With the season opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field just eight days away, Voice of the Hawkeyes began a series on Friday examining eight reasons why Iowa will - or will not - win the B1G in 2012. Be sure to stay tuned, as we will be revealing one reason every day leading up to the opener.
REASON NUMBER THREE WHY IOWA WILL - OR WILL NOT - WIN THE B1G IN 2012: THE SCHEDULE
Will: The first thing that sticks out about Iowa's 2012 schedule is that Iowa State is the only BCS opponent in the nonconference portion of the schedule, and that game is at Kinnick. With that in mind, a 4-0 start to the season is realistic. Additionally, the first B1G game is at home against Minnesota. While the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes last year, it would be difficult for Iowa to swallow another loss against Minnesota.
Based on the relatively easy first five games on the schedule, it is very possible that this Hawkeye team could be 5-0 entering the bye week, and we still may have no idea how good Iowa really is. With such a young team and a number of changes among the coaching staff, this portion of the schedule will give the Hawkeyes a chance to let several different position battles play themselves out, and slowly build some momentum and confidence heading into the final seven games, which will be much more difficult.
By the time the Hawkeyes arrive in East Lansing for Game 6, James Vandenberg will have had five games to become comfortable with the new offensive scheme employed by Greg Davis. An offensive line that is trying to replace its three best players from a year ago while working with a new position coach will have had five games to build some chemistry. The running back situation will have had five games to sort itself out. Keenan Davis will have had five games to prove that he can be a legitimate number one receiver. And defensively, the young and inexperienced defensive line will have had five games for some players to prove that they can be the next great Hawkeye defensive lineman.
In addition to the very winnable first five games on the schedule, Iowa once again will not play Wisconsin, Ohio State or Illinois this season. While the same was true last year, the Buckeyes haven't exactly made a habit out of turning in consecutive 6-6 regular seasons. As always, the Badgers would definitely make for a formidable opponent, and Illinois appears to be headed in the right direction under its new coaching staff.
Will not: The first issue that popped in my mind when I saw Iowa's 2012 schedule was whether or not the Hawkeyes would be sufficiently battle-tested once that Michigan State game rolls around. While it is great to pile up wins, there is also something to be said for being challenged early in the season. Neither the Cyclones nor the Gophers figure to be pushovers, but both games are at home, and the Hawkeyes face much tougher opponents later in the year. Michigan State will be hands down the best team Iowa has faced up to that point, so the Hawkeyes will need to be playing their best football.
The schedule doesn't let up after that Michigan State game, as Penn State comes to Kinnick the following week. While it is well-documented how much the Nittany Lions have gone through as a program over the past 10 months, they still have enough talent, toughness and heart to be a tough out on a week-to-week basis this season. Again, if the Hawkeyes aren't playing their best football, that will be a difficult game to win. And, especially for a young team, it is not easy to play at a high level two weeks in a row.
No matter what transpires in East Lansing or against Penn State, the Hawkeyes still won't be out of the woods, as a trip to Northwestern follows. Iowa has struggled with the Wildcats in recent years, and will need to be playing well in order to win on the road in Evanston. On paper, most Iowa teams should beat most Northwestern teams, but that obviously hasn't always held to be true. And following two games that may amount to streetfights, how much will the Hawkeyes have left in the tank?
Lastly, the final two games of the regular season will be another difficult stretch. If Iowa is still in the hunt for a Legends Division crown, the contests at Michigan and at home against Nebraska will both be must-wins. Iowa beat Michigan in a thriller at Kinnick in 2011, but this year's game will be at the Big House. The Hawkeyes simply did not play well on the Friday after Thanksgiving when Nebraska handled them last year. While this year's game is in Iowa City, will that be enough to close the gap that was evident on that day?