The way-too-early college football predictions are starting to roll in, and if the experts are correct, 2013 doesn't look rosy for Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes.
The most flattering preview one is likely to find is via Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network, who has Iowa eighth in the Big Ten.
While some Hawkeyes fans might aspire to more than simply making a bowl, making a bowl will be an uphill battle for 2013 Iowa.
With this in mind, what do the Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz have to do in order to get to six wins and a bid to what would have seemed a disappointing bowl only three years ago?
Sweep the Out-Of-Conference Schedule
Iowa's out of conference consists of Northern Illinois, Iowa State, Missouri State and Western Michigan.
On paper, that looks like it should be a clean sweep. After all, two MAC opponents, one FCS opponent and a Big 12 opponent that hasn't won more than seven games since 2000 shouldn't pose too much of a threat.
This is even more poignant when one considers that the FCS opponent in question is a poor FCS opponent that went 3-8 last year and hasn't had a winning season since 2009. Moreover, according to Phil Steele, two of those opponents—WMU and ISU—rank 112th and 117th in the country in terms of most returning starters.
It is true that Northern Illinois returns eight from 2012's No. 13 scoring offense, including the entire offensive line and their dynamic quarterback. However, the Huskies have only four returning defensive starters, and they will break in a new coach—their third new coach in four years.
Though all these things work in Iowa's favor, the fact remains that even though Iowa is 100-74 since 1999—Ferentz's first year—and Iowa State is 76-96 over that span—a span that includes three different head coaches—Kirk Ferentz is 6-8 against his interstate rival. He is 2-5 at Ames, the site of this year's meeting.
Basically, Iowa is as likely to lose to the Clones as win no matter what the matchup looks like on paper.
Finally, NIU is a genuine quality opponent.
In short, the first step toward getting back to a bowl will include sweeping the out of conference, but that is a task easier said than done.
This key step includes the following subheadings: catch catchable passes, sustain drives, create plays longer than three yards, make teams pay for blitzing, score in the red zone, don't wait until the 11th game to involve the tight ends in the offense and don't take delay-of-game penalties in the hurry-up offense.
These may sound like the ramblings of Captain Obvious, especially when one considers that the 2012 Iowa offense was the 113th scoring offense in the country.
Nevertheless, Ferentz is notorious for relying on his defense to win games, but this year's defense, while improved from last year's, is a year away from reaching the elite status of past Iowa defenses.
Therefore, Ferentz will have to allow the offense to do what it is supposed to do—score points—if he hopes to get to six wins against this year's schedule, which features 10 2012 bowl teams.
Win on the Road
At this point, WMU and Missouri State are the only home games in which the Hawks will be favored.
The other home games include NIU, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan. Iowa may be able to pull off one or even two upsets out of that bunch, but it's difficult to envision three or more.
In effect, the Hawks have to win at least two of the winnable road games. Those games are at Iowa State, Minnesota and Purdue, as well as roadies against Ohio State and Nebraska, which aren't quite as "winnable."
By the way, the last time Iowa won more than two road games in a season was 2009. Before that, you have to go back to 2004. The only other time Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes won three or more road contests was 2002.
Pull Off At Least One Major Upset
Let's say Iowa sweeps the out-of-conference, which, by itself would include one minor upset over Northern Illinois.
It would then have to win two more games to get to bowl eligibility.
It could take the roadies at Purdue and at Minnesota—which would not be "major" upsets—but, as already inferred, Ferentz's teams are not known for their road prowess. Also, Minnesota, under third-year coach Jerry Kill looks to be on the upswing.
In effect, the Hawkeyes' bowl eligibility may come down to toppling a giant—OSU, Michigan or Nebraska—or at least a more talented foe—MSU, Northwestern or Wisconsin.
Beat Iowa State
It may seem like just one game, but much of the season hinges on that one game. This is true for both teams.
This is not only true from a rivalry standpoint—Ferentz has two ugly losses in a row to Paul Rhoads and the Cyclones—but it could mean a bowl or no bowl for either team.
Will the Hawks Beat Iowa State?
According to Phil Steele, Iowa State's schedule is the 21st toughest schedule in the country (Iowa is 34th).
It is difficult to find six wins when looking at the Clones' schedule, but if there are to be six wins, a home win over the Hawkeyes looks more likely than a roadie at Kansas State, Oklahoma or West Virginia or a home win against Texas or Oklahoma State.
Iowa is in the same boat. Assuming Iowa wins the games it should win—Missouri State, Western Michigan—and the games it has a reasonable chance of winning—Minnesota, Purdue and Northern Illinois—that leaves one more win to get to bowl eligibility.
And by all measurable standards—I know, football isn't played on paper—the Hawks have a more realistic chance of beating ISU than they do of beating MSU, OSU, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan or Nebraska.
It's rare that one game means this much, but this year, the Hawkeyes have to circle Ames on their calender. Lose that, the wheels could come off the cart and a bowl will be a long shot.
This is an odd year for Iowa.
It is the first year in a long time in which there is at least one game on the schedule that looks unwinnable (Ohio State). It is also the first year in a while in which the Hawks will probably be underdogs in over half of their games.
Despite this, Iowa can get to a bowl.
In fact, it is conceivable that the Hawks can manage eight regular season wins, though more than eight seems too unlikely to bother considering.
Therefore, in order to get to six (or seven or eight) wins, more than anything else, Kirk Ferentz has to win the winnable games, which, as Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette pointed out midway through the 2011 season, is something he has not always done.