Halfway through the 2010 season, the Iowa Hawkeyes are right around where everyone expected them to be.
Sure, the loss to Arizona might have caused some people to jump off the bandwagon, but Iowa boasts an improving offense and the best scoring defense in the nation.
After dismantling Penn State 24-3 in the Big Ten opener, the Hawkeyes are 1-0 in the Big Ten, and are still strong contenders for a Big Ten title.
But now comes the hard part of the schedule. Iowa visits Michigan this Saturday, followed by two home dates against Wisconsin and Michigan State.
And if the Hawkeyes can come out of that stretch 3-0—they have the talent and experience to do so—the stage will be set for another de facto Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, this time in Iowa City.
Check out how Iowa graded out halfway through the 2010 college football season.
Considering all the obstacles it has had to overcome, the Iowa offense has met expectations this season.
At quarterback, Ricky Stanzi has made a complete transformation from his erratic play last season. He has 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions—only one was his fault—and is the third-ranked passer in the country.
Unlike last year, he has put together solid drives in the first half of games, and Iowa is a legitimate passing threat for the first time since the middle of this decade.
Stanzi's receivers have been solid, as well. Marvin McNutt continues to make big plays, and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos is well on his way to becoming Iowa's all-time leading receiver, perhaps even gaining that title this Saturday against Michigan.
Unlike most Iowa teams, the run game has hindered the offense more than the passing game. Running back Jewel Hampton is out for a second consecutive season, and Adam Robinson has been forced to carry a majority of the load.
Aside from an embarassing 10-carry, five-yard game against Arizona, when the run game was virtually non-existent, Robinson has been solid. But for Iowa to be a truly-balanced team, someone behind him—either true freshman Marcus Coker or redshirt fresman Brad Rogers—needs to step up.
That said, so does the offensive line.
For the first time in Kirk Ferentz's career in Iowa City, the offensive line may be the weakest part of the Hawkeye offense. That's more a testament to the rest of the unit than it is a blow to the line, which is inexperienced, but has improved steadily each game.
Since the disasterous four-sack series to seel the Arizona game, Iowa's offensive line has been adequate, and the improvement was obvious against a solid Penn State defense.
But there is still a lot of work to do for this young unit, especially in passing situations, if Iowa's offense wants to compete against elite defenses like Ohio State's.
After an offseason full of hype, the Iowa defense is right where it was supposed to be heading into 2010.
The Hawkeyes lead the nation in scoring defense, and have been an immovable object on that side of the ball, especially against the run.
The success starts with the defensive line, largely touted as the best in the nation heading into the season. Adrian Clayborn has been disruptive all season, but his contributions haven't always been reflected by his statistics.
He had a breakout game statistically against Penn State, recording 10 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, and a sack, sometimes breaking through triple teams to reach the quarterback or ball carrier. The rest of the line has come along nicely as well, especially breakout star Mike Daniels, who gives Iowa another solid option to man the defensive front.
Linebacker was a bit of a question mark heading into the season as well. But even with injuries, that unit has turned out nicely.
Jeff Tarpinian has played well when healthy, Jeremiah Hunter has stepped up as a leader, and Tyler Nielsen is quietly putting together a very successful season. True freshman James Morris has looked solid, too, filling in very nicely after injuries in the Penn State game.
If there is one question mark on the Iowa defense, it is the secondary. The entire unit, especially safeties Tyler Sash and Brett Greenwood, has plenty of talent, but has underachieved so far this year.
There have been far too many missed tackles and a few blown assignments by the young corners. That needs to be fixed, but it's a small complaint about an otherwise top-notch defense.
Special teams were supposed to be a strength for the Hawkeyes, who consistently ranked atop the Big Ten in preseason special teams rankings.
However, other than the punter and return game, the Iowa special teams have been dismal in 2010.
The special teams unit virtually lost the Arizona game for the Hawkeyes, as both Iowa's offense and defense were superior to the Wildcats. The game started on a blocked Hawkeye punt that led to an Arizona touchdown.
Then, Arizona returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The final miscue was Iowa's missed extra point that would have given it the lead.
Things have gotten better for the Hawkeyes since that day in the desert, but the kickoff coverage still needs work.
The kicking situation is also a question mark. Last year's starter, Daniel Murray, is injured and true freshman Michael Meyer, who has handled kickoff duty all year, took over from sophomore Trent Mossbrucker after the Arizona game.
Meyer has been OK, especially for a true freshman, but Iowa doesn't have the stability at kicker that it has enjoyed during much of Kirk Ferentz's 12-year tenure as head coach.
Because of the return game and punter Ryan Donahue, who is one of the best in the nation, Iowa saves itself from a failing special teams grade. But that unit must improve for Iowa to receive a second consecutive BCS bowl berth.
There is nothing new here from Kirk Ferentz and his veteran staff.
His top two coordinators have been in Iowa City with him since the beginning of his 12-year tenure, and the defensive assistants have done a great job of filling in for defensive coordinator Norm Parker—one of the best in the business—who has been in the hospital since the Arizona game.
The one criticism of the staff is that the Hawkeyes came out flat against Arizona, but it's just as much a testament to the coaches for turning their team around after halftime, even if it wasn't enough to pull out the win.
Some may criticize the conservative playing style of the offense, which went up big on Penn State and then coasted in the second half. But even though it won't win style points, offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe made the right choice to not risk mistakes.
Bottom line: Iowa has just as much coaching continuity as any team in the country, and that characteristic is contributing to the Hawkeyes' success both on the field and in recruiting.
Save for one bad half of football, the Iowa Hawkeyes have been just as good as advertised this season.
Ricky Stanzi is much improved, as is the passing game in general, and the defense is the top-ranked unit in the country.
A national championship is out of the picture, but that likely was a reach in the first place.
Iowa faces a tough three-game stretch in October, playing at Michigan and hosting Wisconsin and Michigan State. But if it can survive that stretch, the stage will be set for another de facto Big Ten title game against Ohio State.
This year, that game is in Iowa City, and a win against the Buckeyes would almost certainly mean a Rose Bowl berth. And one conference loss could mean another BCS bowl for the Hawkeyes.
There are definitely some issues to work out, especially on special teams and the offensive line, but Iowa still has the chance to be a very good team and contend for a berth in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1991.