No college football = the worst time of the year.
While it is nice to have the NBA playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs being so exciting, it's still all about the gridiron. Thanks to the NFL not getting its act together, college football is still where it's at.
Being from the Midwest and with a background on the Big Ten, here's the first of many articles previewing the 2011 Big (12) Ten for both the Lamps' and Lizards' division...I mean Legends and Leaders. Who cares honestly.
We start at the top of the list in the Legends division with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Looking Back - 2010
Losing guys like Ricky Stanzi, DJK, Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug and Tyler Sash (I could go on and on) is really going to put a dent in the Hawks' chances at making it back to the top of the conference in 2011. Last year was definitely "The Year" for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Think about it. A big-name defense with talent and skill position players on offense—what happened to Iowa?
Well the loss to Arizona certainly didn't help. Granted, they came back from being down 27-7. Either way you slice it, it was the fourth quarter that became Iowa's bugaboo last season.
Going into the game against No. 13 Wisconsin at home, Iowa was 5-1, sitting pretty en route to the top of the Big Ten. With 8:35 left in the game, Iowa's up 30-24 after a Michael Meyer field goal. 80 yards, two fourth down conversions, plus seven minutes and 29 seconds later, Wisconsin is back on top after the defense collapsed under the running of Montee Ball (not John Clay).
The Hawks rebounded with a resounding victory over previously unbeaten Michigan State and Indiana. (Insert but here) Once again, the Hawks couldn't close the deal at the end of the year.
Fourteen unanswered fourth quarter points in Evanston, a late TD drive vs. Ohio State, and an inexcusable loss at Minnesota, derailed what was, at one point, a 7-2 season and a Big Ten-leading Hawkeye team.
Iowa's 5 losses last year came by a combined total of 18 points. Have I rehashed enough of the pleasant memories from last season, Hawkeye fans? Okay, I'll conclude with a solid win to end the year. Of course, a win at the Insight Bowl wasn't necessarily what the Iowa faithful had in mind. But a victory over the No. 12 team in the country isn't too shabby.
2011 - What Lies Ahead
Starters Returning: 5 offense, 5 defense
2011 would normally be characterized as a "rebuilding" year if it was any other program. With all of the crazy investigations and arrests being made from the Iowa program, many wouldn't blame Kirk Ferentz if he put it that way.
But there are no rebuilding years when Kirk Ferentz is in charge.
Iowa will feature more new starters than ANY other team in the Big Ten next season, but Ferentz won't use that as an excuse. He has his guys listening to the "us against the world" type of philosophy.
2011 - Offensive Outlook
The big question going into 2011 will be whether or not the offense can pick it up from a year ago. The consistency on the offensive side of the ball was horrendous. There were games against Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State where the offense looked strong. Then the brain farts to end the regular season.
Without Stanzi returning, James Vandenberg will step in, which is not all terrible. His performance in the OT loss to Ohio State in 2009 was admirable, and it gave a glimpse to the bright future he has. And if you honestly think John Wienke is going to start next year, you are clearly mistaken.
The running game returns breakout star Marcus Coker, who really made the most of his end of the year by rushing extremely well against Ohio State and Minnesota as well as putting up an astounding 219 yards and two TD's against Mizzou. But the offseason has seen a horrible rash of turnover at tailback, quite a bit of turnover at that position. Brandon Wegher transferred to Oklahoma, Adam Robinson couldn't put the reefer down and just last week announced he is leaving, and Jewel Hampton is darting for greener pastures as well.
I will say this: Iowa is THE ONLY team in the Big Ten that can handle losing three running backs. Not Ohio State, not Penn State, not Wisconsin. Iowa is pretty much used to losing their top backs every single year, it seems. It isn't a question of whether or not the backs stay healthy, it's a question of who's the third string guy and is he ready to play? Jason White's the next in line if something happens.
The receiving core also took a significant hit, as Iowa receptions and receiving leader Derrell Johnson-Koulianos took his talents to the draft and is now awaiting sentencing for his drug charges.
