Expectations might be higher than they've ever been in Iowa City. They are certainly as high as they've been since Kirk Ferentz has been the head coach.
Iowa home game tickets are sold out, from the Ohio State and Iowa State games, all the way down to Eastern Illinois.
Tickets to the OSU game are going for a minimum of $190 each on Stubhub. If that game turns into all Iowa fans hope it will be, those prices could conceivably double.
Aside for Indiana, the Iowa ticket allotment for away games is also sold out.
Most preseason polls have Iowa in the top 15. A great many have them in the top 10.
At the recent Big Ten Media Days, the sports writers picked Iowa to come in second in the conference behind the ubiquitous Buckeyes.
I have yet to see a preseason publication that hasn't ranked Iowa's returning defensive line as one of the five best in the country. I have seen very few that haven't put Iowa's returning secondary as one of the five best.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, strong safety Tyler Sash, and defensive tackle Karl Klug are all on watch lists for the college football award at their respective positions.
Many even consider quarterback Ricky Stanzi a dark horse to win the Heisman .
Yet, for Iowa, there is a dark side to all this hype.
One of the biggest criticisms of Kirk Ferentz has been his team's performance when the spotlight is on them.
For proof of this, one need look no further than the 2005 or 2006 seasons. Both began with Iowa ranked in the top 20. In 2005, their ranking reached as high as eight. In 2006, they got as high as 13.
Yet, the 2005 team wound up the regular season at 7-4. The 2006 team was arguably Ferentz's worst team, with the coach going so far as to label his team "fat cats."
Nevertheless, here we are again. After three more years of playing the underdog, Iowa is back on the main stage.
Now, many Iowa fans are left to ask, "What are we going to do with this renown?" And, as was so eloquently asked on the Iowa blog, Blackheartgoldpants.com, "Do the Hawkeyes and their fans really want to be here?"
Kirk Ferentz's offense starts in the same place it has started since he joined Hayden Fry's staff in 1980: The offensive line.
Unfortunately, this year's offense brings back the fewest career starts of any offensive line in the Big Ten.
When Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe was recently asked whether he'd rather have an experienced offensive line, or experience at the skill positions, O'Keefe answered without hesitation, “I’d take five guys returning up front every time. That’s the not situation we face right now, but it would be my preference.”
On the bright side, one of the returnees is sophomore Riley Reiff, who was named Third Team Freshman All American by College Football News. He was also arguably Iowa's best lineman last season. That was due in large part to the injuries that plagued 2009's offensive line, but it does not diminish how good Reiff was. He will line up at left tackle.
Next to him at left guard will be blocker, singer, scholar, and citizen, senior Julian Vandervelde. Vandervelde accounts for well over half of Iowa's returning offensive line starts.
After that, the experience ends. As of now, the center position is a dead heat between senior Josh Koeppel and sophomore, James Ferentz. It is worth noting that Koeppel did play with the first team in the Hawks' August 14 open practice.
The right side of the line seems to be fairly settled with juniors Adam Gettis at guard and Markus Zusevics at tackle. While Ferentz, O'Keefe, and O-line coach Reese Morgan have heaped praise on both of them, cumulatively they have only one career start.
Certainly, this line can be good, but it will be a work-in-progress. As O'Keefe further said regarding O-line chemistry, “You can’t force it. The cohesion, the necessary levels of communication, they have to develop on their own over time,”
Hopefully, that cohesion will develop quickly.
In the meantime, it will be up to the skill players to keep the offense moving, and give the line a chance to gel.
That starts with quarterback Ricky Stanzi. It has been well-documented how enigmatic Stanzi's play has been.
Taken alone, his statistics leave something to be desired. At the very least, they don't look like the numbers one would expect from a quarterback that has gone 18-4 over the last two seasons. However, when his numbers are broken down, they are just mind boggling.
To begin with, there is the way his statistics break down by quarters. In 2009, his quarterback efficiency rating in the first quarter was 133. In the second quarter, it was an ugly 109. In the third quarter, it was 115.4.
