Iowa CITY, Iowa - Predicting the Iowa season has never been an easy task during Kirk Ferentz's 13 years as head coach. Nothing has changed in that regard and this could be one of the tougher prognostications in recent memory.
Can these Hawkeyes fill holes on a defense that surrendered 23.9 points per game last season? Iowa ranked 46th nationally in that statistic after being seventh and eighth, respectively, the previous two years.
Can Iowa continue to find an answer at running back? How will the transition to three new coaches manifest itself on game days? WIll there be bumps?
Iowa can claim some favorable assets. Not every team can roll out a senior quarterback with the skills of James Vandenberg. There's talent at receiver, tight end and on the line.
The schedule also seems to suit a team needing to grow. On paper, the slate is backloaded.
Here's a look at how I see it:
Sept. 1/N. Illinois - The Hawkeyes opened the 2007 season in Chicago against the NIU. Despite an Iowa win, it turned out to be the only year since '00 that the school missed the postseason.
Northern Illinois is coming off a strong campaign during which it went 11-3, won a MAC title and topped Arkansas State, 38-20, in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. However, the Huskies must replace key weapons from that squad, including standout QB Chandler Harnish.
Ten starters do return to the NIU defense, but that unit finished ninth in the MAC a year ago. It must play better this fall with an unproven offense.
I've gone back and forth on this game for most of the summer. It's a dangerous spot for the Hawkeyes, who will be breaking in a lot of new contributors on a big stage at Soldier Field.
I'm just not sure I can make a strong case for a Huskies team with so many holes.
Prediction: Iowa 24, NIU 17
Sept. 8/Iowa State - After a heart-wrenching loss at Iowa State last season, Hawkeye fans have waited a year for payback. Iowa might not be able to completely erase the 44-41 overtime defeat in Ames, but a win in this spot would make all well again in Hawkeye Nation, at least for another year.
The Cyclones embark on '12 with at least as many questions as their cross-state rival. Rebuilding a strong offensive line could be the most outstanding task to be completed.
Iowa State will bring two experienced quarterbacks into the fall. Steele Jantz resembles Ken Stabler in the film from last year's Hawkeye game. Jared Barnett is the type of dual-threat signal callers that can rattle the Iowa defense.
Linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott make plays for the Cyclones. I just don't think they or their teammates will be able to make enough of them in a hostile environment.
Prediction: Iowa 20, ISU 13
Sept. 15/N. Iowa - You're going to hear a lot about the back-to-back blocked field goals to preserve Iowa's win in the last meeting of this series. Neither team is as good as they were back in '09, however.
The Panthers will arrive in Iowa City a week after traveling to Wisconsin. It's an ambitious start for a FCS school and we'll see if it's a smart one beyond the paycheck.
Gone is Tirrell Rennie, the engineer of last year's MVC co-champion UNI squad. Back is the strong running back duo of Carlos Anderson and David Johnson.
Northern Iowa will be inexperienced in its front seven on defense and that's not an ideal way to start the season against two Big Ten schools.
Prediction: Iowa 31, UNI 10
Sept. 22/C. Michigan - The Chippewas were not good last year. They limped to a 3-9 record overall with a 2-6 mark in the MAC.
Central does return 17 starters from '12. That includes quarterback Ryan Radcliffe. That's good.
The bad is that the MAC media picked the Chippewas to finish last in the league in a preseason poll.
There's really no need to spend a lot of time on this one. If the Hawkeyes lose, it's going to be a very long fall in Iowa City.
Prediction: Iowa 38, C. Michigan 17
Sept. 29/Minnesota - In the last two seasons, the Golden Gophers have won a combined four league games. Two of them have come against boarder-rival Iowa.
It should be enough to cause Hawkeye fans to pause. Many of them probably won't give Minnesota enough credit but this is far from a walk in the park.
Gopher quarterback MarQueis Gray should grab Iowa's attention. The dual threat signal caller comes into Kinnick Stadium after passing for 193 yards and a score and rushing for 62 yards and a touchdown last season against the Hawkeyes.
Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill turned Northern Illinois into one of the top teams in the MAC. The Gophers have shown signs of taking steps forward under his guidance.
The main question for Minnesota will be on defense. The Gophers must prove they can stop somebody after allowing 31.7 points a game in '11, which ranked 93rd nationally.
Prediction: Iowa 31, Minnesota 21
Oct. 10/at MSU - Iowa's first true road test of the season comes almost midway through October. It also takes place in one of the Big Ten's tougher environments.
The Spartans steam rolled Iowa, 37-21, on the road last season en route to the Legends Division title and a spot in the first Big Ten Championship game. They avenged a 37-6 drubbing at the hands of the Hawkeyes in '10.
Iowa returns to MSU for the first time since it's exciting 15-13 win there in '09 when Ricky Stanzi hit Marvin McNutt for the game-winner as time expired. It might take those type of heroics for the Hawkeyes to pull off this upset in East Lansing.
