lines in the conference managed to run the ball for 34 yards, at home, against a double-digit underdog. Everybody is looking for a little reassurance, and the next best chance to allay those fears — internal and external — is during a visit to TCF Bank Stadium in the battle for Floyd of Rosedale. The last time these two met in the Twin Cities, the Gophers lit up the Hawkeyes defense for 51 points.
KEY PLAYER: C.J. Beathard, QB
Since 2013, in the games in which Beathard has played and had at least 1 interception, the Hawkeyes are 4-6. When Beathard isn’t intercepted, Iowa is 17-1. The veteran signal caller suffered from protection breakdowns against the Bison. The Tennessee native’s health is paramount if the Hawkeyes want to complete unfinished business in Indianapolis.
FIRST MATCHUP: at Rutgers (2-1), noon ET Saturday, High Point Solutions Stadium, ESPN2
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Bison stunner was the wake-up call a veteran roster needed before league play starts. The Hawkeyes still host every West contender except Minnesota. Thanks to early blowouts of Rutgers and Northwestern, Iowa gets its run-game mojo back en route to a second consecutive division crown.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Tailback Akrum Wadley isn’t fine, the offensive line isn’t as airtight as we thought and Beathard plays the rest of the season with happy feet. Old demons recur as the Hawkeyes drop an absolute stunner they shouldn’t (at Purdue? at Illinois?), the West is lost to Nebraska or Wisconsin, and Ferentz goes from pariah to savior to pariah again in the span of about 25 months.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: The wagons get circled and quickly. It’s still hard to pencil in more than three league losses, even though that trip to the Twin Cities won’t be a cakewalk — and neither are scrums with the Badgers, Wolverines and Cornhuskers down the line. There’s a fine line between first and third in the West this fall, but assuming Beathard is upright, the Black Friday showdown against the Blackshirts should be for the division title.