Optimistic Iowa hoping to overcome Wisconsin in Big Ten West

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              FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2017, file photo, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley (4) throws a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Ohio State, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. Entering 2018, Iowa looks like it usually does in August, as a decent team with a chance to be a special one. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Entering 2018, Iowa looks like it usually does in August: a decent team with a chance to be a special one.

The Hawkeyes should know by the end of September which outcome they are destined for.

Iowa, which went 8-5 last year, won’t get to ease into the season even though they won’t leave home until October. The Hawkeyes open on Sept. 1 against Northern Illinois without either one of their starting offensive tackles. They then host resurgent Iowa State in perhaps the most highly anticipated matchup in that rivalry in years.

Iowa gets what appears to be a respite in week three when it hosts Northern Iowa of the FCS. On Sept. 22, the Hawkeyes will host Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin in perhaps the division’s biggest matchup of the year.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing and not worry about anybody else, if we get our jobs done and do what we’re supposed to do and actually play with effort and toughness … we can be really special,” linebacker Amani Jones said. “We don’t care if no one knows about us. But when we play you, you will know about us.”

SEASON OPENER

Iowa will be without sophomore tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and defensive tackles Cedrick Lattimore and Brady Reiff against Northern Illinois because of suspensions. The fact that the Huskies bring back the nation’s sack leader from 2017 in Sutton Smith could spell disaster on opening day, but the Hawkeyes should have enough depth to survive week one — and help make Kirk Ferentz the program’s all-time leader in wins in his 20th season.

“I couldn’t be more proud and happy with the way the guys have handled this whole thing, and I think there’s a real strong commitment to move forward and do it in the right way. But it’s easy to talk about things; really going out and doing it on a daily basis, that’s what counts,” Ferentz said.

LINEBACKER

The linebacker corps is arguably the team’s biggest concern entering 2018 after losing all three starters, including All-American Josey Jewell. Jones appears to be locked in at middle linebacker and Nick Niemann will start on the outside. But beyond that, the rotation could be in flux for the opener.

PASSING GAME

Junior quarterback Nate Stanley impressed in his first season as the starter, throwing for 26 touchdowns against just six interceptions despite an underwhelming group of largely young receivers. But Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson might just be the best tight end duo in America, and sophomores Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette have the potential to make Iowa dangerous on the outside.

DEFENSIVE LINE

This might be one of the deepest lines Ferentz has ever had, a group led by seniors Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse. Watch out for former five-star recruit A.J. Epenesa, who impressed in pass rushing spots as a freshman a year and has now had a full offseason to work on his games.

“We’re just going to try and push the pace all year. We want to be playing sideline to sideline, through the whistle,” Hesse said. “We’re hoping to wear down opposing offenses.”

KEY GAMES

Iowa’s schedule lets up in 2018. But a two-game road trip to Penn State and Purdue on Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 could be especially daunting for a team hoping to still be in the West race by then. The Hawkeyes close with rebuilding Nebraska, a team they thumped by 42 points in Lincoln a year ago.