After a solid 2008 season in which Iowa improved greatly as the season went on, the expectations are very high in Iowa City. Many Hawkeye fans see a Big Ten Championship caliber football team in 2009 and there is no doubt that this group has that kind of potential.
The problem that persists is the schedule, which has been the cause for concern for experts around the country. Iowa must visit Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Ohio State, a brutal away schedule that most teams would be happy to escape from 2-2.
Phil Steele points out the dilemma perfectly. He has the Hawkeyes ranked 16th in his power poll and points out that they are at least the 16th best team in the nation, but ranks them 20th in his actual top 40 poll because of the brutal schedule.
While most of the country is expecting a 2-2 split in those four road games and a third place conference finish with a Capital One Bowl berth, many Hawkeye fans are expecting much more.
Many Iowans are expecting a 3-1 record in those games, with most of them agreeing a win would come against Penn State. With that mentality, the Hawkeyes would be 11-1, which means some fans are expecting no less than a BCS Bowl.
We already know that the defense and the offensive line are good enough to achieve this record. Phil Steele says the linebacking corps, which is led by Pat Angerer, "may be the best in the country." The defensive backfield, which was seventh in the nation in pass defense, may be even better this year.
ESPN's Adam Rittenberg calls cornerback Amari Spievey "one of the best in the country" and Tyler Sash should improve on a very impressive sophomore season in which he was tied for the Big Ten lead with five interceptions.
The offensive line, led by possible top 10 draft pick Bryan Bulaga, figues to be one of the best in the nation, as confirmed by many experts including ESPN's Adam Rittenberg and Phil Steele.
While many positions are good enough to maybe even compete for a national title, quarterback Ricky Stanzi is feeling the heat. While he improved greatly over his sophomore season, including leading his team on a game winning drive against Penn State, some feel that his success was only due to Shonn Greene.
Many don't think he will be able to do the same thing with new running back Jewel Hampton.
Hampton is a lot better than most people think. He rushed for almost 500 yards last year as a backup. He will have an even better offensive line in 2009 that should open up even more holes than it did for Shonn Greene. Although he isn't Shonn Greene, he should be one of the better backs in the Big Ten.
Now, back to Stanzi. He has the potential to be an excellent college quarterback, but needs to improve on an average 2008 season for the Hawkeyes to have a legitimate shot at a Big Ten Championship or a BCS Bowl. Granted, he was just a sophomore last year and still has plenty of time to improve.
Last year, he always did enough to survive until Greene took over, but this year, with a less experienced running back, he will have to take over at times when Greene would have in 2008.
The thing that will help Stanzi this year is an improved batch of wide receivers. Last year, his receivers didn't help him out very much and he had to mainly rely on his tight ends. This year, the whole receiving corps will be improved.
Quarterback turned wide receiver Marvin McNutt has looked excellent this spring and incoming freshman Keenan Davis will be a big help as well. The tight ends will be polished once again, especially if Tony Moeaki can stay healthy, and it seems like this group will be a very decent batch of receivers for Stanzi.
I really don't see Stanzi being much of a problem, but his every move will be scrutinized. After his first interception people will say "that wouldn't have happened with Greene." He needs to be able to block out that criticism and focus on improving week by week.
If he can do that, Iowa will definitely have a realistic shot for at least the Capital One Bowl, and maybe an 11-1 and BCS Bowl season.
While Kirk Ferentz has been on the hot seat for the past few years, this year he will be able to relax, as it seems he has finally brought the Hawkeyes back to their winning ways and just singed a contract extension that brings him through 2015. Defensive coordinator Norm Parker will be safe, as always, as he figures to have one of the best defenses in the country.
The one coach that is somewhat on the hot seat is offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe. Hawkeye fans seem like they are never happy with O'Keefe and the criticism came last year with good reason as he struggled to settle on Stanzi as his quarterback over Jake Christensen before it was too late.
O'Keefe is not a very aggressive play caller and has received increasing pressure to change his style since many other teams in the Big Ten and across the country are changing their offenses.
His simple play calling worked last year with Shonn Greene pounding the ball all game, but without his star running back, O'Keefe may have to change up his system. If he doesn't, he will receive more pressure than perhaps anyone on the team, but the bad image will also reflect on Stanzi, which won't help the offense one bit.
I think that O'Keefe has learned from last year. He became more aggressive as the season progressed and knows that he can't rely on the offense that worked with Shonn Greene.
Kirk Ferentz's words to ESPN sum up the offense exactly, "We're a different team so you don't plug holes—you assess what it is you are, what your stremgths are, and you shift towards those strengths. We could go the opposite route of what we were in some ways."
If O'Keefe can listen to his head coach, the offense will have no problem this year and Stanzi will be a top quarterback in the Big Ten.
Even though the expectations are high in Iowa City this year, this veteran group of Hawkeyes looks like they can handle the pressure. From corner to running back and linebacker to receiver, this is a solid football team backwards and forwards. If Stanzi and the offense improve even a little bit form 2008, 10-2 or 11-1 are definitely not out of the question.
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