Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Iowa. We’ll stay with the B1G West all week.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a B1G team playing as well as Iowa at the end of 2020. In a different year — one not plagued by COVID and one with a 12-team College Football Playoff — perhaps Iowa would’ve been rewarded for its strong finish.

But the harsh reality of last season was that the Hawkeyes didn’t have much to show for an admirable comeback. After 2 losses by a combined 5 points to open the season, the Hawkeyes won their final 6 games, with 5 of them coming by 14 or more points and 4 by 20 or more. Because of COVID, Iowa didn’t get to play a final game against Michigan or against Missouri in the Music City Bowl.

The Hawkeyes finished the season with the 10th best point differential in college football (and 5th best among Power 5 teams) — ahead of CFP teams Ohio State and Notre Dame. A great season in Iowa City lacked a proper payoff.

Always the bridesmaid, but never the bride?

Iowa has finished in the top 3 of the Big Ten West in 5 straight seasons without a division title to show for it. The Hawkeyes seem to always be good, but not great. Not since 2015, anyway. What gives?

For one, Wisconsin has been just a little better. Since 2015, the Badgers have 56 Big Ten wins to Iowa’s 53. Plus, everything has just seemed to line up for Northwestern in 2 of the last 3 seasons to win the West.

Iowa is kind of like Penn State in that they are in that second tier (along with Wisconsin) of Big Ten teams behind Ohio State, but the ball never seems to bounce their way, so to speak. To lose 2 games like that last season and then win out is the latest example. The year before that, Iowa lost to Michigan by 7, Penn State by 5 and Wisconsin by 2 and finished 10-3.

Iowa is knocking on the door every year, and that’s all you can ask for. Sooner or later, the Hawkeyes will knock it down.

Is Spencer Petras the guy?

The key question for 2021 is whether Spencer Petras is the answer at QB. Petras had a rough go of it for most of last season. It must’ve been hard for a lot of 1st-year starters to miss out on practice time due to COVID (plus the Big Ten’s indecision on the season). Petras won’t have that excuse in 2021.

I don’t think it’s fair to blame an individual, but so much of winning football games comes down to whether the QB makes plays. Petras, the No. 19 pro-style QB in the 2018 class, was 9th in the Big Ten in yards per attempt and 10th in QB rating.

But Iowa didn’t always put him in the best position to succeed either. I’ll never understand how Iowa had a new starting QB average 45 passing attempts in his first 2 games. Not surprisingly, both were losses. The real head-scratcher was how Petras managed 51 pass attempts in a game in which Iowa led Northwestern 17-0 early on. The coaching staff seemed to figure it out afterward, as Petras never threw the ball more than 30 times during the season-ending 6-game winning streak.

Maybe Petras is capable of taking on more this season, but Iowa would’ve been better served building him up slowly.

Phil Parker’s defense will once again be outstanding

I’m not sure how good Iowa will be offensively. I know the Hawkeyes will be able to run the ball with Tyler Goodson and a very good offensive line. But the passing attack is a major question mark, so scoring points may be, too.

The Iowa defense, though, appears to be ready once again to be one of the country’s best. The Hawkeyes led the country in yards per play allowed last season and have been in the the top 14 nationally in 3 straight years. Jack Campbell is ready for a huge season at middle linebacker after battling mono last season, plus guys like defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, defensive backs Riley Moss and Jack Koerner and linebacker Seth Benson are among the best in the conference at their respective positions.

The Hawkeyes are never flashy, but defensive coordinator Phil Parker gets results.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Indiana (W)

What a way to open the season. There are 5 ranked B1G teams in the preseason poll, and 4 of them are playing each other. With how good Indiana was to start last season and how slow Iowa was to start last season, it’s tempting to pick the Hoosiers. But at home, Iowa should win. I think to beat this terrific Iowa defense, you can’t be one-dimensional, and too often, Indiana was last season. It was held to 41 rushing yards against Penn State and -1 against Ohio State. Iowa’s defense will win this one for the Hawkeyes as the offense tries to find its footing.

