Ready or not, the 12-team Playoff is here.

The start of the 12-team Playoff era means that the entire conversation about being in contention will shift. A more inclusive field doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’re about to see more variety with national champs. For this discussion, we’re not focused on who’ll win a national championship; we’re just focused on who’ll play for one.

The goal for this series is to predict the first 12-team Playoff with 100% accuracy. It’s never been done before. I’d like to think I can become the first person in human history to do that.

Every day of this series, I’ll unveil 1 of my 12-team Playoff picks, starting with the No. 12 seed and working all the way down to the No. 1 seed. Remember these parameters with the seeding of the 12-team Playoff:

  • ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC champs get an automatic bid
  • The top-ranked Group of 5 conference champ also gets an automatic bid
  • The 7 remaining teams are selected and receive at-large bids
  • The 4 highest-ranked conference champs are seeded 1-4 with a first-round bye

Need any other clarifications? I think we’re good.

So far, here are the teams I have in the field:

Let’s continue with the No. 10 seed … Iowa.

Why the Playoff path exists

Make your jokes about the Iowa “offense.” Lord knows I’ve made plenty and will probably empty the clip here with this piece. But “the drive for 325,” while it failed miserably for Brian Ferentz in his last season as Iowa’s OC, overshadowed the fact that Iowa won 10 regular-season games. Even in the Big Ten West, that was still a remarkable feat for being that awful on the offensive side of the ball.

Related: Looking to place a bet on the 2024 Heisman Trophy? SDS has you covered with all the latest odds!

So now, Iowa brought in Tim Lester to run the offense. While Lester didn’t exactly take off after PJ Fleck left Western Michigan for Minnesota, his offenses finished in the top 40 in FBS from 2017-21. With Cade McNamara back healthy, that group simply has to be better.

Also working in Iowa’s favor is the fact that it ranks No. 9 in FBS in percentage of returning production with a lineup that’s loaded with experienced upperclassmen (don’t be surprised if it’s running back LeShon Williams who benefits most from the coordinator change). That’s even with the NFL departures of all-everything man Cooper DeJean and all-world punter/icon Tory Taylor. It would’ve been a better offensive line with Kadyn Proctor on board, but you never really worry about the development of the Hawkeyes up front. Offensive scheme is a different issue … and it’s been addressed.

But for all the talk about how Big Ten West teams are going to be in trouble in a division-less Big Ten, look at Iowa’s schedule and tell me how many of those matchups outside of the trip to Ohio State will be an uphill climb.

  • vs. Iowa State (Iowa won 7 of 8 matchups)
  • at Minnesota (Iowa’s 8-year winning streak finally ended in 2023)
  • vs. Washington (new coaching staff, No. 126 in percentage of returning production)
  • at Michigan State (new coaching staff after a 4-win season)
  • vs. Northwestern (won each of the past 3 seasons)
  • vs. Wisconsin (won by multiple scores in the past 2 matchups)
  • at UCLA (new coaching staff with a first-time head coach)
  • at Maryland (7-win regular season in 2023, No. 103 in percentage of returning production)
  • vs. Nebraska (hasn’t played in a bowl game since 2016, Iowa won 8 of the last 9 matchups)

I included the notes in parenthesis not to show that Iowa is destined to win all of those games, but none of those matchups are anywhere near the class of Ohio State. In all likelihood, Iowa isn’t going 11-1 with the lone loss coming to Ohio State. A letdown against Minnesota, Northwestern or Wisconsin could very well be in the cards.

But Iowa could be in a spot to go 10-2 and avoid a potentially lopsided matchup in the Big Ten Championship. If it improves offensively enough to at least flirt with mediocrity, it’ll be seen as a revelation. No longer will the Hawkeyes be the butt of the joke that they were last year.

Call me crazy, but a 10-2 regular season is absolutely in play.

The potential roadblock

It’s obvious, isn’t it? Not having Taylor.

Half joking.

I can’t say just that Iowa’s offense is the potential roadblock because while that’s obvious, again, Kirk Ferentz’s squad had a 10-2 regular season with the second-worst offense in FBS. I do think Iowa’s defense needs more help in the form of some chunk plays on offense. It’s hard to fathom that Iowa had just 33 scrimmage plays of 20 yards in a 14-game season. Even Nebraska, which set offensive football back decades with how it turned the ball over, had 44 plays of 20 yards in just 12 games.

Related: Who will win it all in 2024? SDS has the latest betting odds for who’ll win the next national championship!

I bring that up because while a healthy McNamara and a fired Brian Ferentz will give Iowa a much better shot at that, I can’t help but wonder how many players are even capable of being big-play guys. Last year’s leader in 20-yard catches was tight end Erick All, who had 7 in his limited season before leaving for the NFL. Williams was the only Iowa player who had multiple 40-yard scrimmage plays. A healthy Kaleb Johnson should have a chance to do that as a complement to Williams, but again, it comes back to the pass-catchers. Or rather, the lack of pass-catchers.

It doesn’t feel like a good omen that one of the Hawkeyes’ best passing game weapons, Kaleb Brown, was arrested on an OWI charge in June. The former Ohio State transfer’s availability remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen if Iowa can find a few game-breakers, especially with DeJean’s return game skills not at its disposal.

Odds that they win a Playoff game

Let’s go with 15.4%.

Yes, that’s how many points Iowa averaged last year. No, I’m not that big of a hater. After all, I have Iowa in the Playoff and not Michigan or Penn State, neither of whom are on the Hawkeyes’ regular-season schedule. Give me some credit there.

But the important thing to remember for teams like Iowa that are seeded 9-12 is that they have to travel to face a top-8 team in a true road game. That’s not ideal for an Iowa team with Ferentz’s track record in true road games against top-8 teams in the AP Poll:

  • 2000 at No. 8 Kansas State — L, 27-7
  • 2000 at No. 1 Nebraska — L, 42-13
  • 2002 at No. 8 Michigan — W, 34-9
  • 2003 at No. 8 Ohio State — L, 19-10
  • 2005 at No. 8 Ohio State — L, 31-6
  • 2006 at No. 2 Michigan — L, 20-6
  • 2009 at No. 5 Penn State — W, 21-10
  • 2013 at No. 4 Ohio State — L, 34-24
  • 2017 at No. 6 Wisconsin — L, 38-14
  • 2022 at No. 2 Ohio State — L, 54-10
  • 2023 at No. 7 Penn State — L, 31-0

That’s a 2-9 mark (18.1%) in those games for a coach who has been there for a quarter century. All 9 of those losses were by multiple scores, too. It’s not disrespectful to say a team with a regular season over/under of 7.5 wins would be a significant road underdog in a first-round Playoff matchup.

An offensive facelift won’t instantly erase the issues that could surface against elite competition. That cloud, even in a post-Brian Ferentz world, could still linger.

But getting to play in the first Playoff game in program history — and showing the world that Iowa will survive the loss of Taylor — would be significant.

Predicting the Playoff will continue on Sunday with No. 9 … Ole Miss.