Iowa football: Best-case, worst-case scenarios for 2021
It’s Iowa’s turn to win the Big Ten West. Unfortunately, they don’t hand out championships that way.
2020 was an odd time. But it’s 2021 and the Hawkeyes have everything ahead of them. Why not look at all of the possibilities, good and bad? For example, the good: Iowa’s on a 6-game winning streak. The bad? They started 0-2 last season and the first 2 might be even tougher this year.
Best: Playoff and Heisman talk
If the plan comes together, it’s realistic that the Hawkeyes could be 5-0 heading into a Penn State night game at Kinnick. Indiana is a tough opener, but Kirk Ferentz teams have historically handled the Hoosiers at home, averaging 42 points in their 6 wins by an average of more than 18. This isn’t that Indiana, critics will say. The same is being said about Iowa State, owners of a 5-game losing streak to Iowa. But until these teams that spent 2020 in the top 10 actually prove it, let’s roll with tried-and-true Iowa.
An upset of Penn State — Kinnick after Dark is way overdue for delivery of a big Nittany Lions L — and the hype will hit overdrive. Playoff talk quiets as the second half of the schedule is unforgiving, but Heisman hype builds around Tyler Goodson with every highlight. (Sorry, Tory Taylor. This campaign is legit.)
A showdown with Wisconsin secures the West and a surprise team awaits in the Big Ten Football Championship Game (a rematch with a one-loss Indiana? Michigan making their first appearance in Indy?) with a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. Roll the dice, the Hawks are just happy to be here.
Best: Keep all 4 rivalry trophies
The Hawkeyes finally added the Heartland Trophy to their collection after hoarding the other three since 2015. Although the Iowa State game has no impact on anything other than national title hopes for Iowa (see 2002), beating Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin sets the table for a successful Big Ten West campaign. If the Hawks handle their business against their rivals, the special season fans have been waiting for can happen. The Badgers are often the key, so a win against them could seal it this time, even if it didn’t last year.
Best: Win the division with ‘no likely losses’
It’s often the case with Iowa that there’s not much margin for error. So seeing ESPN’s Bill Connelly and his SP+ list Iowa as having “no likely losses” is jarring, to say the least. This is a team that plays games tight and relies on rushing and defense. Of course, a closer look shows some of those win prediction percentages only in the high 30s (at Wisconsin, at Iowa State), but since we’re leaning on the side of optimism here, the trademark bad loss when none are likely means only one — and a West title.
Is it a step too far to say Iowa can win the whole B1G? No. After all, Ohio State has a 31-point deficit to erase since the last time they played the Hawkeyes. Insert winking emoji here, right? Of course, that’s assuming the Buckeyes get to Indy. And today, we’re not. When Iowa shows up, Ohio State hasn’t so far.
Worst: An 0-2 start
If Spencer Petras regresses and starts like he did last season, the Hawkeyes could find themselves in another 0-2 hole. Kirk Ferentz will stick with him — he’s loyal that way. It doesn’t matter, if this becomes the rare Iowa offensive line that can’t protect the quarterback. Meanwhile, let’s say the reconfigured defensive front can’t find the opponent’s backfield and that 25-points-or-less streak falls in Week 1. On top of all that, Brian Ferentz can’t find creative ways to feature Tyler Goodson, and it all falls apart when …
Worst: Goodson goes down
It’s not that Iowa doesn’t have other weapons, but with defenses keying on Tyler Goodson, it will free up the other playmakers. If the AIRBHG returns from his heavenly slumber (it’s Iowa), this would be the worst time to do it and the worst player to do it to.
Worst: Playing down to competition
High expectations and Iowa results on the field don’t often line up — and the Hawkeyes have a few lofty ones this year. Set aside the tough front end of the schedule and the final 7 games of 2021 mirror the final 7 of 2019. Iowa was 5-2 in those games two years ago, with losses to Penn State by 5 and at Wisconsin by 2. It’s a stretch full of rivalries and road games, so … more minefield than speed bump.
The Hawkeyes avoided a bad loss in 2019, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Purdue and Northwestern are not gimme games, as 2020 and a lot of recent Hawks history has shown. The bad place would find Iowa losing to a depleted Northwestern. The Wildcats have won 4 of the past 5 and Kirk Ferentz is 6-9 against Pat Fitzgerald. The Boilermakers still have David Bell and a history of explosive second halves vs. Iowa under Jeff Brohm, who is 3-1 in their last four matchups.
So if we’re uncharacteristically generous in the worst-case space and say Iowa splits those two, what kind of season are we talking? A 3-game losing streak like 2014 ended? A 6-game skid like 2012 finished? The answer is probably somewhere in between, like 2017.
If the Hawkeyes lose 3 out of their first 4 Big Ten games, mix in a big upset win (remember 55-24? That team was 2-3 in the B1G at the time), add that inevitable bad loss, then suddenly a team that had division title aspirations needs a blah bowl to decide 7-6 or 8-5.