In the fourth quarter, it was a scintillating 184.3.
Then there is how he fares against ranked teams vs. non-ranked teams. Against ranked teams his rating was 125.58. Against non-ranked teams it was 133.7. Yes, there is a difference, but it is minimal.
Consider how other Big Ten quarterbacks played last season. Against unranked teams, Penn State's Daryll Clark had a rating of 159.98. Against ranked teams he was 90.4.
It is worth noting that there are other quarterbacks whose numbers don't seem affected by the team they are playing. For example, Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and Indiana's Ben Chappell. Nonetheless, that is definitely not the norm.
Due to the offensive line issues, Iowa will need Stanzi to play more consistently throughout. His fourth quarter heroics are exciting, but he needs to bring some of that into the earlier parts of the game.
He will also need to learn to shut down lesser opponents. There is no reason why Iowa should struggle against the less competitive teams on their schedule.
Accompanying Stanzi in the backfield will be a trio of fairly accomplished and experienced sophomores.
The first and only one of the backs that, as of now, will definitely be playing in Iowa's opener, is Adam Robinson.
A-Rob is a between-the-tackles runner. In 11 games last season, he put up 834 yards for five touchdowns and a 4.61 yards per carry average. He also had 10 receptions for 80 yards.
The second back is true sophomore Brandon Wegher. In 12 games last season, Wegher rushed for 641 yards for eight touchdowns and a 3.96 average. He also caught 13 passes for 112 yards, and returned kicks to the tune of a 23.78 average.
Currently, Wegher's status is unclear, as he is not practicing with the team for personal reasons. However, Kirk Ferentz seems fairly confident that he'll rejoin the team sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, practice time missed is practice time missed.
I will also note that Robinson's and Wegher's most impressive stat from last year might be having only one fumble between them. That would be impressive for one senior. For two freshman, that is remarkable.
The third back is Jewel Hampton. Hampton was slotted to be the starting back last season before injuring his knee. Instead, he took a redshirt. In 2008, while backing up Shonn Greene, he gained 463 yards for seven touchdowns and 5.09 average.
Hampton will be suspended for the season opener.
Also, fullback Brett Morse will be back for his senior campaign. While Iowa typically uses its fullback as a roving guard, Morse has touched the ball more than most Hawk fullbacks. In 2009, he had five carries for 35 yards, as well as eight receptions for 34 yards and one touchdown.
The Iowa receiving corps will be, in my opinion, the deepest and most talented group that has played in Iowa City since Ferentz took over.
In fact, during his press conference after the aforementioned open practice, Ferentz pointed out that the Hawk receivers, "Have looked pretty good during camp. I have not said that in 11 years, as a group. It might be the most positive thing I have seen."
He even praised Derrell Johnson Koulianos, a player who has spent the better part of his four years on campus in Ferentz's doghouse. In 2010, barring injury, fans can expect DJK to break both Iowa's career reception record and the career yards receiving record.
Meanwhile, for possibly the first time in four seasons, DJK might be supplanted as the team leader in receptions and yards. His possible usurper is quarterback-turned-receiver Marvin McNutt. McNutt had a breakout year in 2009. Furthermore, he is looking to improve on last season's 34 reception, 674 yard, eight touchdown campaign.
Standing at 6'4", and weighing 215 pounds, McNutt will be a handful for any cornerback.
Rounding out the receiving corps will be seniors Colin Sandeman and Paul Chaney, and true sophomore Keenan Davis.
At tight end, senior Allen Reisner will finally get his turn to shine. For the last three years, he has served as backup to Tony Moeaki and Brandon Myers. During that time, he has racked up 27 catches for 374 yards and two touchdowns.
Expect Reisner to continue in the tight end tradition that Ferentz has established.
As Iowa plays so many two-tight end sets, the second tight end is almost like a starter. Right now, it seems to be junior Brad Herman's job to lose. However, he will be pushed by uber-recruit C.J. Fiedorowicz.
