Let's talk about Iowa's 2018 and perceived difficulty. On its face, this is an easier-looking schedule than what Iowa had last year; that's mainly a function of Iowa trading games against Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan State for games against Penn State, Maryland, and Indiana and also facing their most significant Big Ten West rivals (Wisconsin and Northwestern; maybe Nebraska as well) at home instead of on the road. But there are still challenges for Iowa to overcome on this year's slate, so let's rank the 12 opponents Iowa's set to face in 2018 in terms of (perceived) difficulty.
1) Wisconsin (9/22; home)
2) Penn State (10/27; away)
You could probably make these 1a and 1b if you preferred; Wisconsin and Penn State look like far and away the stiffest tests on Iowa's 2018 schedule. Wisconsin is the heavy favorite to repeat as the Big Ten West champion for a third-straight year and a fixture in the Top 10 in basically every preseason poll. Their heavy favorite status stems from the fact that they went 13-1 last year (losing only to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game) and return 13 starters. Most notably, they're set to return 9 of 11 starters on offense, including their entire offensive line (!) and RB Jonathan Taylor, who was a second-team All-American last year as a freshman. Wisco's OL was beastly last year; they figure to be even bigger and badder with another year of experience under their belts. Wisconsin has also had Iowa's number recently -- they've taken home the Heartland Trophy in four of the last five seasons; Iowa's lone win was a 10-6 defensive slobberknocker in 2015.
Like Wisconsin, Penn State has also had Iowa's number lately. While Kirk Ferentz had a good track record against the JoePa-led Penn State squads, he's lost four in a row to PSU since JoePa's departure -- and aside from last year's 21-19 final seconds nailbiter, the games haven't been all that close. Penn State is another team picked in the Top 15 in the preseason polls and they're coming off 11-2 and 11-3 seasons. The buzz around PSU is mainly due to their offense, which returns seven starters, including starting QB Trace McSorley (an All-Big Ten favorite) and 4/5 of their starting offensive line. Their offense does have a very large Saquon Barkley-shaped hole that will need filling, though, and they return just three starters on defense, including only one in the back seven. That said, they also have a lot of highly-touted recruits to plug into those holes in the lineup and they could very well be up to speed and kicking ass by the time Iowa rolls into Happy Valley in late October.
3) Northwestern (11/10; home)
Wisconsin and Penn State are the clear top two on this list and there's a pretty significant drop-off after them to the rest of the teams on Iowa's schedule. That said, there's also not much to differentiate most of the remaining teams on Iowa's schedule, which makes for a pretty muddled mess. Northwestern is tipped to vie with Iowa as the top contender to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, so I'm tabbing them as the best of the rest for now. They've had recent success against Iowa (wins in 2016 and 2017) and usually play Iowa tightly (aside from Iowa's blowout wins in 2014 and 2015). They're set to return 14 starters, seven apiece on offense and defense. The offense should be led by Clayton Thorson (even though it seems like he's been there for a decade already) and an experienced offensive line (4/5 starters back), although, like Penn State, they have to figure out how to replace a super-talented do-everything back now that Justin Jackson is (finally) gone. They return experience at all levels on defense, too, led by preseason All-Big Ten LB Paddy Fisher.
4) Purdue (11/3; away)
Again, parsing out the differences between the teams ranked 3-8 or so on this list was tricky. These matchups could all be virtual toss-up games for Iowa. Purdue gets the nod here for me because they sniped Iowa in Kinnick last year and because of the schedule placement -- this is the second of two straight road games and sandwiched between big games against Penn State and Northwestern on the schedule. There's more than a little "trap game" odor wafting off this game. On the other hand, the strength of Purdue's surprising 2017 season was their defense and they're bringing back just four starters from that team, including only two in the front seven. They do return nine starters on offense, including 4/5 guys at offensive line and the starting backfield. Good news? Anthony Mahoungou graduated and can't hurt us anymore.
5) Iowa State (9/8; home)
Matt Campbell's turnaround in Ames was one of the stories of the 2017 season, especially the upset wins ISU scored over Top 5-ranked (at the time) Oklahoma and TCU teams. His rehab efforts likely mean that the days of blowouts in the CyHawk series are (probably) over for the time being. Last year's CyHawk game was obviously a bananas down-to-the-wire thriller, so both teams will likely enter this year's game with some confidence. ISU returns 12 starters this year, including 60% of their offensive line and their entire backfield, QB Kyle Kempf and RB David Montgomery. Kempf didn't play in the Iowa game last year, but was at the helm for their upsets over OU and TCU. He was very accurate last year (66.3% completion percentage, 15:3 TD:INT), but will need to find a lot of new targets with just one of their top four receivers returning this year. The defense brings back six starters as well, including preseason All-Big 12 CB Brian Peavy.
