By the end of the 2012 football season, the 4-8 Iowa Hawkeyes football team might best have been described as hopeless. However, there are signs that prospects may be on the rise in Iowa City.
Generally speaking, the Hawkeyes return eight starters on both sides of the ball along with both specialists. Moreover, due to injuries, the returning non-starters on offense gained a good deal of experience even if they didn't start.
If that isn't enough, there are a number of little glimmers of optimism that aren't as palpable as the returning starters.
Reading tea leaves is ultimately best done after the fact, but if the Hawkeyes turn things around in 2013, the following are potential signs of hope for an otherwise dejected fanbase.
The key word here is "group."
Iowa has had talented running backs in the recent past.
In 2011, Marcus Coker rushed for 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns.
In 2010, Adam Robinson and true freshman Coker combined to run for 1,563 yards and 4.93 yards per carry. Of course, neither of them was ever healthy and/or available at the same time.
However, Iowa has not had two or more experienced, healthy, talented running backs available at the same time since Albert Young and Damian Sims graduated following the 2007 season.
As of now, the Hawkeyes have juniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, along with sophomore Jordan Canzeri and redshirt freshman Barkley Hill in the backfield.
It is a long time until August, and as USA Today reported before the 2012 season started, that is especially true for Iowa running backs.
Nonetheless, if they can all stay healthy, out of trouble and choose to remain in Iowa City, the Hawks' backfield should overflow in 2013.
Left tackle Brandon Scherff was playing as well as any lineman in the Big Ten before he broke his leg in the seventh game of the season. He missed the remainder of the year, but according to Steve Batterson of the Quad City Times, he is expected to be medically cleared for spring practices.
Junior Brett Van Sloten had a quietly solid year at right tackle. He wasn't as dominant as Scherff, but another strong year could put him into the late rounds of the 2014 NFL draft.
The Hawks have a lot of experience to play with at the inside positions.
Sophomore Andrew Donnal had three starts at right guard and was beginning to come into his own before he twisted his ankle two plays after Scherff went down. He missed the rest of the season but is also expected to be cleared for the spring.
Redshirt freshman Austin Blythe grabbed the other nine starts at right guard, and he played like a freshman. Next year will be an opportunity for him to take the next step.
Conor Boffeli will be a senior in 2013. He finally saw playing time last year, starting the final three games at left guard. He spent the previous two seasons as a constant presence on the depth chart.
Nolan MacMillan will also be a senior. He started the first six games of 2010 at right guard before an injury ended his year. He then spent 2011 on the injured list before coming back last year. He looked rusty in limited appearances, but he will push for playing time if he can get back into shape.
Finally, redshirt freshman Jordan Walsh didn't gain any starts, but he did see a good deal of playing time in 2012.
Donnal, Blythe, Boffeli, MacMillan and Walsh will contend for the guard spots, while Blythe, Boffeli and JUCO transfer Eric Simmons will compete for center.
In short, with the talent in the backfield and up front, the Hawkeyes will have the raw materials to field one of the best rushing games in the Big Ten.
During the early part of his tenure, Kirk Ferentz established a reputation for fielding top-notch special teams. Blocked punts, such as the two Iowa managed during the 2005 Capital One Bowl were commonplace, and Nate Kaeding, the Hawkeyes kicker from 2000 to 2003, was Mr. Automatic.
However, over the last few years, Iowa special teams have been anywhere from inconsistent to awful, with the 2010 showdown against Arizona serving as a prime example of the latter.
Nonetheless, one of the few positives of the 2012 season was the special teams play.
Place kicker Mike Meyer started the year off on a tear, hitting 14 of his first 15 field-goal attempts. He fell off at the end of the season, going 3-of-6, though that was partially because he only attempted six field goals in the final six games.
If Meyer can bring consistency to his senior year, he will have a shot at being one of the best in the country.
Lastly, Jordan Cotton established himself as one of the nation's best kickoff return specialists. He led the conference in return average, and No. 2 was almost five yards per return behind him.
The Hawkeyes should have one of the best special teams groups in the Big Ten if Kornbrath can take some steps as a sophomore and the rest of the special teams can keep up the play of 2012.
And if they can remember to pick up the ball on onside kicks.
It's pointless going over the offensive mess that was 2012 Hawkeyes football, and it is especially pointless going over the passing game.
Simply put, it was as bad as it has ever been in the Kirk Ferentz era, an era in which Iowa has rarely had better than a mediocre offense. On the other hand, there were certain realities the Hawkeye offense faced in 2012—realities that contributed greatly to the offense's demise.
Firstly, it broke in a new offensive coordinator (OC) for the first time since Kirk Ferentz took the head coaching job in 1999.
Along with Greg Davis, the new OC, came new terminology and a new passing game that focused on a vertical passing attack.
This passing attack requires a quarterback who is deadly accurate within 10 yards. As Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted before the season began, it also requires fast receivers that quickly gain separation and make plays after the catch.
Unfortunately, it became obvious that the Iowa roster was short on those sorts of receivers, and quarterback James Vandenberg was a trapezoidal peg trying to fit into a triangular hole.
In 2013, the quarterback and receivers will have had a full two years in Greg Davis' system. Moreover, as Pat Harty of Hawkcentral noted, the Hawks have begun bringing in the fast receivers that Davis covets.
It's impossible to say if this will lead to an offensive attack that is an improvement over mediocre, but it can't get much worse, and odds are pretty good that it will get better.
James Morris has been a starter since he was a true freshman. He was pressed into action due to a bevy of linebacker injuries, but he performed as well as one could expect from a first-year collegiate athlete.
A great deal was expected out of Morris in 2011, but he didn't make the strides Hawkeye fans hoped for. He followed 2011 up with a stagnant-at-best 2012.
Weak-side linebacker Anthony Hitchens led the Big Ten in tackles per game with 11.27. Unfortunately, too many of those tackles were of the blindly-dive-at-the-ball-carrier's-feet variety. In effect, as Steve Batterson reported, Hitchens was benched during the Purdue game.
The Hawkeyes' most consistent linebacker was Christian Kirksey, who manned the strong side. Kirksey is as solid in coverage as a safety. He notched two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. However, despite recording 95 tackles, he still has trouble getting off blocks and bringing the ball-carrier down.
All three starting linebackers return, as does every backup.
If Morris, Hitchens and Kirksey, all of whom will be seniors, can fulfill the promise they have sporadically shown throughout their careers, the Hawkeyes defense will be exponentially better than it was in 2012.
Next year looks to be a tough Big Ten. Early returns at nationalchamps.net have five conference teams in its early-bird top 25. Ohio State returns most of its conference-best scoring offense, Nebraska returns a talented group of offensive skill players and Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin each return 15.
Furthermore, though National Champs doesn't have Michigan in its early-bird top 25, it would be foolish to count the Wolverines out.
All of those teams will be on Iowa's schedule next year, along with a road trip to Iowa State and a home game against MAC-champion Northern Illinois.
Despite a more imposing schedule than 2012, as a Hawkeye fan, I have learned to ignore schedules where it concerns Kirk Ferentz. He has the ability to beat any opponent, no matter how talented (see Penn State 2008 or Michigan 2011 for examples), and he has the ability—for lack of a better term—to lose to any opponent, no matter how lousy (Central Michigan 2012, Minnesota 2010 and 2011).
The big problem lately has been that the unpredictable losses have far outnumbered the unpredictable wins.
That said, next season's team doesn't look like a championship team.
Nonetheless, there is talent and if everything goes right and these "signs of hope" come to fruition, the 2013 Hawkeyes could go 8-4 (4-4 in conference).