IOWA CITY, Iowa - Some years, Iowa hops up and challenges the Big Ten's elite. Most other seasons, the Hawkeyes are steady.
It's too early to say where 2014 ends up. Iowa sits at 3-1 entering Saturday's conference opener at Purdue (11 a.m. CT, BTN).
The matchup with the Boilermakers could reveal a lot about what to expect this fall. The Hawkeyes are a heavy road favorite against a Purdue program that last won a league game in November of '12.
While it's a big game for Iowa in its pursuit of the Western Division title, the Boilers see it as being equally, if not more, important for their rebuild. It's their Homecoming and they'll be wearing helmets featuring pictures of season ticket holders in the Motion 'P'.
"This is a big game for our program for a lot of different reasons," second-year Purdue Coach Darrell Hazell said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "Being able to play a good opponent in our stadium and play well and try to get the desired outcome, I think that's huge for our program. We're playing with a lot more confidence right now and (his players) feel pretty good about themselves."
After winning just one game against last fall, the Boilermakers stand at 2-2. They're coming off a 35-13 win against Southern Illinois of the FCS and trailed No. 11 Notre Dame by three points at halftime a week earlier before falling 30-14.
The Hawkeyes serve as a model of where Purdue hopes to head as it climbs the college football ladder. Iowa is trying to become bowl eligible for the 13th time in 14 years.
"If you take a look forward at Iowa, it's a team that's been well coached for years and years," Hazell said. "I have a lot of admiration for their staff and how they do things there. They don't do a whole lot of different things but they want you to beat yourself.
"They're not flashy. They're going to line up where you know they're going to line up. They're going to run the ball where you know they're going to run the ball. And they're going to play great special teams."
The Hawkeyes broke open a tight game in the first half to cruise to a 38-14 win last November in West Lafayette. Iowa out-rushed the Boilers, 318-53.
"It's very interesting. As you go through your film study to watch last year's game, we weren't very good last year. We're a lot better now as a football team than where we were 10 months ago," Hazell said.
Purdue Quarterback Danny Etling, a true sophomore whom the Hawkeyes offered a scholarship, was starting just the fourth game of his career when he played Iowa last fall. He's thrown six touchdowns against four interceptions this season. Overall, the Boilermakers have turned the ball over nine times with six takeaways.
"The big thing for this football game is you can't turn it over. You'll be in the game at the end if you don't. We have to make sure we're smart and making good decisions as we call plays offensively and not going too crazy," Hazell said.
Time, TV, Announcers: 11:01 a.m. CT on BTN with Scott Graham, Stanley Jackson and Evan Fitzgerald.
The Series: Purdue leads it 46-25-3 with the Hawkeyes winning three of the last four meetings.
Betting Line: Iowa opened as a 10.5-point favorite at the Las Vegas Mirage on Monday and the number had dropped to 9.5 on Wednesday. The total was set at 46.
-Purdue is 4-1-1 Against The Spread in its last 6 games overall.
-Iowa is 7-0 ATS in its last 7 road games.
Match-up to Watch: The Hawkeyes ran the ball down the throats of Purdue last year without much resistance. If the Boilers have designs on pulling the upset, they'll have to slow the visitors ground game.
Purdue currently ranks 66th among FBS team allowing 148.8 yards per game rushing. That's an improvement over last season when they finished 78th by giving up 182.31 a contest.
Take Note: Iowa has won three straight and five of its last six on the road. The Hawkeyes have won three consecutive road games, dating back to last season, for the first time since 2009, when they won their first four road games of the season.
Take Note, Take Two: The Boilermakers rank second in the Big Ten in punt return average (16.8). Iowa opponents have returned just two punts all season (22 yards), tied for the lowest total in the conference.
Non-Sports Related: The late Robert C. Baker earned a doctorate from Purdue. He is credited with inventing the chicken nugget.
Did You Know?: George Peppard of A-Team and Breakfast at Tiffany's fame is a Purdue alum.
Did You Also Know?: Purdue has allowed seven rushing touchdowns this year, more than any other Big Ten team.
Purdue Wins If… it can stop the run.
Iowa Wins If… it can run the ball.
Overview: Unlike the Hawkeyes, yours truly is on a losing streak. I had Iowa beating ISU and losing at Pitt. But in the grand scheme of things, I pegged the Black and Gold to be at 3-1 after four games and that's where it sits.
The Boilermakers appear improved over last year. But, honestly, how could they not be.
A season ago, Purdue resembled the Hawkeyes of '99, Kirk Ferentz's first as head coach. The Boilers were 1-11 with a win against Eastern Michigan. They weren't very competitive.
While Purdue has given itself a chance to win through four games, it still is very much a rebuilding program. Central Michigan won, 38-17, in West Lafayette on Sept. 6 and has since lost to Syracuse by 37 and Kansas by two touchdowns.
Playing a solid first half against Notre Dame earned the Boilers points in the court of public opinion. However, they've allowed 28.8 points per game, tied for 88th nationally. Western Michigan scored 34 at Ross-Ade Stadium in Week 1.
Purdue is putting up 27.3 points a contest, which ranks 81st. The Hawkeyes are 95th at 22.3.
As long as Iowa takes care of the football on offense, its defense should be able to dominate the Boiler offense. That's the most likely place for this game to be decided.
The Iowa State loss was gut-wrenching but not overly important in the big picture. The Hawkeyes still are very much alive to compete for a division title. To do that, they can't lose to an inferior team, even if it's on the road.
Prediction: IOWA 24, Purdue 13