IOWA CITY, Iowa - One of my standing annual stories tasks me with ranking the games on the Iowa Football regular-season schedule from easiest to hardest.
Please do not be offended.
It's just my opinion.
12. COLORADO STATE, SEPT.25: Year 2 of former Boston College coach Steve Addazio's rebuild in Fort Collins could be bumpy after the Rams played just four games in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19. Maybe they gain some momentum with games against South Dakota State, Vanderbilt and Toledo before coming into Kinnick Stadium, but the odds are against them.
11. KENT STATE, SEPT. 18: The Golden Flashes also are coming off a campaign that saw them play just four contests. They return their starting offensive line, a top receiver, the No. 1 running back and dangerous dual-threat quarterback Dustin Crum. The Hawkeyes are the superior program but this one could be tricky after what should be tough games against Indiana and Iowa State to being the year.
10. ILLINOIS, NOV. 20: During the Hawkeyes' seven-game winning streak in this series, they're averaging 35.6 points. Iowa alum Bret Bielema begins his rebuild with some talent on the roster, including outstanding linebacker Jake Hansen and veteran quarterback Brandon Peters. The defense must make huge strides for the Illini to contend in this league and that will take some time. It's also Senior Day for the Hawkeyes.
9. AT MARYLAND, OCT. 1: I could see flipping Illinois and Maryland in these rankings. It's close. A rare Friday night road game in a different time zone is the tiebreaker for me. The Terrapins boast an impressive level of raw talent based on recruiting rankings but still are trying to climb out from the group of Big Ten bottom feeders. Much of that comes down to poor defense and quarterback play. Maybe Taulia Tagovailoa (Tua's younger brother) behind center changes the fortunes in College Park.
8. PURDUE, OCT. 16: There's not way around it - The Boilermakers are a thorn in Iowa's side since coach Jeff Brohm took over the program. They are 3-1 against the Hawkeyes during that time with only one of those Purdue teams finishing with a winning record. Brohm takes more downfield shots against Phil Parker's defense than most opponents and it pays off because of future pros at receiver. Iowa will need to keep David Bell from torching it again this year if it hopes for a homecoming victory.
7. AT NEBRASKA, NOV. 26: I'm sure placing the Huskers here will elicit some sideways reaction. And I could see it being laughable at the end of the season. That said, I still need to witness them matching up with the best from the West in the trenches. At this point in Scott Frost's coaching run, they should be able to do that if he is the right man for the job. He's 6-11 against the Division, including 2-9 against Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin. He's still searching for his first victory against the Hawkeyes and Badgers.
6. MINNESOTA, NOV. 13: Gopher coach P.J. Fleck would love nothing more than to leave all of his timeouts in Iowa City and take Floyd back to Minneapolis. The high-energy, tight-pants wearing, boat-rowing skipper is 0-4 against Iowa, including a 35-7 beatdown in the Twin Cities last season. Minnesota features a veteran quarterback in Tanner Morgan, the league's most accomplished running back in Mo Ibrahim and four starters back on the offensive line. Its fate will be determined by a defense that will be replacing three of four starters on the line.
5. AT NORTHWESTERN, NOV. 6: I'm aware that this ranking may end making me look foolish after the season. It won't be the first time. The Wildcats usually are tough to pin down and this year is no different. They have another grad transfer at quarterback in Ryan Hilinski, who started as a freshman for South Carolina in '19. Gone are menacing linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher along with longtime coordinator Mike Hankwitz, leaving doubt on defense. Pat Fitzgerald has a claim as the best coach in the Big Ten and it would be foolish to underestimate his outfit, however.
4. INDIANA, SEPT. 4: The Hoosiers kick off the season ranked and looking to build off of their emergence from being a basketball school in '20. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a handful with his dual-threat ability but this will be his first contest since an ACL tear ended his campaign last fall. Indiana now has a dangerous defense to go with its potent offense, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 19th nationally in points allowed per game (20.2) in '20. It brings back four starting offensive linemen, one of the conference's top tight ends in Peyton Hendershot and a proven deep threat in Ty Fryfogle.
3. PENN STATE, OCT. 9: Maybe Indiana should be ranked ahead of Penn State here, but I'll ride with the Nittany Lions history of success and elite recruiting ahead of Hoosiers' breakout season. PSU needs the '19 version of quarterback Sean Clifford, who threw 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions during an 11-2 season, and not the guy who led the Big Ten with nine picks in nine games last fall. He'll have one of the league's best receivers in Jahan Dotson at his disposal and a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich. The Lions are replacing five starters in their front seven on defense.
2. AT WISCONSIN, OCT. 30: We'll see if the Hawkeyes have turned the tide in this series after ending a four-game skid with a 28-7 win last season at Kinnick. The Badgers still own a 7-2 mark against their rivals to the south in the last nine meetings and will be out for revenge with a more complete lineup than the one we saw ravaged by COVID-19 in '20. Second-year starting quarterback Graham Mertz welcomes back senior receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor along with veteran tight end Jake Ferguson. Wisconsin brings back eight starters on defense led by the productive inside linebacker duo of Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.
1. AT IOWA STATE, SEPT. 11: The hype is heavy in Ames with the Cyclones returning plenty of firepower in a program that went 9-3, playing in the Big 12 title game and downed Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl in '20. Running back Breece Hall is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate if the voters stop obsessing over quarterbacks. And ISU features one of the best at that position in Brock Purdy. In all, 19 of 22 starters return for the Clones. The pressure is on for coach Matt Campbell to knock off his cross-state rival for the first time with the best team he's had in six seasons. ISU has a distinct advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball against the Hawkeyes. Hopefully the weather improves over what it was like at Jack Trice Stadium two years ago.