Michigan State does lose seven starters on offense, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Edwin Baker and wideout B.J. Cunningham. On the bright side, eight first-teamers return to a Spartan defense that ranked 10th nationally allowing just 18.4 points a game.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Iowa 17
Oct. 20/Penn State - Iowa's lone night game on the '12 slate should create a raucous home environment in a place that has given the Nittany Lions trouble. Their last win in Iowa City game in 1999 when LaVar Arrington started at linebacker.
Penn State should be competitive this fall despite NCAA sanctions that could cripple the program in years to come. The Lions also might find motivation with an us-vs-the-world approach.
Things would have been better in State College had star running back Silas Redd not bolted to USC. Veteran quarterback Matt McGloin will need to make plays for an offense that lost six starters.
The Lions likely will go as far as their defense takes them, however. They boast some of the league's better players in linebackers Gerald Hodges and Glenn Carson and defensive tackle Jordan Hill.
Prediction: Iowa 20, Penn State 13
Oct. 27/at Northwestern - The Hawkeyes ended a three-game losing streak against Northwestern last season with a 41-31 triumph at Kinnick. It tied Iowa's second-highest point total of '11.
The Wildcats must sure things up on defense if they hope to climb the Legends Division ladder. Allowing more than 29 points a game as they did a year ago could keep them out of a bowl game for the first time in five seasons.
While Iowa killer Dan Persa is gone, Northwestern will be led by another multi-dimensional quarterback in Kain Colter. He's the team's leading rusher from a year ago and he carried it 12 times for 76 yards in Iowa City.
Receiver Kyle Prater joins the Wildcats offense after two seasons at USC. He could team with Demetrius Fields and Rashad Lawrence to give Colter serious weapons down the field.
Prediction: Northwestern 30, Iowa 24
Nov. 3/at Indiana - The Hoosiers had no answer for Iowa in a 45-24 road loss last season. Their 37.3 points per game allowed ranked 114th in the country.
Second-year coach Kevin Wilson has nowhere to go but up after his troops went winless in the Big Ten a year ago. The 15 returning starters could be a blessing or a curse.
Quarterback Tre Roberson is talented as is running back Stephen Houston. Playing a lot of freshmen last season could benefit Indiana this fall.
Iowa is 7-4 against the Hoosiers during Kirk Ferentz's time as head coach, but things seldom seem to be easy in Bloomington. The 2002 Hawkeyes needed three interceptions from Grant Steen against Gibran Hamdan to escape with a victory.
Prediction: Indiana 28, Iowa 27
Nov. 10/Purdue - The Hawkeyes welcome their cross-divisional rivals to Kinnick Stadium for what should be a heart-pounding clash in early November.
OK. That might be overstating it.
After suffering through a few injury-plagued seasons, the Boilermakers should be formidable in '12. They return 18 starters from a team that won a bowl game a year ago.
The key for Purdue could be how quickly it picks up the defense of new coordinator Tim Tibesar. That transition should be aided by standouts Kawaan Short, Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson.
The Boilermakers already will have played Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State by the time they travel to Iowa City, so they should be battle tested. Of course, they also could be battered and bruised.
Prediction: Iowa 20, Purdue 17
Nov. 17/at Michigan - Iowa has done as good a job as anybody in the country defending Wolverines Quarterback Denard Robinson. Michigan lost only twice in '11 and one of those setbacks came at Kinnick.
The Big Ten favorite will be looking for revenge on the Hawkeyes, who won at the Big House in '10 and have won three contests in a row in this series. They'll be heavy underdogs to make it four straight.
Brady Hoke has it going in Ann Arbor after the Rich Rod disaster. The Wolverines open the season as the No. 8 team in both major polls.
Greg Mattison worked wonders with the Michigan defense a year ago. The unit allowed 17.4 points per game a season after watching opponents notch 35.2 a contest. Seven starters return on that side of the ball.
Not many things point the Hawkeyes' way in this one other than it being the week before Michigan travels to Columbus.
Prediction: Michigan 38, Iowa 14
Nov. 23/Nebraska - Who can forget the first Heroes Game between these Big ten boarder rivals? Hawkeye fans would like to do just that.
The Cornhuskers dominated Iowa, 20-7, in Lincoln last fall in a game that really wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. Iowa scored a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes on a day it managed just 270 yards of offense.
The Hawkeye fans should provide a hostile environment for the visitors. Nebraska also could have pressure to win in this spot if its battling for a division championship.
Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead are returning stalwarts on an offense that welcomes back eight starters. The defense loses standouts Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard, but seven first-teamers are back.
Perhaps the Hawkeyes can make Nebraska one dimensional as it has with Michigan and Robinson. That remains to be seen, however.
Prediction: Nebraska 17, Iowa 10
FINAL IOWA RECORD: 7-5 overall, 3-5 Big Ten