By all accounts, Fiedorowicz already looks the part of a Big Ten tight end. Now it will be a matter of learning to block.
Last season, Iowa was ranked 86th in scoring offense with 23.1 points per game. They also ranked 93rd in total offense with 330.8 yards per game. While the defense might be as good as last year, it is my opinion that the offense will have to improve dramatically—at least top 50—if Iowa is to repeat its 2009 success.
As with the offense, the defense starts up front. Unlike the offense, this defensive front has tons of experience. In fact, the 2009 line returns en masse.
It begins with senior defensive end Adrian Clayborn; the Orange Bowl MVP, and a preseason All-American.
Last season, Clayborn had 70 tackles, 20 tackles-for-loss, 11.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles, one blocked kick, and one defensive touchdown.
It is difficult to say whether he will be able to match those numbers this season, as teams will gameplan against him.
However, gameplanning against Clayborn will leave the rest of the line in favorable matchups. In effect, with a year worth of experience under their collective belts, the results might be just as catastrophic.
At the other end position is junior Broderick Binns. Binns is a natural pass rusher who had 62 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks. He also had an impressive nine passes broken up.
However, at times he was something of a liability against the rush. OSU, who torched Iowa for more than 200 yards on the ground, ran right down his throat. He will be expected to shore that up this season, his second as a starter.
Also, he will be suspended for Iowa's first game.
On the inside of the line, Iowa will start seniors Karl Klug and Christian Ballard. 2009 was Klug's first year starting, while it was Ballard's first year starting at tackle. In 2008, he had started at end opposite Clayborn.
Last season, Ballard put up 54 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, and 5.5 sacks. Meanwhile, Klug had 64 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss, and four sacks.
Despite their reputation and despite the overall ranking of the defense, the fact is Iowa did not have a dominant run defense. They ranked 32nd nationally.
A large part of the reason for this was because there were two new faces on the 2009 defensive line. Moreover, Ballard was new to the defensive tackle position.
With the experience the front four now have, I expect this area of Iowa's defense to be substantially better in 2010.
Also of note are junior backups Lebron Daniel (defensive end), and Mike Daniels (tackle). Both have had praises heaped upon them by the coaching staff, and probably would start for a number of other Iowa teams. Unfortunately for them, they happen to find themselves behind Klug and Clayborn.
The linebacking corps will see two new faces. Gone are second team All-American Pat Angerer and All-Big Ten A.J. Edds.
Still remaining is Jeremiah Hunter, the weakside linebacker, or WILL. He is a run stopping specialist, whose coverage skills improved by leaps and bounds last season.
In 12 games in 2009, Hunter was second on the team in tackles with 90. As he is the most experienced backer, he will be expected to expand his role on the team.
The other two backers also appear to be set. Junior Tyler Nielsen will take over at the strong side backer position—or LEO—for A.J. Edds. At middle backer, or MIKE, it appears that senior Jeff Tarpinian will be starting.
Tarpinian has been something of a utility man since his sophomore year. He was originally going to start at WILL, before a hamstring injury sidelined him, thus paving the way for Jeremiah Hunter.
Since then, he has backed up at both WILL and LEO, and served as a hybrid safety/linebacker in Iowa's 3-3-5 alignment.
He is a heavy hitter that is considered Iowa's best coverage linebacker. However, he will have to work on his positioning, which had a good deal to do with OSU's 229 yards on the ground against the Hawks. However, it should be noted that Tarp was playing with a sprained MCL that probably had a lot to do with his lackluster play.
As for Nielsen, he has played sparingly over his four years on campus, patiently waiting behind Edds .
Also of note are senior Troy Johnson and junior Bruce Davis . It is doubtful that either of them will start, but the coaches seem to trust both of them.
Finally, Iowa signed a lot of linebackers in this year's recruiting class. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them makes the two-deep.
