Three hurdles for the Iowa Hawkeyes to get a berth in the College Football Playoff

Iowa has a few things standing in its way to reach the College Football Playoff. For the most part, though, they control their own destiny.
Iowa v Wisconsin
Iowa v Wisconsin / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

The Iowa Hawkeyes have a solid, experienced roster with a favorable roster. Coming off a season in which the team secured 10 wins despite being the third-worst in the country in scoring, the Hawkeyes have mixed expectations.

Many equate poor offense to the Hawkeyes, and as long as Iowa is struggling to score 17 points or more, they aren't going to get very far on the national scale.

Others point to the fantastic defense, which will give Iowa a chance to keep nearly every contest close.

No matter how you look at it, Iowa has a more realistic path to the College Football Playoff than a huge chunk of FBS programs, including many other Power 4 teams. But, getting a seed in the first-ever 12-team playoff won't be easy.

These are the biggest challenges Iowa must overcome in 2024 to give themselves the best chance at making the tournament.

1. Cade McNamara's Health and Productivity

Cade McNamara returns as the starting quarterback for the Hawkeyes after suffering an ACL tear just before the halfway point of the 2023 season. The hope is that McNamara will return to form and stay healthy throughout the season to give Iowa a fighting chance.

However, injuries have begun to pile up for McNamara in his career. In 2022 he suffered a right leg injury that required surgery. During fall camp of 2023, he suffered a quad injury to his right leg. The ACL tear was in his left knee.

To be fair, there is a certain amount of luck involved when it comes to injuries. It's something completely out of his control.

But, should he stay healthy, that doesn't ensure success for Iowa. Sure, a healthy McNamara gives the Hawkeyes their best hope for success, but it doesn't mean they'll be in the running for a spot among the 12 best teams in college football.

McNamara must have his best season yet. Statistically, that could mean a number of things. One thing is for certain, he doesn't have to have a Joe Burrow-like comeback. But, he needs to make sure the offense is doing its fair share in impacting the scoreboard in every matchup.

2. The Offensive Gameplan

McNamara will not be alone in his efforts to make the offense better. Tim Lester steps in as the new offensive coordinator aiming to breathe new life into the offense.

The offense will largely operate with the same intent, as it long has under head coach Kirk Ferentz. While there is nothing wrong with a ground-and-pound scheme, it requires efficiency to be successful.

In the passing game, the best target is Luke Lachey, who is also returning from injury. Lachey must be a star player capable of hauling in difficult targets as defenses will focus on him.

On the ground, Leshon Williams and Kaleb Johnson return after averaging four yards per carry in 2023. While the averages were fine, both suffered in the unstable offense last year. The offense must sustain drives more effectively to give the duo a proper chance at making an impact.

It all starts up front though. The offensive line is solid, but there are enough question marks around it to consider it a slightly above-average unit in the Big Ten. Keeping McNamara upright and opening running lanes for the backs will be as important as ever to show the offense from last year is gone for good.

So long as Lester provides solid playcalling, Iowa should see a drastic improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Still, an average offense could still keep Iowa out if it comes down to the eye test to determine the final few seeds of the playoffs.

3. The New-Look Big Ten

On the surface, Iowa has a fairly easy schedule. Ohio State, Washington and Wisconsin stand to be the most difficult games on the 12-game slate. Iowa will be favored in more games than not if teams like Michigan State, UCLA and Nebraska don't have a sudden resurgence.

Still, it's not so much who Iowa is playing as it is who they will be compared against. Oregon, Ohio State, Michigan, USC and Penn State have legitimate CFP aspirations with considerably more difficult schedules. Even if Iowa has more wins than some of these teams, they may not look quite as good on paper.

Playing into it all is the new structure of the conference. Iowa's chances at reaching the Big Ten Championship are much lower without divisions. Considering the odds that both teams in the Big Ten Championship will likely make the 12-team field barring a blowout, that shrinks the number of spots available for Iowa should they fail to play in Indianapolis.

The same can be said for the SEC. Suppose both SEC Championship Game teams and both Big Ten Championship teams make the playoffs, plus the other conference champion auto bids. In that case, there are just five seeds available for Iowa in the most realistic circumstances.

Now consider the strong programs like Iowa that will be vying for those five seeds, and the true difficulty of reaching the playoffs is revealed.

All in all, the Hawkeyes face a suitable challenge to reach the playoffs. It won't be easy, but as long as the Hawkeyes handle business in the proper matchups, the Hawkeyes are largely in control of their destiny this season.

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