- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We're just six weeks away from the season, folks. With that in mind, we're breaking down each Big Ten team's complete schedule, looking for trapdoors, key stretches and other odds and ends.
Installment No. 2 of our series spotlights the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: Northern Illinois* (11-3)
Sept. 8: Iowa State (6-7)
Sept. 15: Northern Iowa (10-3)
Sept. 22: Central Michigan (3-9)
* at Soldier Field in Chicago
Legends Division games
Sept. 29: Minnesota
Oct. 13: at Michigan State
Oct. 27: at Northwestern
Nov. 17: at Michigan
Nov. 23: Nebraska
Oct. 20: Penn State
Nov. 3: at Indiana
Nov. 10: Purdue (protected)
Gut-check game: The Hawkeyes don't have to play a true road game the first five weeks before heading to Michigan State on Oct. 13. The schedule gives them a chance to get off to a great start, and they have a bye week before the trip to East Lansing. Even if Iowa is 5-0 going into that game, there will be questions about how good this team is. Playing one of the Legends Division favorites on the road -- especially one that whipped the Hawkeyes last year in Iowa City -- could tell us a lot about whether this is a serious contender in 2012.
Trap game: Oct. 27 at Northwestern. Iowa will be coming off games against the Spartans and Penn State in back-to-back weeks, surely the two most physical games it will have played up to that point. The following week brings a trip to Evanston, where the Hawkeyes are just 2-5 in their last seven contests. Iowa snapped a three-game losing streak to Northwestern last year.
Snoozer: Central Michigan. Northern Iowa may be an FCS team, but it has a solid program and is an in-state opponent who will play with max effort, much like it did in the 2009 near-upset. The Chippewas, meanwhile, are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, though they do return a lot of experience.
Non-con challenge: Iowa State. The opener against Northern Illinois could be tricky, but Iowa's must-win nonconference game is against the rival Cyclones. Last year's overtime loss on the road was painful, and Iowa can't afford to give away any games at home.
Telltale stretch: The final three weeks against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska. While Iowa has had lots of success lately against Purdue, the Boilermakers figure to be much improved this season and could offer a challenge. Even more important are the final two games against Legends rivals Michigan and Nebraska. If the Hawkeyes are serious about contending in the division, they'll have to beat at least one of those teams. They slipped past the Wolverines last year but have to go to Ann Arbor this time around. And they don't want to suffer a second straight loss in the new Heroes Game series against the Cornhuskers. The potential of a late-season losing streak could also have an impact on their bowl placement.
Analysis: Iowa is a bit of an enigma this season given its youth at several key spots and the rare coaching turnover under Kirk Ferentz. What we know is that this is a schedule that's as custom-built for success as you'll find in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes don't play a single true road game until the second week of October and will only play in two really difficult road environments (Michigan and Michigan State) all season. They also avoid Leaders Division powers Wisconsin and Ohio State. It doesn't take much to envision eight or more victories if Iowa simply takes care of business during games in which it should be favored. But that's easier said than done.
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