Iowa Football: Minnesota is a Make or Break Game

Oct 1, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Desmond King (14) and linebacker Ben Niemann (44) celebrate against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 1, 2016; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes defensive back Desmond King (14) and linebacker Ben Niemann (44) celebrate against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports /

A look at the importance of Iowa’s meeting with Minnesota this week

Not many people envisioned Iowa football sitting at 3-2 nearly halfway through the season. The Iowa Hawkeyes came into the 2016 season as clear-cut favorites to repeat as Big Ten West champs. Another Rose Bowl appearance, or at least New Year’s Six Bowl, seemed to be in the Hawkeyes future.

Instead of being undefeated and a top-10 team five weeks into the season, Iowa is barely over .500 and will have to fight to gain bowl eligibility just a year after going undefeated in the regular season. It’s a crazy statement considering Iowa seemed like a near lock to win 10 games this season. Although, when looking at their schedule, the rest of the season relies heavily on this week’s game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Last week against Northwestern, it carried a lot of significance for another reason. There was still hope that Iowa could turn their season around, become a top-25 team and somehow win the Big Ten West.

After a mediocre offensive line dominated the Hawkeyes defense and allowed Justin Jackson to rush for 171 yards, and the Wildcats escaped Iowa City with their first victory over Iowa since 2012, it’s clear that Iowa is not the team we though they were coming into the year.

Barring a dramatic and unexpected turnaround, a Big Ten West championship and Rose Bowl appearance are not in Iowa’s future. Now, they’ll need to fight to get to six wins this season, and a loss to Minnesota would put them in a very tricky spot.

With seven games left on their schedule, there are three categories the teams they play are in — almost guaranteed wins, almost guaranteed losses and toss-ups.

Meetings with #4 Michigan, #11 Wisconsin and #12 Nebraska will likely all go down as losses. Sure, all three games are at Kinnick Stadium, however there’s nothing the Hawkeyes have done this season that instills confidence that they’ll lose by single-digits to either team, let alone pull off the upset.

The guaranteed wins left on the schedule are against Purdue and Illinois. Both games are away, and Illinois isn’t a terrible team, but even with the Hawkeyes struggles this season, they’ll be heavy favorites. Both teams are around the same level as Rutgers, and Iowa squeaked out a win at Rutgers earlier this year with atrocious offensive play.

If Iowa finishes 2-3 in those five games, they will sit at 5-5. The remaining two games against Minnesota this week and Penn State on November 5, will determine if Iowa is bowl eligible this year. That makes this week’s game against Minnesota even more important.

The last thing Iowa wants is to enter their game against Penn State 4-4 and needing a win. That would add even more pressure on Iowa and leaves very little room for error. As it is, a cough up against Purdue or Illinois could prove to be deadly for the Hawkeyes, forcing them to either upset one of the three ranked teams on their schedule or defeat both Minnesota and Penn State.

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At the same time, taking down Minnesota would give the Hawkeyes much-needed confidence after a rough three weeks. The last time Iowa traveled to Minneapolis, the Gophers demolished them 51-14. Even though Iowa is a two-point favorite this week, the way they’ve played recently doesn’t rule out another blowout win for Minnesota. Besides, this is only Iowa’s second road game of the season.

The Hawkeyes are currently on a slippery slope that won’t stop until they get a convincing win. The North Dakota State loss resulted in a hangover against Rutgers, however falling to Northwestern only makes the slope steeper and a bigger rut to climb out of for Iowa. The last thing they want is to enter the second half of the season needing three wins.

As previously mentioned, it leaves very little room for error and their game against Penn State turns into a must-win situation. Taking down Minnesota might instill confidence in Iowa, however, in the bigger picture, the urgency that comes with a 3-3 start won’t be there. The idea of Iowa going from a 12-win team to not making a bowl game won’t be in the back of their minds causing a distraction.

Next: Iowa Basketball: Why Hawkeyes Will Make NCAA Tournament

After a 12-win season in 2015 and high hopes for 2016, it doesn’t seem plausible that Iowa won’t be bowl eligible. That being said, a loss to Minnesota puts them in a scary place where a 5-7 finish is possible. It’s tough to sit here and say that Iowa won’t make a bowl game, however neither Minnesota or Penn State are pushovers, making it far from a guarantee that Iowa reaches six wins.