Recently, I posted my (arguably optimistic) opinion on how the Hawkeyes will finish the season.
I further noted that the best-case scenario for the Hawks would be nine wins.
I gave a brief summary of what would have to go right for Iowa to reach that nine-win plateau, let alone the eight wins that I predicted.
However, there are more elements on the football field than the three issues that I noted were key to the Hawkeyes maximizing their potential.
In effect, this article will look at exactly what Iowa needs to do in order to do as well as it possibly can.
This has been posted multiple times, but it bears repeating and says all that needs to be said about Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg.
His statistics at home: 61.4 completion percentage, 1,798 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, 158.51 passer efficiency rating.
His statistics away from Kinnick Stadium: 55.8 completion percentage, 1,224 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions, 117.37 passer efficiency rating.
His statistics against unranked teams: nine games, 63 percent completion rate, 2,191 yards, 20 touchdowns, four interceptions, 157.22 passer efficiency rating.
His statistics against ranked teams: four games, 51 percent completion rate, 831 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions, 105.65 passer efficiency rating.
If the Hawkeyes are to maximize their potential, JVB doesn't have to have to have a 158.51 passer efficiency away from home or against ranked teams, but he has to be be closer to 158.51 than 117.37.
It's that simple, and more than anything else, it will be the key to the season.
Speaking of consistency, the pass-catchers have to step up.
There are no official collegiate stats concerning dropped passes, although Hawkeye Gamefilm on Hawkeyenation.com has an unofficial toll, and it's not pretty.
According to his tally, Iowa pass-catchers dropped approximately 2.5 passes per game in 2011.
That was with Big Ten Receiver of the Year Marvin McNutt, who has moved on to ply his wares for the Philadelphia Eagles.
This will have to turn around in 2012.
In short, if the ball hits a pass-catcher in the hands—or chest or any other part of the body—the pass-catcher in question has to bring it in.
Remember 2002-2004, Hawkeye fans?
When field goals were automatic from any distance, the Hawks were always a threat to block punts, the return men were solid and even, occasionally, spectacular, and there was no holding one's breath when Iowa kicked off.
Those days are long gone.
For the last few years, the Iowa special teams have been mediocre at best, awful at worst and consistently inconsistent all the time.
This year, the special teams need a resurgence.
That's a lot to ask with a new punter and new kick returner, not to mention a poor ending to the 2011 season for place-kicker Mike Meyer.
Iowa's potential defensive line woes in 2012 have been well-documented, but Marc Morehouse of The Gazette put it succinctly when he wrote, "Iowa football ’12 is under construction and nowhere is that more evident than the defensive line."
Using spring ball as a guideline, the starting line will most likely feature (from left to right): junior Dominic Alvis, who is coming off a torn ACL, redshirt freshman Darian Cooper, senior Steve Bigach and senior Joe Gaglione.
Unlike Iowa lines of the past, this one will probably rotate, because, as Morehouse further noted, "1) Who knows who is capable of what? The only way to find out is give them a taste of playing time. 2) The youth of this group probably means everyone is in the same boat talent and technique-wise. If there isn’t a lot of separation, again, a rotation might at least maximize energy and effort."
In effect, others that might see playing time include sophomores Carl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Mike Hardy, and redshirt freshmen Melvin Spears, Dean Tsopanides and Riley McMinn.
The reality is those looking for this line to play at the level of the 2008 or 2009 line will be disappointed, and that's not arguable.
Nonetheless, the line could play beyond its years and experience and be adequate.
Unfortunately, that's the best we can hope for, and hopefully, if it does come to pass, it will be enough.
Recently, Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants asked whether junior linebacker James Morris would finish his college career as Mike Klinkenborg—solid and reliable, but unspectacular—or Pat Angerer—All-Conference.
This, to some degree, could be asked about Iowa's trio of junior linebackers—Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens—who will probably be the Hawks' starting three.
Morris has been a starter since his true freshman year, having moved from the middle to the strong side and back to the middle.
Kirksey saw his first prime-time action last year, as he started every game on the weak side.
Hitchens has yet to start a game, but he saw a good deal of playing time last year on special teams and as a backup.
The 2005 team might serve as an example of the importance of the linebackers.