Overall, while there might be some bumps in the road, and they might not be as good as Angerer and Edds, I expect Iowa's linebackers to be solid. After all, when was the last time Norm Parker's defense has had less than solid, if not spectacular play from its linebackers?
Moving to the backfield, Iowa will have to replace All-Big Ten cornerback, Amari Spievey.
Right now, it seems that Micah Hyde has the inside track to take over Spievey's position.
Hyde came out of nowhere last season. He was a lightly recruited d-back out of Ohio with the usual array of MAC offers and an offer from Iowa.
He took the offer from Iowa, and impressed the coaches enough to pull his redshirt. He mostly played on special teams until the Orange Bowl. At that time, when starter Shaun Prater got injured, it was Hyde, and not the more experienced Willie Lowe or Greg Castillo, that replaced him.
Heading into fall camp, he looked to be competing with junior Jordan Bernstine for the starting job. Nevertheless, with recent talk of Bernstine moving to safety, it looks as if Hyde has all but locked up the job.
The rest of the secondary is set.
The other corner will be manned by Shaun Prater. Prater will probably never be as good as Spievey, but he is an excellent assignment cornerback. Think Jovon Johnson , only three inches taller and ten pounds heavier. With the pass rush Iowa expects to have, Prater will be more than cut out for the job.
Brett Greenwood will man the free safety position. Greenwood is a former walk-on that frankly struggled during his first two years as the starter . On the other hand, last year he really came on, and earned every bit of his second team All Big Ten status.
Meanwhile, the strong safety position will be manned by junior Tyler Sash. When his career is over, Sash may enter into conversation as the best strong safety of the Kirk Ferentz era. Certainly, he is not the hitter that Bob Sanders was, but his coverage skills are unparalleled.
By midseason last year, due to Iowa's safeties, teams stopped trying to throw long over the middle. Expect that to continue into 2010.
Due to more experience on the line, I expect the rush defense to improve considerably. I can't imagine Norm Parker letting up another 200 yards to OSU or Michigan.
However, with the loss of Ferentz's best cover corner to date, as well as two of the his best three coverage linebackers, the pass defense might suffer a bit.
Overall, Iowa will have a top 20 defense in 2010. The play of the linebackers will determine whether they are top 10.
Iowa starts the season against FCS Eastern Illinois. The Panthers are a good FCS team, and have been picked to come in second in the Ohio Valley Conference football poll.
Nonetheless, if Iowa has a repeat of the 2009 UNI scare, then fans should probably start worrying.
After EIU, Iowa State comes into town. The Clones will be a decent team in 2010, and Iowa fans know to never get too comfortable against Iowa State.
However, the Hawkeyes have a 5-2 record over the last seven matchups, and they have won the last three meetings in Iowa City.
After this, Iowa heads out to the desert to take on an Arizona squad that returns a lot on offense, but only four on defense. If this were in Iowa City or any neutral field not located in west of the Central Time Zone, I'd be fairly confident in the win.
However, with a 9:30 PM (CST) start time, and memories of the last time Iowa went into the desert, I'm a bit shaky.
Iowa then comes back home to play the MAC's Ball State Cardinals. The Cardinals should be a formidable foe, as they return all 11 from last year's offense, and 19 players overall. Nevertheless, if Iowa is going to be a contender, then once again, they have to put this one away.
The Hawks start their Big Ten slate in Iowa City against Penn State. The only home game Iowa has lost to PSU was in 1999, Ferentz's first year as head coach. On the other hand, under Ferentz, Iowa is 4-7 in their Big Ten opener.
Iowa follows Penn State with an open date.
After the open date, the Hawks head to Michigan to play in a newly revamped, and supposedly 30 percent louder Big House. By the way, Kirk Ferentz's record in games following a bye week is 2-5.
They follow that up with home games against Wisconsin and Michigan State. After this, they go on the road for games at Indiana and Northwestern.
The season finishes up with a home game against Ohio State, and then on the road to play Minnesota for Floyd of Rosedale.
