We're halfway through the college football season and, to the surprise of many, the Iowa Hawkeyes are sitting on top of the Big Ten with a 7-0 record. The Hawkeyes came in at No. 6 in the debut of the BCS Standings (just .0001 points behind Cincinnati), and their high computer scores combined with a good strength of schedule give Iowa a good chance to move up.
All that's left to do is convince the "human" voters, and they seem to be convincing more and more people with each win. Let's break down what we saw from the Hawkeyes during the first half of the season.
Offense: The offense started out struggling this season, with questions in the running game, injuries and suspensions on the offensive line, and an inconsistent quarterback. They have since corrected all of those problems and have turned in a strong offense over the past few weeks.
The running game looked like the biggest problem heading into the season, with Doak Walker Award winner Shonn Greene bolting to the NFL, and his successor, Jewel Hampton, missing the season with a knee injury. But the freshman duo of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher has stepped up nicely. They started off the season hot, and while the production has dropped off a little bit, the running backs are still doing much better than predicted.
Perhaps Iowa's biggest offensive problem, however, has been the quarterback play of Ricky Stanzi. At the start of the season, he would play horribly in the first half but back it up with a strong second half performance. Pick-sixes were also a problem, but over the past few weeks he has become much more consistent. He had a nice day last week against Wisconsin, going 17-23 passing with 218 yards and a touchdown. He eliminated the poor decisions he had been making earlier in the season and will look to grow on a solid performance.
Stanzi's recent success has been due, in large part, to tight end Tony Moeaki. Moeaki returned from injury and provided a huge spark for the Hawkeyes, with 102 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Michigan, and 55 more yards and a spectacular touchdown catch against Wisconsin. He has proven to be Stanzi's favorite target and could make the case for All-American honors at the end of the season.
Other receivers, such as Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Trey Stross, have come around nicely and have made their share of long game-changing catches.
After a slow start, the Iowa offense has turned into a very solid unit, improving every week. Expect that improvement to continue in the weeks ahead.
Defense: As expected, the Iowa defense has been lights-out this season. The opportunistic pass defense leads the nation in interceptions and has been able to come up with big plays time and time again.
The defensive line hasn't missed a beat with the losses of Mitch King and Matt Kroul. Adrian Clayborn has stepped up as one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten, and Broderick Binns and Karl Klug have become very solid players as well. They have been one of the main reasons behind Iowa's lights-out run defense this year.
The linebacking corps has also been a strong point, led by MLB Pat Angerer. Angerer picked up right where he left off last season and is contributing well against the pass and the run. He, too, could be an All-American by season's end.
But the real story of Iowa's defense has been its pass defense. Safety Tyler Sash has dominated opposing offenses with five interceptions, and cornerback Amari Spievey has also stepped up, recording two last week against Wisconsin. Safety Brett Greenwood is also much improved.
Needless to say, the Iowa defese has been spectacular thus far in 2009 and shows no sign of slowing. If the big-time players keep on showing up, the defense may be able to guide the Hawkeyes to an undefeated season.
Special Teams: The Iowa special teams has been better than expected this season and has been an all-around solid unit. Who can forget the two blocked field goals against Northern Iowa or Adrian Clayborn's blocked punt return for a touchdown?
But the Hawkeyes do more than just block kicks. They can also kick pretty well themselves. Daniel Murray has been much more impressive this year than last, and booted a new career-long field goal of 48 yards last week against Wisconsin. Punter Ryan Donahue has been one of the best punters in the Big Ten, and the return game has been solid as well. Overall, it's been a solid season for Iowa's special teams.
Coaching: It's hard to believe Kirk Ferentz was on the hot seat a few years ago. But after a few seasons of mediocrity, Ferentz has Iowa football back on track. Once again, he has turned many recruits who nobody else wanted into stars: Pat Angerer, Tyler Sash, Adrian Clayborn, and Amari Spievey,. just to name a few. But while Ferentz is one of the main reason for Iowa's success, he has some outstanding assistants that help make his job a lot easier.
One of those assistants, defensive coordinator Norm Parker, may be the best defensive coordinator in college football. Unlike many coaches, he doesn't go for multiple defensive looks but stays simple, winning with speed and strength. He rarely blitzes, instead asking his defensive linemen to step up and make plays on the quarterback. And so far, the defense has answered.
The one coach who has been questioned this year is offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe. While most fans are okay with Iowa's conservative offensive strategy, O'Keefe has been too conservative at times, calling run plays in obvious passing situations. But over the past few weeks, as Ricky Stanzi has progressed and Tony Moeaki has come back, he has started mixing in some more pass plays. It's worked out nicely for him, as the offense has been much more productive during that time period.
Overall: At 7-0, Iowa has been the best team in the Big Ten and possibly the country this season. They aren't flashy, but they win—and in the eyes of Kirk Ferentz, that's all that counts. The defense has been outstanding and the offense is finally starting to come around.
And with half of a brutal conference road schedule done and a team that is improving by the week, Iowa has realistic aspirations to reach Pasadena. The question is, will they be playing on January 1st or January 8th? It's all up to the pollsters, and granted Iowa would need some help—specifically a Texas loss—but if they stay undefeated, a national championship is not out of the picture.
But as Kirk Ferentz would say, that isn't something the Hawkeyes can control. So in the meantime, Iowa will keep on winning. If they do, then everything may just work itself out.