Reading the tea leaves for Iowa football is always a difficult task before the season starts. They’re not like an Alabama who you can count on to be pretty good nor are they like an Iowa State who you can usually count on to be pretty bad. Like most teams, they fall somewhere in between where one game, even one play, can define their entire season. Iowa’s level of success is simply hard to predict from year to year (if you need any proof just go check out preseason predictions for the Hawkeyes over the past several years), but I’m used to being wrong, so I’m down for giving this whole prediction thing a whirl.
Despite a lot of the bleak predictions made about Iowa so far (I seem to be seeing 6-6 a lot), Iowa really has quite a bit going for them (Chad Leistikow and I seem to have come to similar conclusions on this). In particular, Iowa should be really good at the things Iowa is known for being good at. Up front, the Hawkeyes return basically the entire starting offensive line from last year’s award winning squad that paved the way for two 1000 yard running backs, and perhaps more importantly, are working to build depth there. Previous years have seen big fall offs when Iowa loses linemen to injury (see NDSU last year or the second half of 2012), so anything Iowa can do to maintain consistency throughout the season at offensive line can only positively impact their performance.
Behind that line you also have a backfield brimming with talent. Akrum Wadley needs no introduction for even the casual observer and will certainly feature heavily in Iowa’s game plan each week. But Wadley is not your prototypical Iowa running back, the guy you ask to go get 2 yards up the middle on a 3rd and 2. He’s dynamic and at his best in space, and not the type of guy you want pounding it up the middle 25 times a game. (This was the role LeShun Daniels played last year and, I believe, is part of the reason why Wadley was able to be so successful). Wadley needs someone to split reps with, and while Toks Akrinibabe and Toren Young seemed poised to thrive in that role, they were inexperienced and untested. Enter James Butler, senior grad transfer from Nevada where he rushed for over 1300 yards last year. Butler is a thumper (and apparently pretty hard to tackle) and should serve not just as a change-of-pace backup for Wadley, but as a weapon in his own right that could give the Hawkeyes quite a bit of versatility on offense.
Hop over to the other side of the ball and the defense has quite a bit going for it as well. The line’s cup runneth over with talented players, and between Parker Hesse, the Nelson twins (who I know are not really related), and freshman phenom AJ Espenesa, Iowa has no shortage of great defensive ends. There are even rumors that Iowa has been shuffling a few guys around to make sure they get their best players on the line at any given time. Behind the line you have a trio of senior linebackers led by Josey Jewell (who himself has been getting quite a bit of preseason buzz). I would argue Iowa’s front 7 are poised to be as good as any in the B1G this year.
The Known Unknown
While Iowa does have a lot of things going for it, there are quite a few clear unknowns that could be pivotal in determining how Iowa’s season ends up. Most pressingly, with only a week until the start of the season we still don’t know who Iowa’s starting quarterback is going to be. People in the know seem confident that it will be Nathan Stanley, but the fact that he has not yet separated himself from Tyler Wiegers to earn the top spot after easily jumping ahead of Wiegers as the clear backup last year is enough to give Hawkeye fans pause. Has Wiegers improved that much or has Stanley regressed? Are there other factors at play here? Will Iowa end up in the dreaded two quarterback hell? If Iowa does not have someone at least capable under center this year, things could get pretty ugly pretty quick.
Even if the quarterback question turns out to be a non-issue, there is still the matter of who he’s going to throw it to. By the end of last year, Iowa’s passing game was… let’s just say it was not good. And while Iowa did go out and get another grad transfer in Matt Quarells, did pick up a top JUCO transfer in Nick Easley, does get senior Matt VandeBerg back after a season ending injury last year, and does bring in some quality freshman, there is still plenty of reason to have doubts. Personally, I think Iowa’s passing game should be much improved (which in all honesty still sets a pretty low bar), and I’m hopeful that Adrian Falconer will have a chance at a breakout junior year (we all have our underdog we root for). The passing will also be aided by a slew of TEs that should create mismatches and scheming issues for opposing defenses. Moreover, if we learned anything from last year it’s that Iowa doesn’t always need to get a whole lot out of the passing game to win, and if Iowa’s TEs and WRs can find a way to make a few plays when they need them to, that should be enough for Iowa in most games.
The final area that breads uncertainty is in the secondary. The biggest loss comes from the graduation of Thorpe Award winner Desmond King (all hail) who essentially shut down half of the field last year and whose production will be nearly impossible to replace. Iowa suffered further setbacks in the spring when starting safety Brandon Snyder tore his ACL in practice making it unlikely that he will be available for much of the season. Still, the Hawkeyes do return some experience, specifically Manny Rugamba who played extremely well in place of the injured Greg Mabin last year. While Rugamba did suffer an injury himself against Nebraska last year and will miss the first game due to an undisclosed team rule violation, he should be an anchor in Iowa’s secondary. Elsewhere, Joshua Jackson and Miles Taylor have both seen their share of game time, but their play has been sporadic at times, and while Jake Gervase had a great spring game filling in for Snyder, he has yet to be tested during meaningful game time. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Even so, Iowa’s secondary should benefit from a consistent and fierce pass rush compliments of the D-line and LBs and look for them to take advantage of some poor decisions made by opposing QBs under pressure.
