This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
After a couple of seasons in the Big Ten championship mix, Iowa returned only eight starters a season ago. In addition, a Rhabdo incident during winter conditioning set the team back in trying to put so many new faces in critical starting positions. The indications did not look good heading into 2011, and that bore out as the season progressed.
New starting quarterback James Vandenberg took some lumps in non-conference play, in which the Hawkeyes managed a 3-1 record despite serious struggles against Iowa State and Pittsburgh. The Big Ten season went mostly to form, except for two strange weeks in the middle of conference play with a roadtrip at Minnesota and a home game against Michigan.
In the game at Minnesota, the Hawkeyes had another "failures of inexperience" moment as a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead dissipated in a shocking loss to their rival. The following week, a much better Michigan team was roaring back from a 24-9 deficit and Iowa's young defense held firm at the goal line to avoid another disappointing loss.
Instead of letting the Minnesota loss wreck the season, the young Hawkeyes overcame the adversity and did not let it happen again. With a few more starters and more experience on the roster overall, Iowa should be better than a season ago. However, the schedule will do no favors with Iowa being stuck in the better division for the 2012 season.
Will the big game hunter, Vandenberg, have another chance at winning a conference championship in his senior season? Will Iowa have anyone left to run the ball? Is another bowl game against the Big 12 in the cards? Let's take a look.
Despite replacing long time starting quarterback Ricky Stanzi, James Vandenberg largely maintained the offensive pace a season ago with 235 passing yards per game. His 25 to 7 touchdown to interception ratio was more than good enough to keep opposing defenses honest. When top running back Marcus Coker was suspended from the bowl game, Vandenberg could not overcome the loss because Iowa became too one-dimensional.
This is precisely what the problem could be once again during the 2012 season. To succeed in Big Ten play on a season-long basis, you must be able to run the ball effectively to wear down opposing defenses and keep your own defense off the field. But Iowa's running back position has been plagued by injuries and off-the-field problems that continue into 2012.
Marcus Coker left the program early by transferring following the suspension from the bowl game. The most likely replacement, Jordan Canzeri, tore his ACL in the spring and is out for the season. The only two other players with more than 10 rushing attempts a season ago are also now gone, as Mika'il McCall transferred and De'Andre Johnson was dismissed from the program this month.
That leaves two true freshmen, Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill, sophomore Damon Bullock and junior FB Brad Rogers as the remaining running backs. Although the freshmen appear most likely to carry most of the burden, Bullock and Rogers were listed first on the pre-season two-deep depth chart above the freshman. These running backs should have some openings to run through with outstanding senior linemen James Ferentz and Matt Tobin leading some new starters on the line.
Vandenberg does lose his top receiving target, Marvin McNutt, but the next three top receivers return in Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley, and C.J. Fiedorowicz. Expect a few more plays to the TE Fiedorowicz, especially if teams are cheating against the Iowa passing game.
Vandenberg is one of the conference's best quarterbacks, and he will need to live up to all of that potential if Iowa is to continue scoring up to four touchdowns a game. Assuming the young tailbacks can avoid the injury bug, Iowa should be able to avoid a huge fall-off from the production of the 2011 season.
In 2011, the inexperience of the Hawkeyes was most sorely felt on the defense, which stumbled to give up 379 yards per game and almost 24 points per game. The Hawkeyes really struggled to slow down opposing rushing games, which led to tired fourth quarter defensive lapses, such as in the loss to Minnesota. The defense is still pretty young, but the pressure will be much higher with the question marks on offense in 2012.
For the second straight season, the defensive line has lost three starters and a couple more in the two deep. Dominic Alvis is the only returning starter as a defensive end, and he will need to improve dramatically from the 30 tackles he produced a season ago. The new starters in the middle of the line will probably be sophomore Carl Davis and senior Steve Bigach, and they will need to play well quickly to stop the problems from a season ago (too much effective running against the Hawkeyes).
The linebackers racked up a ton of tackles a season ago, which was a bad sign for the line but a good effort for this unit. Juniors Christian Kirksey and James Morris both return after tying with 110 tackles apiece for the team lead in 2011. Both players will need to generate more quarterback hurries and sacks after lackluster efforts in those statistics a season ago.
The linebackers will certainly be the strength of the defense again though, and they will help the defensive backfield cover the opposing receivers. Senior CB Micah Hyde is the leader of the defensive backfield and will try to improve on his lock down coverage from a season ago. If Hyde can generate six or more turnovers, then the defense will have a chance to make up for any offensive deficiencies this season.
Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, this defense will need to improve its play dramatically to bring the Hawkeyes back to the standards set over the past few years before 2011. As a result, it will be difficult to win tough road games like those at the two Michigan schools in 2012.
Iowa had some struggles down the stretch in special teams play, and that was unexpected for a Kirk Ferentz-coached team. Look for Ferentz to have his special teams back in elite form this season, especially with a third year kicker leading the way.
That kicker is Mike Meyer, who was 14/17 as a freshman and then 14/20 last year as a Groza award semifinalist. Meyer will probably not have another disappointing game like he did against Minnesota a season ago, although Ferentz has to be careful calling on him for 50 yard long attempts or longer (only one made in his career). With continued high levels of production, Meyer will be the star of this unit and could make a big difference in one or two games.
Sophomore Jonny Mullings is an Australian punter that will take over for Eric Guthrie. Mullings has a stronger leg and should improve the 38 yard punt average from a season ago.
In the return game, senior Micah Hyde will probably still take punt returns in view of the lack of young running back talent. Hyde did not break any returns for more than 30 yards a season ago, but he has shown the skill on offense to find openings and make a couple of big plays. Kickoff returns is a question mark, but the blocking should be good for whomever is carrying the ball.
The Hawkeyes' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Northern Illinois (in Chicago) (win)
9/8—Iowa State (win)
9/15—Northern Iowa (win)
9/22—Central Michigan (win)
10/13—@ Michigan State (loss)
10/20—Penn State (win)
10/27—@ Northwestern (loss)
11/3—@ Indiana (win)
Wins for Iowa in 2012?
11/17—@ Michigan (loss)
Projected record: 8-4, 4-4 Big Ten
Other than being in the Legends Division, the Hawkeyes cannot complain about the schedule this season. Pittsburgh comes off the schedule after two tough games the past two seasons, although the replacement Northern Iowa is a very good FCS team to be wary about.
With Iowa State coming to Iowa City, there is no reason that the Hawkeyes should not start 5-0 with a win over Minnesota on homecoming. The two road games at the Michigan schools will be tough assignments, but Iowa proved that they could hang with Michigan a season ago. However, I expect both of those games and at least one of the other road games to be losses.
That puts the emphasis on winning the home games. Michigan and Michigan State probably will not fall back to two or three losses, but Iowa could put themselves in strong bowl position by sweeping the home schedule and capping the season with a win over new rival Nebraska.
If everything breaks right for Iowa with a senior quarterback, the Hawkeyes could possibly win as many 10 games in the tough Legends Division. That would be a huge bounce back for a team struggling with personnel depth issues. It is more likely that Iowa will be the usual, steady, middle-of-the-road team in the Big Ten this year.
With only five senior starters in 2012, Iowa could be building up for a big year in 2013. That's something good to build towards, even if 2012 does not bring competitiveness for a conference championship.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!