If Iowa is the real deal then they should easily beat Eastern Illinois and Ball State. They should also take ISU but, though, as an Iowa fan, I've learned never to get my expectations too high with that one.
On top of those, the Hawkeyes should beat Indiana and Minnesota.
All of the other games will be tough. Luckily, the only away games out of that bunch are at Arizona, at Michigan, and at Northwestern.
Not so luckily, Iowa misses Purdue and Illinois, neither of which made a bowl last season. Of course, with the Hawks, does that matter except on paper?
I recently wrote an article , in which I claimed that this season, if Iowa plays their best game against OSU's best game, Iowa would win five out of 10 times.
For me, the key to that statement rides on something Hayden Fry used to say. He claimed that Iowa's top 22 players could compete with the top 22 players of Nebraska, OSU, Michigan, or any team in the country. It was after those 22 players—Iowa's depth—where the Hawks just couldn't measure up.
One of the keys to this season is that Iowa finally has some depth. In fact, the only positions where Iowa doesn't have tangible, often experienced depth, are the safeties and on the offensive line.
Phil Steele has a theory that teams that lost a substantial number of starts in Year A, tend to rebound considerably in Year B.
Certainly, there are controversial elements to this theory. However, it makes sense that a team on which a lot of backups gained experience the year before, will be a deeper, more experienced team.
Last season, Iowa was 56th in terms of overall starts lost to injury. They were amongst the most starts lost on offense, having had only three players that started every game. Expect that to pay dividends this year.
Also, I said that in order for Iowa to repeat last season's success, I felt the offense had to improve to at least a top 50 scoring offense.
Those offenses all had exactly two things in common. Firstly, all of them were top 50 rushing offenses. More specifically, all of them put up at least 175 yards per game on the ground.
Secondly, all of them had at least three experienced o-linemen returning. 2001, 2002, and 2008 had all of their linemen returning. 2005 had three returning linemen, plus one junior college transfer that is currently a starter for the Baltimore Ravens.
It goes without saying that the second point contributed directly to the first point. Moreover, this does not bode well for this year's offense.
Finally, there is the kicking game. It would seem that returning place kicker Daniel Murray has had at least a respectable career.
His career field goal percentage is 71.1 percent. He has been fairly solid inside the 30. Also, he made that one kind of notable kick against Penn State.
Nevertheless, it just might be that he's been living under a charmed life .
The fact is his field goal percentage has not increased significantly since his sophomore year. On top of that, I, for one, wince every time I watch him kick, as they all seem to be extremely ugly line drives that magically find their way past the defense.
Also, while people are quick to blame Iowa's 2009 loss to OSU on dropped balls and Stanzi's injury, they forget that Murray missed a chip shot. He also missed a field goal the week before against Northwestern.
There is also the fact that Murray, who is a senior and returning starter, is competing for the starting job against a sophomore. Throw in Kirk Ferentz's comments about the kicking game being "underwhelming," and, well, I'm worried.
Worst Case Scenario
Iowa starts out with a win over Eastern Illinois, but the offense has trouble getting going. The win is much closer than Hawkeye fans would hope, and it has them leaving Kinnick saying, "Here we go again."
They edge out Iowa State by six points, but it's a defensive contest, and once again, the offense can't find a groove.
They head into Tucson with high hopes, but lose a low scoring game against the Wildcats.
They proceed to beat Ball State, with the offense's best showing to date, but is it good enough to get by Penn State?
As it turns out, it is. Iowa beats the Nits by a score of 12-9, in a game in which no touchdowns are scored.
At 4-1, Iowa is still in a position to have a very successful season, but they've got to try to rejuvenate their offense in their bye week.
They come into Michigan and start strong, but in the end, they wind up losing to the Wolverines, and at 4-2, they drop out of the polls.
They come back home and lose a tight game to Wisconsin, but they beat Michigan State in an equally tight game.
The Hawks beat Indiana to secure bowl eligibility, but they drop yet another game to Northwestern.
They lose by two touchdowns to Ohio State in a game that, at one time, many thought would be for the Big Ten title.