The Unknown Unknown
Player and personnel assessments aside, Iowa faces some factors coming into this season that are extremely difficult to quantify. For one, Iowa’s schedule is pretty challenging. Wyoming brings what is pegged to be the top QB in the draft this year to Kinnick week 1, and then Iowa must travel to ISU for the CyHawk game the following week for a matchup that has given the Hawkeyes fits in the past. The B1G West also looks to be more challenging this year with Minnesota and Northwestern slated as the primary contenders to what is supposed to be a dominant Wisconsin team. The crossover games are even worse with Iowa facing Penn State and Ohio State (both hailed by pundits as national title hopefuls) and a Michigan State team that can’t be as bad as they were last year. Even if Iowa benchmarks high for its potential, it is not clear how many wins that will actually translate to, and it’s not unimaginable for a pretty decent Iowa team to lose 6 games this season.
Second, Iowa will be implementing a new offense after the promotion of Brian Ferentz this past spring. While nearly all Iowa fans rejoiced at the departure of Greg Davis, it’s not clear as to exactly what Brian is going to do different and whether that will translate into better production. I, for one, am very excited for Brian to take the offensive reigns and feel like he brings an energy to the offense that has been lacking, but that does not mean that his promotion will suddenly lead to fantastic offensive production. He’s still young and new at this and there will likely be some growing pains in the process. Moreover, this is ultimately Kirk Ferentz’s football team, and if history serves as a guide, Iowa is going to do a lot of the same things Iowa has always done. So, long story short, we don’t know what to expect from the offense or how it might change as the season goes along, and that makes predicting what Iowa is going to do this year all the more challenging.
As a true fan, it is impossible to objectively predict what I think my team is going to do in any given season. There is the gut reaction pessimist in me that wants to predict the worst, there is the ever hopeful optimist who believes everything will go right (the one that’s still basking in the glow of 2015), and the realist who wants to make as objective a prediction as the facts allow. So instead of trying to distill all those forces into a single prediction I am going to give you all of them and the reasoning behind each one. Here we go:
Pessimist Hawkeye fan 6-6 (4-5 conference): This is going to be a rough year, not because of any particular reason other than it just feels like it. Iowa has had quite a few things go its way the last couple seasons and that simply cannot continue. Iowa also lost a lot of talent last year and reason dictates that there has to be some sort of drop off. Sure, Brian will bring some new stuff to the table on offense, but there are going to be growing pains and you can’t just magically fix all of the problems in the passing game by changing the offensive coordinator. You still need guys who can catch the ball. Beyond that, it seems like most people are basing Iowa’s offensive production on Wadley’s dynamism. But what if Wadley gets hurt? If Wadley isn’t out there what will the offense do, take a few knees, punt, and hope the defense can score? Topping it all off, Iowa’s schedule is brutal with only a handful of pretty sure wins anchored by three pretty sure losses and a half dozen that are at best coin flips. Battling for bowl eligibility might be the most Iowa can hope for this year.
Optimist Hawkeye Fan 11-1 (8-1 conference): Iowa football will be great this year. The lines are fantastic, the linebackers and running backs are superb, and we now have an offensive coordinator that understands Iowa football. This team will be pure Iowa and it will be glorious. Despite the extended QB battle this summer, Stanley will be phenomenal. There was a reason he jumped to first backup last year as a true freshman and there won’t be any hiding it come September 2 (not to mention Stanley will enjoy the Iowa QB tradition of having their best season the first year they start). Wadley will not only run for 1200+ yards, he’ll receive for another 500+ and the Heisman whispers will be quite loud come the end of November. Vandenberg will have a solid senior season, as will at least 2 other breakout WRs as Iowa rolls to a B1G title game after defeating Wisconsin in November (their lone loss coming to Michigan State in week 5, a loss that helps focus the team for the rest of the season). Go Hawks!
Realist Hawkeye Fan 8-4 (5-4 conference): This year is going to be a lot like last year. The lines are great, the LBs and RBs are experienced and dynamic, and Iowa is good at what Iowa is known for being good at. Brian is a fantastic hire and will do several things that will help Iowa be great over the next several years. Still, this season is going to be rough at times. QB play will be up and down, and Iowa will lose a few games getting stuck in the mud on offense and begging the defense to bail them out. The schedule is also pretty rough, and while I think Iowa will jump up and surprise an Ohio State, a Penn State, or a Wisconsin, it will likely lose two of those and fall to a couple other close B1G opponents. Stanley will grow over the course of the season, the passing game will be better, the run game will produce at least one 1000 yard rusher (maybe two, barring injuries), and Iowa will generally be fun to watch most weekends. Though it won’t be one of those seasons you remember for years to come, it will still be filled will some exciting plays and set the foundation for a new era of Iowa football.