6) Nebraska (11/23; home)
How high Nebraska should be on this list probably depends on how quickly you think Scott Frost can get things rolling in Lincoln. My guess is that it's not going to happen immediately and there's going to be an adjustment period in going from Mike Riley's schemes and routines to Frost's approach. That said, they do return 15 starters from a year ago (7 OFF, 8 DEF), including most of their defensive line and secondary. Granted, their defense got absolutely shredded on multiple occasions, so rolling things back with most of the guys from that unit may not have a huge positive impact unless they improve in a hurry. They may need to win a lot of shootouts in 2018 and their ability to do that is going to depend on how quickly the offense gets up to speed.
7) Minnesota (10/6; away)
Minnesota lost four of five to end the season and ended the year losing by a combined margin of 70-0 to Northwestern and Wisconsin. Suffice to say the boat sprung a few leaks in PJ Fleck's first year in charge. He oversaw a dramatic improvement in Year Two at Western Michigan, but doing the same at Minnesota will be challenging. They have a decent amount of experience back at OL and two solid running backs in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, but QB is a giant question mark (again) and they have a big hole to fill at defensive tackle and some uncertainty in the secondary. Curiously, both Iowa and Minnesota have a bye week before their game this year.
8) Indiana (10/13; away)
Welcome back, Hoosiers. Iowa last faced our red-and-white-clad friends in 2015, when Iowa slipped out of Bloomington with a 35-27 win as part of our lovely 12-0 regular season that year. Indiana has a new coach since last we met, with Tom Allen replacing Kevin Wilson. IU went 5-7 last year and the high points of their season were whupping the south (they clobbered Virginia and two teams with "Southern" in their name, Georgia Southern and Charleston Southern) and blanking Rutgers, 41-0. They're set to return 10 starters this season, with most of those (7) on the offensive side of the ball. Most of those returning starters are at offensive line (all five starters from last year are back), but there are a lot of question marks at QB and WR. The defense only returns three starters, so Allen (a former defensive coordinator) is probably going to have his work cut out for him there. #CHAOSTEAM will probably need to prevail in a a lot of high-scoring shootouts this year; same as it ever was.
9) Northern Illinois (9/1; home)
Iowa's non-conference slate isn't going to get much praise because it doesn't contain any ranked opponents, notable Power 5 opponents (sorry, Cyclones), or road games. But all three games rank somewhere along the sneaky-tough spectrum. ISU is at the top of that spectrum, but NIU isn't too far behind. They're the consensus favorites to win the MAC West and they're bringing back a lot from a team that went 8-5 last season. They have 8 returning starters on offense, including everyone on their offensive line and QB Marcus Childers, who was their leading passer last year and their second-leading rusher. They bring back six starters on defense, including preseason All-MAC DE Sutton Smith, who had 14 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in a MAC Defensive Player of the Year-winning season last year. NIU is, obviously, still a MAC team and Iowa's at home and has better talent overall; they should win. But Iowa has fallen victim to #MACtion before and this NIU team looks like one of the better MAC squads to roll into Iowa City in a while.
10) Maryland (10/20; home)
Maryland might not completely suck this year! In fairness to the Terps, they were ravaged by injuries last year (especially at QB, where they played four different guys). They return eight starters on offense and are yet another team with all five starters back on the offensive line. They also bring back their top five rushers from last year and three of the four quarterbacks who saw action, although losing main receiver DJ Moore will be a big hole to fill in the passing game. The defense brings back just five starters, including just one on the defensive line. Maryland shouldn't be the pushover they've been at times in recent years, but just how good they'll be is still very debatable.
11) UNI (9/15; home)
Typically an FCS opponent would always occupy the last spot in rankings like this, but not so here because: 1) I think UNI is genuinely better than Illinois; 2) UNI is a very solid FCS team (ranked #13 in the preseason poll); and 3) we know UNI will play their asses off against Iowa. The Panthers live to upset Iowa and Iowa State and while they've yet to do the deed against Iowa in the modern area (shouts to the 1898 UNI squad who beat Iowa 11-5 to put the one in Iowa's 16-1 record against the Panthers), they've had some close calls (my palms still get a little sweaty thinking about the 2009 Iowa-UNI game). Iowa absolutely should win this game, but we also know that UNI is going to make this game a pain in the ass for at least three, probably four quarters. That's just what they do.
12) Illinois (11/17; away)
Illinois is the consensus favorite to finish last in the Big Ten and every ranking system has them dead last in the entire conference, often with a substantial gap between them and the next-worst team (Rutgers). Illinois' win totals have decreased in each of the last four seasons (from six in 2014 to five in 2015 to three in 2016 to two last year). You bad, Illinois. You real bad. They are set to return 16 starters from last year's team, with eight each on offense and defense, but how much benefit there is in bringing back that many guys from a team that went 2-10 is up for debate. Ideally they'll have taken their lumps and used that experience to get better, but... things rarely go as ideally planned where Illinois football is concerned. They probably won't be as lousy as they were in 2017, but they still seem to be a good distance away from being good.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments.