- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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The season’s creeping closer and closer. But until it officially starts, we’ll be looking forward and analyzing every Big Ten team’s 2014 schedule.
Up next: Iowa.
Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)
Aug. 30: Northern Iowa (7-5)
Sept. 6: Ball State (10-3)
Sept. 13: Iowa State (3-9)
Sept. 20: at Pittsburgh (7-6)
West Division games
Sept. 27: at Purdue
Nov. 1: Northwestern
Nov. 8: at Minnesota
Nov. 15: at Illinois
Nov. 22: Wisconsin
Nov. 28: Nebraska
Oct. 11: Indiana
Oct. 18: at Maryland
Gut-check game: The series with Nebraska has all the makings of a spirited rivalry, and it's getting the full treatment of one with another Friday kickoff set after Thanksgiving. But until last season's easy win over the Huskers, the Hawkeyes hadn't really done much to provide any balance in the head-to-head standings, winning just once in eight tries in games spread between 1979 and 2012 -- although the two losses since Nebraska joined the Big Ten were actually competitive, low-scoring affairs. Are the Hawkeyes going to be a worthy adversary and annually get the blood boiling for the Huskers, or was claiming the Heroes Trophy last year an aberration? Considering what could be on the line in the division, this one should definitely meet the requirements for a gut-check situation.
Trap game: The returning talent is obviously part of the equation, but it's no secret Iowa's schedule is a significant factor in its emergence as a trendy pick to win the West Division. And while it will go the entire month of October without facing anybody on its side of the Big Ten thanks to two byes and its crossover matchups, it would be wise not to get caught looking ahead to a second week off ahead of the closing stretch in November when it travels to Maryland. The Terps look more than capable of surprising a few people this fall with some of the talented skill players it has returning to full strength, and if the Hawkeyes are true contenders, winning on the road will be a necessity.
Snoozer: While the slate isn't the most difficult in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes didn't exactly go out of their way to lighten the load outside of the league. The opener against Northern Iowa might not be a cakewalk since the preseason top-10 program in the FCS has proven in recent years it can go toe to toe with the big boys in its state, and Ball State is coming off a 10-win campaign. That might actually make a conference battle with Purdue the best opportunity to squeeze in a nap.
Nonconference challenge: With bragging rights and a Cy-Hawk trophy on the line against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes aren't likely to come out flat or unfocused in a rivalry setting. But taking on Pittsburgh will provide a test for Iowa as it hits the road and deals with all the logistics that go into traveling to and preparing for a hostile environment for the first time.
Analysis: The climb to a potential division crown isn't as steep for the Hawkeyes as it might be for others thanks to the schedule, but the path isn't without astill has a few potential pitfalls. Kirk Ferentz and his staff have put together a roster that is certainly capable of beating any opponent it will face, but the Hawkeyes also aren't loaded enough to just breeze right through the year to a crown either. Both inside and outside of the Big Ten, Iowa is likely going to be playing numerous tight, competitive games that could simply come down to which way a ball bounces. But if the Hawkeyes don't have much luck work against them, they could be in great position down the stretch with the presumptive favorites in the West both coming to their stadium to close out what could be a memorable season.