This is part the part of the Big Ten Blog season where we preview the upcoming football season in a road trip fashion. Next stop, it's all I-80 East. Iowa. The Motherland.
2016 Record (Bowl Game): 8-5 (Outback Bowl vs. Florida, L 3-30)
Iowa was one stop away from the 2015 College Football Playoff before they were throttled by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But in similar fashion to 2009, a season in which the Hawkeyes also had double-digit wins, Kirk Ferentz was offered a contract extension that would lock him up for a decade. The most recent extension was finalized after Iowa's opening weekend win against Miami (Oh.) 45-21.
It wasn't such an outrageous notion that Iowa would lock up Ferentz given other Big Ten teams were using Ferentz's expiring contract as a recruiting ploy against Iowa even though Iowa doesn't recruit particularly well (47th overall nationally according to Phil Steele). What's most galling about the extension are the ridiculous incentives. If Iowa is to win 7 games in each of the next five seasons, Ferentz's contract is GUARANTEED if he were to be fired between 2021-2025. God bless his agent as if Ferentz ever had any intentions of creating a new legacy someplace else in his early sixties. Iowa stumbled early in 2016, losing to North Dakota State week 3, starting the post-Rose Bowl hangover. The season was highlighted by an upset of then #2 Michigan and thrashing Nebraska 40-10 to end the season. But, it was 8-4 in a season where they avoided Ohio State. A quarterback competition and replacement of a staple in the secondary will highlight a season of transition in 2017.
The Iowa offense will have different look in 2017. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is out and Brian Ferentz is in after being the offensive line coach since 2012. Though the younger Ferentz will implement some youthful ambition into the offense, it's tough to imagine the offensive scheme will stray too far from its line-dominating rushing attack. This will be due to attrition and addition within the skill position grouping.
Two-year starter CJ Beathard has graduated creating a quarterback competition between sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers, though every indication is pointing to the former taking the reigns week 1. Unfortunately for Stanley, running back Akrum Wadley is his leading returning receiver. Senior Matt Vandeberg was Iowa's leading receiver in 2015 before breaking his foot early in the 2016 season during a practice following a game at Rutgers. Graduate transfer Matt Quarells comes from New Mexico after totaling 11 catches for 180 yards in 2016. He'll be looked as a key producer at wide receiver. That's how thin Iowa's receiving group is.
The aforementioned Wadley returns at running back along with his 1081 yards and 6.4 yards per carry. Joining him will be another graduate transfer and the best running back from the Mountain West Conference. Nevada's James Butler will use his final year of eligibility to be closer to home as he's originally from suburban Bloomingdale. According to Pro Football Focus, Butler led the nation in missed tackles forced with 87. The irony of him making finishing his career at Iowa comes after former Nevada coach Brian Polian dubbed Butler "Big Ten caliber." Wadley and Butler will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation as they return four of five lineman from the 2016 winners of the Joe Moore Award for top offensive line in the country. Whether or not Nathan Stanley and a mostly unproven group of receivers can transition into an offense lead by Brian Ferentz will tell whether or not the running game can open up.
Cornerback Desmond King was Iowa's first Thorpe Award winner for top defensive back in the nation in 2015 after tallying eight interceptions and 13 passes broken up. Though he did replicate that in 2016, his departure to the NFL leaves a tremendous hole in the back. Sophomore Manny Ragumba and junior Joshua Jackson are charged with having to replace King and Greg Mabin at cornerback Some experience with come from the safety position as Miles Taylor and Jake Gervase have starting experience. Gervase had three interceptions in the spring game. That's either good news for the secondary or horrid news for the new quarterback prospects.
What won't change for Iowa is the front defensive seven. Since 2001 Iowa has allowed over 23 points per game in a season just twice. Last year Iowa returned eight starters allowed just south of 19 points per game and 18.63 yards per point which was third behind Ohio State and Wisconsin. Eight starters also return from last year's team. The linebackers will return all three starters including Josey Jewell who was 4th team All-American. He's the second leading returning tackler in the conference behind Indiana's Tegray Scales. He'll be joined by Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on his flanks. The defensive line will be without Jaleel Johnson at tackle but will return three other starters on the line. Parker Hesse and Matt Nelson combined for 9.5 sacks on the ends while Nathan Bazata provides veteran starts at tackle. Look for freshman AJ Epenesa to find his way onto the line as a true freshman out of Edwardsville.
Iowa's schedule did them a TON of favors in 2015. They missed out of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. It was chaos. Colin Cowherd was upset so you know it was real. Iowa missed out on Ohio State last year but found themselves at the end of a pounding in Happy Valley. Iowa's schedule does them no favors this year as they make trips to Wisconsin and Northwestern in the West. The only thing they can take solace in is that they host Ohio State and Penn State. With the questions at skill positions Iowa's margin for error is incredibly low. It'll take a major upset of someone in the East while beating Wisconsin for Iowa to have a shot at Indianapolis. They should get to seven wins though ;).