12-0 IS PRETTY FUN
Iowa went 12-0, in case you missed that. They did so in a decidedly nonflashy, blue-collar, hardworking, Midwestern fashion. They played stout defense and Ran the Damn BallTM and when the other guys made a mistake, they took advantage. That combination will usually net you some wins in a tight conference like the Big Ten. Lo and behold, the Iowa Hawkeyes pitched a perfect regular season.
The only time they stumbled was when they met a Michigan State team as physical as they were, and despite the final score that game was more or less a stalemate. And yes, while the piper finally got his payment in a Rose Bowl slaughter against Stanford, what Iowa had already accomplished stood on its own. The first undefeated regular season in school history, first appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game in the new era of the Big Ten, and bragging rights over the rest of the division.
But teams are never just their record. While Iowa obviously deserves to celebrate and enjoy 12-0, some grumbly outsiders weren’t impressed. Despite the record, Iowa ranked just 22nd in Sagarin and 47th in S&P+. Outside of blasting Northwestern, the Hawkeyes seldom looked the part of an elite team. While it doesn’t matter how you look if you score more points than the other guys (which Iowa did do twelve times), Iowa fans are setting themselves up for disappointment if they expect to run the table again.
Kirk Ferentz has had his share of ups and downs in Iowa City. Years of plenty usually come in bunches (2002-2004, 2008-2010), but so too do lean years (2005-2007, 2011-2014). The latter usually brings a lot of squawking about buyouts and contract extensions. The former brings expectations.
The good news: enough of the cogs that made the 2015 machine work are back. The defense, a reliable entity in 2015, will likely continue its level of play. The running backs are deep and effective, and keeping a dependable quarterback will always steady a team. Though it may not go undefeated again, Iowa will probably still win a lot games and has the best chance of anyone to represent the West in Indianapolis.
THE BEATHARD GAMBLE PAID OFF
In 2014, sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard was better than the incumbent Jake Rudock is just about every regard. Ferentz, being the conservative coach he is, opted to keep the two-year starter in Rudock even as Beathard outshone him in game action.
Whether Beathard threatened to transfer and take all Iowa’s quarterback depth with him is the subject of rumors, but we know how things played out. Ferentz benched his starter. Rudock transferred to Michigan and Beathard led the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 regular season.
Beathard brought two elements Rudock didn’t. First, mobility. Beathard was a threat to scramble and saved Iowa’s bacon a few times on third down. Second, a deep ball. His was considerably more accurate than Rudock’s and it allowed the occasional aggressive shot into the secondary the likes of which we’re not used to seeing from Ferentz and Davis. It let Iowa get into (very long) field goal range to tie Pitt. Beathard took a few too many sacks, but Iowa fans have to feel pretty good about their quarterback continuity for the first time in several years.
Beathard’s mobility was just one piece of a more diversified run game. For years you could call an Iowa offense in your sleep: Mark Weisman left, Mark Weisman right, Rudock bomb over the middle. Wessman’s departure made Ferentz and OC Greg Davis get a little more creative and mixed in more pieces. Jordan Canzeri became the new bell cow with Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels seeing spot duty. The new tandem worked. Iowa’s rushing output improved from a dire 109th in Rushing S&P+ to 54th.
When you play a slower tempo conservative offense, you have to be able to run. For a few years, Iowa couldn’t. Then it could and we saw what happened. Wadley and Daniels will carry the torch from Canzeri and while you’d love it if one of these backs would break into the open field a handful more times, you can’t get down on this unit. They’re deep and dependable, and Davis is going to run them a lot.
Those are the known entities. Here are the question marks.
At wideout, favorite target Matt VandeBerg returns but a black hole follows him on the depth chart. Big play guy Tevaun Smith is gone as is big tight end Henry Krieger Coble, both to the professional ranks.
A name you’ll likely hear a lot is George Kittle. The number two tight end will take on a more prominent role in an offense that likes tight ends a lot. Kittle made the most of his relief duty in 2015 with 290 yards on just 23 targets. He scored six touchdowns and never dropped a pass. Kittle seems to be flying under the radar a bit but not for long.
