The 2010 season isn't even over. There's still one week left in the regular season and the bowl games haven't even been announced. So, why am I talking about next year already? After all, it's not as if Iowa has had a terrible season. They'll be going to a bowl game somewhere warm this winter.
While Hawkeye fans are still very excited about their team's bowl hopes and would love nothing more than to see Iowa dismantle some higher-touted opponent in January, a few things were left out there on the field. A shot at a national championship blew out the window early. An even better shot at a Big Ten crown slipped through their fingers late.
Fans have already been expressing their query about what Iowa will bring to the table next year and whether or not it'll be enough to close the gaps that became apparent this season.
So let's look ahead to next year. Will the Hawkeyes have a better or worse chance at a title of some sort in 2011?
Let's Temper Expectations Now
Iowa fans had very high expectations for their Hawkeyes coming into the 2010 season. Those expectations were only fueled by talk of Iowa crashing the national title scene. The disappointment echoed across Hawkeye Nation like a brick dropped from the Empire State Building when Iowa lost at Arizona.
Still, a Big Ten title was very much in their reach. Fans eagerly shifted their focus from the national stage to the conference confines in hopes of a trip to Pasadena. Frustration has boiled over in light of back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Ohio State (following an earlier loss to Wisconsin).
Put it all into perspective, though.
A national title is a very tough thing to earn. This is especially true for a team like Iowa that doesn't have the same national appeal or BCS respect as teams like Alabama, Ohio State or Texas. The Hawks can't lose a game and still expect to legitimately remain in the discussion.
A Big Ten title is also very tough to win at this point. The conference has gotten incredibly competitive. It's always been a tough conference to play in, but this year we've seen Michigan State soar back into the picture, Ohio State continue their title trend, Wisconsin rumble to the lead, Illinois make a surprising comeback, Michigan continue to make strides and other teams threatening to pull off upsets left and right.
Don't expect that to change much next year. If anything, the addition of Nebraska will only make the conference title chase even more difficult to navigate. If Michigan continues to improve and/or Penn State rebounds from their rebuilding year, the conference chase in 2011 could be one enormous slugfest between some very dangerous and powerful teams.
It's okay to expect big things for Iowa, but keep in mind that they play in a very tough conference and have a hard road to any kind of title. It might be a lot to expect next year's team to navigate that storm without taking on a little water here and there.
Do they have what it takes?
The Defense Should Still Be Good
Hawk fans know well that Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Christian Ballard are all graduating. Jeff Tarpinian, Brett Greenwood and Jeremiha Hunter are also gone following this season. That's a lot of talent missing from Iowa's No. 6 nationally rated scoring defense.
However, the defensive line returns DE Broderick Binns as well as DT Mike Daniels—who burst onto the scene this year as a powerful new contributor for the Hawkeyes. The question will be who will move to the other DE position and who will step up to help Daniels at DT or will Daniels move to DE? Then who will fill the other DT slot?
There are too many names to list here, but it's safe to say that Iowa will have at least two formidable players anchoring a line that is traditionally very tough.
Turning over the majority of the linebacker corps again isn't a big bonus, but there are reasons to believe that there won't be a drop in that position. James Morris is just a freshman this year, has had a very solid debut at Iowa and will only improve.
Along with Morris, Tyler Nielsen returns to add to his 2010 campaign of one interception, 43 tackles and 4.5 TFL with the Hawkeyes.
At cornerback, Iowa returns both Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater. They both showed improvement over the course of 2010 and should be even better in 2011. Jordan Bernstein also comes back for his senior season and should push the other two for a staring position and add depth to a very shallow unit.
The safety position is a little bit of a question mark. It's yet to be seen whether star Tyler Sash will return for his senior season or jump to the NFL early. No one could really blame him either way he goes.
At this point, it's a little difficult to project who might fill in for departing Greenwood, and if Iowa has to replace both safeties, the pass defense could take a huge hit.
Overall, there's a lot of talent coming back and fans haven't even seen what some of the underclassmen are capable of doing at this level.
Most important to the whole argument though is whether or not DC Norm Parker will physically be able to continue his duties in 2011. Complications due to diabetes kept Parker off the field for a good portion of this year and his absence has been felt.
If he's able to return, you can bet that the Hawkeyes will have a very stout defense. If he's not, then what this defense will ultimately look like is anyone's guess.
Help, Hurt or the Same: Same (+0)
The Offense Could Be Even Better
QB Ricky Stanzi graduates this year, along with WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, TE Allen Reisner, OL Julian Vandervelde, OL Josh Koeppel, OL Kyle Haganman, FB Brett Morse, WR Paul Chaney Jr. and WR Colin Sandeman.