Behind him is returning starter Marvin McNutt and junior Keenan Davis. One thing this receiving core does have going for them is size. McNutt is 6'4", while Davis and sophomore Don Shumpert are both 6'3". Experience is a bit limited, but MM can make up for that with double-digit catches...and yes, that will be expected.
The offensive line, which undoubtedly is the most important unit on Iowa's football team year in and year out, returns a significant chunk of its beef. Four of five are back, including possible All-Big Ten tackle Riley Reiff returning to the fold. Julian Vandervelde and Josh Koeppel are the notable guards departing. Although there's a good chance you will see experience fill in at those positions, keep a close eye on freshman Jordan Walsh. The four-star guard is a decent bet to get a shot in the early going at a starting position.
2011 - Defensive Outlook
And you thought the offense had questions to answer. Come on over to the defense, which happened to be the second best in the Big Ten in yards allowed, second in TDs allowed, and second in just about every other category you can think of, to Ohio State. Not a good sign then when you lose Clayborn, Klug, Ballard, Greenwood and Sash.
BUT, while the defensive line was talented and littered with big names, it didn't come up with daunting statistics. One hundred and tenth in the nation in tackles for loss and just 22 sacks a year ago...say what? Those stats shocked me when I saw them at first.
That means the D-Line needs a HEAVY rebuilding project, and the safeties are a glaring need. There are some bright prospects at both positions though.
Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels will be pressed to produce immediately on the defensive line and the linebacking core will need senior Tyler Nielsen to step up in a big way after an injury that derailed his productive 2010 season.
The secondary loses smash-mouth safety Tyler Sash to the NFL, which is an almost dissipating loss when you think about also losing your free safety Brett Greenwood to graduation.
There is hope: Defensive Player of the Year Shaun Prater and interception return artist Micah Hyde are both back. *Hyde will be moving from corner back to free safety. While Hyde may be a better corner, it gives a chance to be more successful with B.J. Lowery and Greg Castillo vying for the other corner position.
Reason To Be Excited: The Schedule
I'm sure all Iowa fans wished this schedule would have been in their hands for 2010, but just a year too late. Nevertheless, it's great timing for a team that's experiencing quite a bit of turnover.
The four non-conference games aren't too daunting, with the trip to Ames and a home game against Pittsburgh being the two tests. Then look at the schedule this way: No Ohio State or Wisconsin, tough division foes Michigan State, Northwestern and Michigan are all at home, seven of the first 10 are at Kinnick, and the Hawks aren't featured in any of the 11 Big Ten homecoming games for 2011.
It sounds like a nice setup, and it is.
The glaring games that stand out: October 8th at Penn State, a place that gave the Hawks a kick-start to their season in 2009, and the regular season capper at Nebraska.
Reason to Worry: Depth on Defense
I've gone over it already, but it deserves being readdressed again. The defensive line that down the line was easily the most talented in the Big Ten just didn't put up the stats last season to back up the big names.
And with the excessive turnover on the front seven, including the linebacking core, there's going to be many concerned Iowa fans going into 2011 when the defense takes the field.
Iowa isn't a defense that will get after the quarterback or throw in multiple looks to confuse offenses. It's a "you get what you see" defense, and they've been winning that way ever since Ferentz got there.
But without the big name guys like Clayborn and Sash, the defense lacks a bit of that "intimidation factor."
2011 Overall Outlook
Best Case Scenario: Iowa stays healthy, gets its defense together at around the third or fourth game of the season and builds towards a solid Big Ten run. Record (10-2)
Worst Case Scenario: The injury bug once again bites the running back spot and slows super-sophomore Marcus Coker. James Vandenberg has problems finding receivers, and the defense never gets its act together. Throw in the fourth quarter bugaboo, and there could be major problems. Record (5-7)
In a sense it's back to the drawing board for Iowa, but if there was any coach I would want going back to the basics, it's Kirk Ferentz. They won't be the most talented in the Big Ten, but Iowa is arguably the best in the nation in doing the most with the least...or making the most with the least (whatever way you look at it).
Like I said before, the schedule is in the Hawkeyes favor, but that doesn't mean it will be the reason Iowa has a shot at the Big Ten title in 2011.