The number two wideout is a bit murkier. Jay Scheel is a speedy option who lost his freshman year due to injury. Riley McCarron has seniority but little flash. Jerminic Smith was targeted a few times as a freshman in 2015. Any and all of these will probably see time, but with the VandeBerg/Kittle combo, the passing options are set.
Finally at offensive line, it’s hard to replace guys as solid as Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe, even if Iowa does have a tradition of great linemen. By reslotting some of the the existing players Iowa has an experienced starting five which should be just fine even if the line isn’t as good as last year’s initially.
Part of Iowa’s struggles in recent years has been the result of inconsistent defense. The 2013 defense was a top ten unit per S&P+ rankings, the 2014 unit fell all the way off to 67th, then improved back to 32nd last year. This is a unit that will play conservative until it smells blood, then goes in for the kill to take advantage of a mistake.
And it worked. Over and over in 2015 a Hawkeye defender forced a crucial turnover and handed Iowa a close game.
One key injury threatened to derail the train: defensive end Drew Ott was lost for the year, but Iowa absorbed that loss in stride and suffered relatively little in the way of other injuries. The defensive line loses the absurdly disruptive Ott and Nate Meier but rotated in Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson enough that I think the unit will maintain its 2015 level of play.
The main source of that confidence is in the back seven. Iowa retains the services of linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King, two of the Big Ten’s most disruptive players. (Get it? “Crown Jewells”? Sorry.) Jewell proved as versatile a linebacker as you’re likely to find, capable of playing up close to foul up the run but also sitting back in coverage. His 94(!) tackles led the team, and his four interceptions was the most of any Hawkeye not named Desmond King.
And speaking of King, he was a highly sought-after NFL draft commodity but opted to stay at Iowa for his senior year. He’s bringing his eight 2015 interceptions with him. His sheer athleticism and playmaking ability (combined with some special teams fireworks) could have him a dark horse Heisman candidate.
Keeping these two pieces means Iowa can basically keep doing what it did best in 2015: playing patient and waiting for errors, then pouncing on them.
Don’t get hurt. The Hawkeyes will field three solid linebackers and four or five solid defensive backs, but the lack of depth behind them is troubling. While a difficulty recruiting star power hasn’t doomed this defense yet, there are a whole lot of unrated sophomores and juniors backing up the starters in the secondary and an injury or two could result in a big drop-off in talent.
ALMOST A TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS RESET
. . . but not one very important piece, do-everything returner Desmond King will continue to boost the offense with great field position on kickoffs and punts.
But replacing a killer punter in Dillon Kidd and a game-winning placekicker in Marshall Koehn won’t be easy. Iowa is taking the shotgun approach: eight of the 105 camp spots is held by a specialist. (#B1G #B1G #B1G) Have fun picking through that list if you want to know who Ferentz will send out to punt from the opponent’s 40.
A BETTER TEAM WITH FEWER WINS? MAYBE.
In an alternate universe, Iowa didn’t force a goal line turnover against Wisconsin or fend off Minnesota or pick off Nebraska four times and fielded, say, a 10-2 record. It still would have been cause for celebration, and we would be looking at 2016 Iowa through a much different lens. Continuity at quarterback and running back! Key pieces of the defense back to wreak havoc anew! This Is Our Year!
Instead Iowa has to follow a 12-2 season. I think the 2016 Hawkeyes will be as good or better than the 2015 ones. But the record may not show it.
I’ve said it in several of these previews now (sorry, I tend to repeat myself). To the eyeball, very little separates Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. The Big Ten West champ in 2016 will be the team that isn’t afraid to get dirty and win ugly, close games. Of their four similarly-matched opponents, Iowa gets Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in Iowa City, not to mention cross-divisional foe Michigan.
Given the continuity on both sides of the ball, plus the slightly friendlier schedule (although no one’s schedule is as friendly as Minnesota’s), I think conditions set up nicely for Iowa to repeat as Big Ten West champs.