Week 2: at Iowa State (L)

This will be one of the most anticipated games in this annual rivalry, with the Cyclones starting the season at No. 7 and with a very real chance at making the College Football Playoff. Here’s the difference between Iowa State and Indiana: The Cyclones have a star at QB (Brock Purdy) and at RB (Breece Hall). That balance is the only way to beat an Iowa defense that led the country in yards allowed per play.

Week 3: vs. Kent State (W)

There won’t be any questions on the legitimacy of Iowa’s defense after this tough 3-game stretch to open the season, as Dustin Crum will make it 3 straight very good opposing QBs for the Hawkeyes to start the season. While the Golden Flashes scored 41 or more in 3 of their 4 games last season, they didn’t face a defense like Iowa’s.

Week 4: vs. Colorado State (W)
This will be a nice little break for Iowa after 2 tough games to start, and the hope is that Spencer Petras will find his footing before Big Ten play kicks back up again.

Week 5: at Maryland (W)

It’s not hard to imagine Tyler Goodson running wild in a game like this. Maryland is strong in the secondary but weak up front.

Week 6: vs. Penn State (W)

The Hawkeyes will need Petras to be at his best, as Penn State is a well-rounded team that is much better than it showed last season. Still, the Hawkeyes have to be feeling confident after routing the Nittany Lions 41-21 at Beaver Stadium last season. The 3 meetings before that, though, were all 1-possession games, and I suspect this one will be, too.

Week 7: vs. Purdue (W)

The last 3 meetings between these programs have been decided by a total of 12 points. Even with Purdue coming off a bye, give me the Hawkeyes in another close one.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at Wisconsin (L)

This is the unofficial West championship game between the 2 programs you can pencil in as contenders virtually every season. After its bye week, Iowa should be well-rested … but I’m still taking Wisconsin. To me, it comes down to homefield advantage and QB advantage. Graham Mertz is a playmaker, and we haven’t seen that same ability from Petras just yet.

Week 10: at Northwestern (L)

I’m anticipating a step back from the Wildcats, who may have some puzzling losses but will still be able to surprise someone thanks to the strong culture. And for whatever reason, Northwestern has Iowa’s number with 4 wins in their last 5 meetings.

Week 11: vs. Minnesota (W)

Iowa has dominated this series recently with 6 straight wins, and it will come down to whether the Golden Gophers have improved against the run, because Goodson and that Iowa offensive line are no joke. Last season was a disaster, with Iowa needing to only attempt 18 passes in the lopsided win.

Week 12: vs. Illinois (W)

Illinois put a scare into Iowa last year, and that was great for the Hawkeyes, because it put Petras in the position where he had to go out and lead a comeback. And to his credit, he did, with 3 TD passes and 220 yards. That’s important experience for this season. But yeah, Iowa is going to beat Illinois for the 13th time in the last 14 meetings.

Week 13: at Nebraska (W)

One of these years, Nebraska is going to beat Iowa again. But I think Iowa makes it 7 straight in a game now annually played on Black Friday. It has a little bit of an Ohio State/Michigan feel to it in that Iowa really cares about beating Nebraska in the same way that Ohio State really cares about beating Michigan. Iowa and Ohio State, of course, are at a much better place than Nebraska and Michigan, which is why these rivalries have been lopsided lately. Nebraska has made a few poor attempts at trolling Iowa on social media, and I think the Hawkeyes will be ready to go.

2021 projection: 9-3, 2nd in B1G West

Surprise, surprise: Iowa is going to finish in the AP Top 25 for a fourth straight season. Iowa fans may be feeling like they should’ve broken through and won the West more than just once in 7 years since the Hawkeyes always seem to be in contention, but there are so many programs that would gladly trade places with Iowa.

Losing to Iowa State will hurt, as will losing to Wisconsin. But going 9-3 is something to never take for granted, especially when you look at what Iowa could have coming back in 2022. The Hawkeyes could lose as few as 3 starters next year. This season could be a bridge to that breakthrough Iowa has been waiting for.