The Hawks finish the year beating Minnesota, but for the first time in eight quarters, they let up a point to the Gophers.
Final Record: 7-5.
Best Case Scenario
Iowa steamrolls Eastern Illinois. The starters are done by halftime. Most impressively, the offensive line opens up huge holes for the running backs, which bodes well for the rest of the season.
Iowa has to play a full game against Iowa State, but their dominance is never in doubt. In a strong showing, they win the Cy-Hawk trophy by over two touchdowns.
Their first real test is against Arizona, but the Hawks enter Tucson ready to play. The defense doesn't allow the Wildcats' offense to get off the ground. Meanwhile the offense isn't explosive, but plays a steady game. Iowa leaves Arizona with a ten point win.
They proceed to demolish Ball State, and once again, the starters are done by the half.
At 4-0, they start the Big Ten season against Penn State. The Nits' young quarterback can't get anything going against Iowa's defense, and Iowa forces four turnovers, easily coasting to a victory.
After the open date, Iowa goes to Michigan and has their toughest game yet. In a game that comes down to the wire, Michigan just squeaks by, shocking a lot of pundits, and handing Iowa their first loss of the season.
Iowa comes back home and beats both Wisconsin and Michigan State. They then go on the road and roll over Indiana. Finally, they exorcise their Northwestern demons and beat the Wildcats.
This leads them into the 2010 de facto Big Ten Championship against undefeated Ohio State. And this season, Stanzi is healthy, it is at home, and Kinnick is electric.
Iowa pulls off the win in a close game, and they go on to slaughter Minnesota, though the Gophers finally score in the third, after 10 scoreless quarters against the Hawks.
At 11-1, Iowa is the Big Ten Champion, and gets the conference's bid to play in the Rose Bowl.
There will be no repeats of the 2009 UNI game. Iowa will handily take care of Eastern Illinois. I also think they will dispatch Iowa State, but as I previously said, predictions with that game are usually pointless.
I do not think Iowa will fall apart against Arizona, a la 2004 against Arizona State. However, I will write them down for the loss. Again, in Kinnick or any neutral field this side of the Central Time Zone, I'd feel fairly confident. I just don't like the Hawks being taken that far out of their element in season.
I think Iowa will come back and dash off wins against all the rest of the teams they play heading into their game against Ohio State. That would leave them at 9-1.
I have them losing a close one to OSU, and then finishing off with a win against Minnesota.
I will further note that out of what looks to be 2010's three top Big Ten teams—the others being OSU and Wisconsin—in my opinion, Iowa has the hardest road and the most what if's to get to 12-0.
Can they do it? Yes, I think they can, but so many things have to go right for them to get there. For that reason, I had a hard time putting them at 12-0, even in the "Best Possible Scenario."
In the end, all the numbers and pontifications in this article can be put aside. There are three elements that will be the difference between an 11 or 12-win season, or a 7 or 8-win season.
Firstly, the offensive line has to gel and gel quickly. Secondly, Ricky Stanzi has to cut out his inconsistent play. Thirdly, the kicking game has to be dependable.
If all of these issues are taken care of, then Iowa will win 11 or 12 games. If two of them are resolved, Iowa will win nine or 10. If one of them is resolved, Iowa will be looking at eight or nine wins. And if none of them are resolved, then it will be a very disappointing seven or eight win season.
For Iowa, it's that simple.
Finally, I have tried to be as unbiased as possible for the duration of this series. As I am an Iowa fan, writing this installment and "predicting" two losses was not an easy task. However, I hope I did a fair and unbiased job. I also hope I am wrong and Iowa does win 12 games.
Of course, even if the score doesn't work in Iowa's favor, we all know that Iowa never loses; they just run out of time.
Final Record: 10-2. Iowa will receive a bid to play in the Fiesta Bowl. Just for kicks, I'll say that they'll play that game against the Big 12 champion, Nebraska, giving the country a preview of next season's Big Ten.