Saturday, August 4, 2012

Previewing Big Ten Football: Iowa

Despite being the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten, Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes have been taking some steps backward over the last couple of years.  They went 11-2 in 2009 and won the Orange Bowl, but have went 8-8 in Big Ten play in the last two seasons and went down to 7 wins in 2011.  I don't think anybody expects Iowa to continue this trend and become a Big Ten bottom dweller, but it does signal Iowa's removal from Big Ten Championship contention.  They will be looking to return to that form in 2012, but it will be a challenge.

If Iowa has one thing to lean on in 2012, it's their senior quarterback James Vandenberg.  While he's not quite one of the Big Ten's elite quarterbacks yet (he wasn't even in honorable All-Big Ten last year), he is quite formidable.  He threw for over 3000 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only 7 interceptions last year.  For a team that has traditionally relied on defense under Ferentz, those are some pretty good numbers.

The big questions on offense revolve around Vandenberg's surrounding cast.  Iowa essentially has no stable running back for 2012.  Injuries and off-field issues have removed the most likely candidates for playing time, leaving Iowa's coaches to look at players like Damon Bullock and two true freshman to fill the void at running back.  There will be very little experience here and unless one of the recruits truly comes out with a full head of steam, this is going to be a weak group for Iowa.

The likelihood of a weak running game is even further displayed by key losses up front.  Three starters will need to be replaced if Iowa has any hope at running the ball consistently.  However, replacing some very talented players including 1st round NFL Draft pick Riley Reiff is going to be a major challenge.  Iowa has shown that it can develop offensive linemen under Ferentz so I wouldn't say this should be a major concern, but they weren't exactly fantastic last year, getting 3.95 yards per carry.  To compare, Michigan averaged 5.15  in 2011.  Taking major losses to an already average line is not exactly good news for Iowa fans.

Iowa brings back a ton of depth at receiver, returning all of their top 4 leading receivers, except one.  However, the one they are losing is Marvin McNutt, who was one of the best receivers in the Big Ten last season.  I'm not one that typically believes losing one receiver will devastate a team, especially in this case since Iowa returns so many quality receivers, but McNutt really was the best on the team.  Over the course of the 2011 season, he had 32 more receptions, 602 yards, and 8 more touchdowns than the second leading receiver for Iowa.  Those are some pretty big numbers to replace.  He was practically "other worldly" when compared to Iowa's remaining receivers.  They should be ok, even without McNutt in 2012, but it's going to put even more pressure on Vandenberg to carry the team.

On the defensive side, Iowa has some nice pieces and the potential to have one of the Big Ten's better defenses if the defensive line can become a backfield threat.  Poor defensive line play was one of the major factors that made last year's Iowa defense one of the weaker ones in recent memory.  The unit will be one of flux, since Dominic Alvis is their biggest returner.  He finished with just 1.5 sacks last season and was not even listed as the starter after spring practice due to injury.

Right now, the likely starters appear to be Alvis and Joe Gagilo as defensive ends.  Adding onto that are Davis/Cooper and Trinca - Pasat in the tackle positions.  Some battles for starting positions are good for a team because they featured two very qualified players.  That is not the case for Iowa's defensive line.  Perhaps they can develop into a good, solid defensive line during the 2012 season, but right now, they just don't have the talent or experience returning.  There is a reason Iowa averaged just 1.62 sacks per game last year as a team.

If the defensive line can find a few players that are capable next year, their defense could very likely take a step forward.  Their linebackers should be good with James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens as the likely starters.  All three will be juniors and bring back a lot of experience for the team.  This could be one of the best linebacking groups in the conference.  Morris and Kirksey led the team in tackles last year and Hitchens had 25 tackles himself, despite only playing in 8 games.  One does have to wonder if the poor performance of their defensive line brought up these numbers, but that would solidify my argument about Iowa's defensive line even more.  They are the key to a good 2012 Iowa defense.

The secondary should also be pretty decent with Micah Hyde returning at corner.  There should be a battle for the other corner position with B.J. Lowery being the likely starter, but Nico Law and Tanner Miller are going to be a good safety pair.  Law played in 12 games last year as a freshman and Tanner Miller had 76 tackles last season, good for 4th on the team.  The thing to stress about the Iowa back seven is that although they are on the young side, they are pretty experienced.  The questions will just be about whether the defensive line can give the back seven a chance.

On the recruiting side, there are a few players that deserve to be mentioned.  The first and most obvious are Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill, who will be attempting to fill Iowa's massive hole at running back.  Knowing Iowa's recent tradition of horrible luck in the backfield, I wish both the best of luck.  But in all seriousness, they do have a chance to get some serious playing time and with Garmon's 4* ranking and decent size as a true freshman, he could develop into a pretty good back.

Iowa also brings in a few defensive ends that could help fill depth, but it's always a challenge to get true freshmen linemen to be able to play significantly.  Of course, most eyes will be on 4* recruit Faith Ekakitie, but like I said, it will be a tough battle for any of these players to get playing time.  Ekakitie and Reid Sealby have decent size, but you never know how much is "good" weight and how much is "bad" weight coming out of high school.  Regardless, if the defensive line has early struggles, there's a chance these guys could see some time.

Iowa is shaped up to have a decent year, but they will probably be about the same or worse in 2012 as they were in 2011.  They did lose a few close games in 2011 that they probably deserved to win and may have been a tad better than their 7-6 record, but they are going to have to recover from some major offseason losses, coaching changes, and deal with a pretty tough schedule.  They have a good chance at sweeping the non-conference schedule if they can beat in-state rival Iowa State (they lost to the Cyclones last year), but road trips to East Lansing and Ann Arbor are going to be very difficult.  Add in a tough Northwestern team, an experienced Purdue, and solid Nebraska and you have a pretty tough schedule.  Kyle has Iowa at 8-4, but I think that's just a little too much given their offseason losses and schedule.  I could see them going as low as 6-6 or maybe even 5-7 if the perfect storm occurs.

Iowa Predictions:
Record: 7-6
Big Ten Finish: 6th
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Low
Upset Status: Low
Bowl Status: Average Bowl

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