That Hawkeye squad started two undersized redshirt freshmen at defensive tackle and two inexperienced sophomores at end. In other words, the line was in even worse shape than the 2012 group projects to be.
Yet, the defense finished the season a respectable third in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally in scoring defense.
Much of the reason for that was because of returning All-Conference senior linebackers Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge.
This year, if Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens take the next step in their progression, they could make the same difference that Hodge and Greenway made.
I went into this in detail with a previous article, but the reference to a "more aggressive defensive scheme," is not a call for new defensive coordinator Phil Parker to call blitzes with the liberality of Michigan State.
Rather, it's an acceptance of the reality that this year's defensive line will not be able to get to the quarterback and control the line of scrimmage the way past Iowa defensive fronts have.
This will call for adjustments, such as pressing the cornerbacks, dropping safeties into the box and using blitzes to generate pressure, especially on third down.
Both Parker and Ferentz are aware of this.
Parker has repeatedly mentioned (via the Cedar Rapids Gazette) that the cornerbacks will play press coverage this year.
Ferentz also dug into his English Lit background and drew up the metaphor (via Rivals), "If all you do is throw fast balls, you better be throwing it up near a hundred coming in. But if you can't throw it up that high, you better have a couple other things in your repertoire, at least one other good pitch. You get a guy off guard a little bit. I think that's what we'll have to do."
This year, look for a lot more breaking balls and change-ups than Iowa typically throws.
Last season, Iowa allowed opponents to convert on 45.89 percent of their third downs.
Let that number sink in—45.89 percent.
That means opponents converted on almost half of their third-down attempts.
That was 11th in the Big Ten—only Indiana was worse—and 99th in the country.
As has been previously inferred, this defense will not be great. It might not, and I expect it won't allow less points per game than last year's defense—23.8 PPG.
However, the key will be to get the defense off the field on third down.
The defense will get tired quickly if it gives up third-down conversions like last year. At that point, in the second half, the opposing offense will walk all over Iowa's tired D.
Third down is an opportunity, much like the red zone for the offense.
The defense will have to take advantage of it.
It is well-established that Kirk Ferentz is conservative, but what exactly does that mean?
The most appropriate dictionary definition is definition No. 3b from Merriam-Webster.com: "marked by moderation or caution."
In other words, Kirk Ferentz is not going to take a chance on a turnover or a sack or giving up a long play, and he will always err on the side of his defense. He will leave points off the board if it means he won't take a chance on putting his defense in a bad situation.
Following 2011's loss to Iowa State, Marc Morehouse (Cedar Rapids Gazette) wrote a column in which he defended Ferentz's conservatism, arguing that it "works more...than it doesn't," and Iowa fans have to ride the highs and lows.
However, Horace E. Cow's post on Black Heart Gold Pants regarding Iowa and Iowa State entitled "Statistical In-Ferentz" was more accurate. The article noted that Ferentz's decisions in the game were less conservative in the truest sense and more "pathologically risk averse."
The issue is Ferentz often sticks rigidly to what he has done and what has worked for him, seemingly without considering what is going on, on the field.
This was never truer than at Iowa State last year.
This season, Iowa will be in for a long year if Ferentz leans on his defense the way he has in years past, and the way he often did last year to the detriment of the team.
Ferentz's philosophy does work but only when he has a staunch defense—think 2003, 2004, 2008 or 2009—that can implement it.
His 2012 D will not be able to hold 7-10 point leads in the fourth quarter. His offense has to put points on the board—end of story. If it doesn't, this will be another year of close losses and blown leads.
In effect, the key to this team's success will be for Ferentz to recognize the inherent dynamic of his team—an offense, and specifically, a passing game with the raw materials to win games—and adjust his philosophy to work with what he has, and not against it.
This became even more pressing with running back De'Andre Johnson's recent double run-in with the Iowa City police, as reported by the Cedar Rapids Gazette (h/t ESPN).
Kirk Ferentz promptly suspended the sophomore following the second incident.
There comes a point when enough is enough. This AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) has gotten out of hand. The vengeful one even has a Twitter account.
Including the true freshmen and Johnson, Iowa has four healthy scholarship backs on its roster. Is it too much to ask that they all finish the season in one piece and out of jail?