Can anyone say "ouch?"
QB James Vandenberg looked fantastic in the overtime thriller against Ohio State in 2009. This season, he's seen very limited action. In three games, he's only attempted eight passes and has completed five of them (62.5 percent) and has a touchdown without tossing any interceptions. He should be a solid replacement for Stanzi even if he lacks the leadership and personality that Stanzi embodies.
The running back position should be as deep as ever. Adam Robinson and Jewel Hampton will both be juniors and should make an exciting tandem, if Hampton can stay healthy. If he doesn't, both Marcus Coker and Brad Rogers will only be sophomores.
Coker looked fantastic against Ohio State this past weekend and Rogers has shown flashes of being a solid addition to the unit as well. Iowa may well be deeper at the ground game than we've seen them in quite a long time.
Marvin McNutt will return to lead the receiver corps. Keenan Davis has also looked very good in a backup role, but will get his chance to be a regular starter next year and should help fill out the pass attack nicely.
Also, guys like Jordan Cotton might be ready to step in and contribute.
While Allen Reisner was a solid contributor at TE, A.J. Derby and C.J. Fiedorowicz are a couple of 4-star recruits from last year's class that may well explode onto the scene this year. Brad Herman has already contributed nicely for Iowa and Zach Derby should help out as well.
The Hawkeyes are deep with talent (as per usual) at tight end and should once again field at least one NFL quality player at that position.
The line takes some hits again, but returns more experience next year than they did this one.
Guys like Markus Zusevics, Riley Reiff, Adam Gettis and James Ferentz all bring back valuable playing experience. Iowa has also recruited very well in this area and should have plenty of talent to keep the line solid throughout the season.
Help, Hurt or the Same: Help (+1)
Special Teams Is...Um...Well...
This is a question mark. Big time.
Obviously, it's been a concern for the Hawkeyes throughout the 2010 season and it doesn't look to be much better next year.
Punter Ryan Donahue graduates. Kicker Daniel Murray graduates.
The kicking game hasn't been in Murray's hands (or feet) this year anyway. Michael Meyer will only be a sophomore next year and will have benefited from his year of experience. That year has been fraught with missed extra points, muffed field goals and missteps galore though.
Trent Mossbrucker will be a junior. Whichever of those two improves the most may dictate Iowa's kicking future.
Donahue has been a solid punter averaging 44.34 yards per punt. Eric Guthrie is on deck but only has one punt this season (32 yards) from which to draw any conclusions about his potential.
Special teams has hurt Iowa on a number of occasions this season. It'll have to improve for Iowa to have much hope of winning the close games next year.
Help, Hurt or the Same: Hurt (-1)
The New Conference Alignment Will Make a Big Difference
With Nebraska joining the Big Ten, the conference can finally split into divisions and hold a conference championship game. No more of this co-champion silliness. No more wondering which one-loss team is really better than the others. They can play it out on the field.
If it's a conference championship you're hoping for from Iowa, you no longer have to worry about 10 other teams knocking the Hawks out of contention. Now, you have to worry about five other teams doing it.
The new divisional breakdown has Iowa pitted against Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern in the same division. Those are the teams that matter most in the conference title chase. Beat them in head-to-head matches and Iowa can go to the conference title game for a shot at a trip to Pasadena.
It really won't make as much of a difference if the Hawks lose to Penn State, Illinois or Ohio State, as long as it happens during the regular portion of the season. The Hawks could still win their division and get a second shot at winning the conference.
Having said that, don't forget that Jim Delany said last spring that the conference was sticking to its 12-18 month time frame for adding new teams to the conference. The whole expansion deal may not be done yet.
That could change things even further for the distant future, but for 2011 the teams and schedules are set.
None of this helps Iowa in the national title race, except that Nebraska will add to their strength of schedule. They'd still have to virtually go undefeated for any realistic shot at playing for the Coaches Trophy.
Will Iowa's chances at a title in 2011 be better or worse?
Help, Hurt or the Same: Help (+1)
Put It All Together
Defense = +0
Offense = +1
Special Teams = -1
Schedule (conference alignment) = +1
Putting it all together, Iowa has a slightly better chance of winning a conference title next year than they did this year.
The defense should be very near what we have seen over the last three years. The offense could potentially be even better. Special teams might still be bad, but Iowa gets a little boost by having a division to deal with before worrying about the overall conference outlook.
Next year will bring a lot of excitement. Everything will feel brand new. I would just advise Iowa fans not to get their expectations too high. The makings are there for a fantastic season, but as we all know, that potential has to translate to performance on the field.
Whatever happens in 2011, buckle up and have fun. It should be one heck of a ride!