1. Iowa has rebounded nicely from the NIU loss with two wins including winning the Cy-Hawk Trophy. Has anything been different between Week 1 and Weeks 2 & 3 or was NIU just better than the Hawkeyes?
NIU was a few plays better than Iowa in the season opener, but it was a very close game -- it wouldn't exactly have taken much for Iowa to win the game (step one: don't throw a crippling interception that sets NIU up for a game-winning field goal). But Iowa has also improved since that game -- the defense has been able to put together more sustained stretches of strong play (although they're still prone to giving up big plays in the passing game at times) and the offense is doing a better job of finishing drives with touchdowns.
New QB Jake Rudock has been looking more and more comfortable running the Iowa offense, too. (There are still some issues with special teams, though; after falling prey to a fake punt in Week 1, Iowa was victimized by an onside kick last week.)
2. The Hawkeye offense appears to be led by power-back Mark Weisman. What do you expect from him against the WMU defense?
Western Michigan has the 114th ranked run defense in the country, so... honestly, I expect a pretty big day for Weisman and the rest of the Iowa running backs. It looks like this is a pretty ideal match-up for Iowa: our biggest offensive strength against Western Michigan's biggest defensive weakness.
The Iowa offensive line has done a strong job in run blocking all season and running back is probably the most talented and experienced skill position unit on Iowa's offense. Iowa has rushed for 200+ yards in every game this season and I expect that trend to continue on Saturday. Weisman has also rushed for 100+ yards in every game this season; I hope that trend also continues on Saturday.
3. In his first season at QB, Jake Rudock hasn't been terrible, but did throw that costly INT against NIU late in the 4th quarter. After a solid performance against the Cyclones, has he settled into a rhythm or is just a product of playing two terrible teams?
Rudock has been a pleasant surprise for Iowa fans and he seems to be improving week by week. In part, he's been a surprise for Iowa fans because we literally had no idea what to expect -- he hadn't thrown a pass in a game since high school until the NIU game this year. But in general, I think Iowa fans have been really impressed with his poise, his ability to shake off mistakes, and his playmaking ability. He's thrown some great passes (and would have better overall stats if his receivers hadn't already dropped around 10-12 balls this year) and shown a better-than-expected ability to take off and run.
He had a terrible interception against NIU (and another terrible interception late against Missouri State the following week), but a lot of his mistakes seem correctable with additional experience. It's true that the level of competition the last two weeks hasn't been great, but I do think he's showing real signs of progress, which is encouraging (and exciting).
4. The current Legends division has a combined record of 16-2 through 3 weeks, with 1 win and 1 loss coming in VERY close games that could've gone either way late (Iowa vs NIU, Akron vs Michigan). Talk about how playing in the more difficult division has helped or hurt the Hawkeyes in the 3rd season of the new format.
I suppose it's hurt Iowa to an extent, since there's been no possibility of teams like Michigan, Nebraska, or Michigan State rotating off Iowa's schedule, which is problematic with Michigan returning to traditional levels of quality, Nebraska being solid in their transition from the Big XII to the Big Ten, and Michigan State remaining strong under Mark Dantonio. But I think the bigger issue has just been the downturn in Iowa's own program over the past few seasons; Iowa was pretty mediocre in 2011 and downright bad in 2012 -- I don't think it really mattered too much who was on Iowa's schedule (well, OK, it would have been nice to play Illinois last year).
5. Kirk Ferentz has been on the hot seat now for what seems like a couple of years. What does he have to do in your eyes to keep his position?
In practical terms, he's not really on the hot seat and so he really doesn't need to do anything to "keep his position" -- he's just not in any real danger of losing it. And to be more precise, those practical terms would be the enormous buyout clause in his contract: Iowa would owe him around $16 million to fire him after this season. It would take a pretty dire season for paying that buyout to be palatable.
That said, there is certainly some growing unrest among Iowa fans and at some point that unrest is going to lead to enough lost money that paying the buyout will make sense. I think getting to at least 6-6 and taking Iowa back to a bowl game would ease some of the pressure on Ferentz -- for now, at least.
6. This is the last tune-up game before Big Ten play. Iowa gets Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue in their cross-over games (brutal). Where you do you think the Hawkeyes will finish in the division? Do they make a bowl game?
I would like to pick them to finish higher than 5th in the Legends Division, but doing so would mean that I think Iowa will finish above one of Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, or Northwestern... and I just can't see that right now. Iowa seems to have too many weaknesses and too many holes on their team to finish higher than that right now. As far as a bowl game... well, the magic number is six.
If Iowa can get past Western Michigan this weekend, they'll need to find three wins in Big Ten play. That won't be easy, but I think it's doable: beat Minnesota and Purdue, and then spring an upset over Michigan State, Northwestern, or Wisconsin. Minnesota and Purdue appear to be winnable games (although they're also away games, which will make things trickier) and one home upset isn't wildly improbable.
7. I've heard the stories of Iowa tailgates. Any other hot spots for fans to visit if they make the trip?
I always recommend that people check out the tailgating along Melrose Avenue. It's right next to the stadium, it's swarming with people, and there's a wide variety of food and merchandise vendors to check out. Plus, the food there is better than the food you'll get at the concession stands inside Kinnick Stadium (it's hard to go wrong with one of the enormous pork tenderloin sandwiches).
8. Iowa opens as a 17 point favorite. What is your score prediction?
Well, I don't expect Iowa to cover that line -- I'll be up front about that. Iowa hasn't covered a spread that large in, uh, a really long time. But I expect Iowa to win -- I'll say Iowa 31, Western Michigan 20, with a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to put the game on ice.