Big Ten Countdown - Legends Division - Second Place
By Tony Gerdeman
2. Iowa Hawkeyes
A new quarterback buoyed by talented backs and receivers, and protected by a very solid offensive line. A defensive line that loses playmakers and consistency. Perhaps solid linebackers. A talented secondary, but the loss of two veteran safeties will hurt. A kicking game possibly in flux.
Six on offense, five on defense and the placekicker.
Sept. 3 Tennessee Tech (W)
Sept. 10 at Iowa State (W)
Sept. 17 Pittsburgh (W)
Sept. 24 Louisiana-Monroe (W)
Oct. 8 at Penn State (W)
Oct. 15 Northwestern (W)
Oct. 22 Indiana (W)
Oct. 29 at Minnesota (W)
Nov. 5 Michigan (W)
Nov. 12 Michigan State (L)
Nov. 19 at Purdue (W)
Nov. 25 at Nebraska (L)
"Being good enough IS good enough!"
A Big Ten Championship. Iowa is one of the top three programs in the Legends Division, and from now on that automatically comes with championship expectations. No more hiding behind Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
An undefeated season. The schedule is about as easy as you're ever going to get in conference play. Iowa avoids both Ohio State and Wisconsin. They have the talent, coaching and schedule to take advantage of this.
Six losses. Non-conference games at Iowa State and home to Pittsburgh early on could both prove difficult. Opening the season 2-2 and then traveling to Penn State could prove disastrous. Oh, and then Northwestern visits their timeshare--aka 'Kinnick Stadium'--the week after. And a 2-2 finish is certainly possible with home games against Michigan and Michigan State before finishing the season at Purdue and Nebraska.
Five Questions Looking For Answers
1. Is quarterback James Vandenberg ready?
2. Can [insert any running back's name here] stay healthy?
3. Are there playmakers on the defensive line?
4. Who will catch all of the ricochets now with Tyler Sash and Brent Greenwood are gone?
5. Does Kirk Ferentz have room on his mantle for another Coach of the Year award?
Best Chance For a Big Loss
At Nebraska. Let's be honest, Iowa doesn't get blown out. Heck, they rarely lose by more than two scores. In fact, they haven't lost a game by more than seven points since 2007.
Most Important Game
Michigan State. No, this game doesn't have a name or a corporate sponsor, or some backstory that calls upon history to elevate it into something it was already going to be. But what it does have is two of the top three teams in the Legends Division playing on Iowa's home field. People want to talk about the Nebraska game, but Iowa first has to defend their turf and take down the Spartans. A loss to the Spartans makes the Nebraska game a little less important. If they get by Michigan State, they could walk into Nebraska at 11-0.
Best Road Game To Pack Up The Family Truckster And Travel To
At Minnesota. Unless you plan on sleeping in your car on some roadside and bathing in the sink at a McDonald's, the Minnesota game is the only roadtrip that features an actual city.
Game They Shouldn't Lose, But Could
At Minnesota. Last year the Hawkeyes went into Minneapolis as a 15-pt favorite against a 2-9 Gophers team. Minnesota won 27-24. And the Gophers won't have Tim Brewster holding them down this season.
Something To Look For
The secondary situation is still working itself out. The Hawkeyes lose safeties Tyler Sash and Brent Greenwood, but return cornerbacks Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde. However, Hyde was moved to free safety right before the spring and has played well there. The coaches are hoping that one of Greg Castillo and B.J. Lowery take the open cornerback spot so that Hyde can remain at safety. Right now it seems Castillo has the slight edge on Lowery, and if both continue to play the way they're practicing, then Hyde will stay in centerfield. Walk-on Collin Sleeper is running with the first team at strong safety, but will have to hold off senior Jordan Bernstine, who is the team's nickel back. In nickel packages, both Sleeper and Bernstine will be on the field and Hyde will likely slide down to cover the extra receiver.
Cornerback Shaun Prater. Prater was an All-Big Ten first-team selection last season. He flirted with the NFL, but decided against it after receiving an unfavorable grade from the Advisory Board. He will be tested this season if the Hawkeyes can't get a pass rush, but don't expect him to back down from such tests.
Receiver Marvin McNutt. He's like an undersized power forward with small forward athleticism. At 6-4 and 215 pounds, McNutt obviously outsizes and overpowers most cornerbacks, but he has tremendous body control and enough speed to catch defenses off guard. He caught 53 passes for 861 yards last season. He's a pretty decent bet for 1,000 yards this season.
Player People Are Expecting Too Much From
Running back Marcus Coker. Everybody saw the way Coker finished last season, most notably with the 219-yard outing in the Insight Bowl against Missouri. However, Coker's three best games last season were against Indiana, Minnesota and Missouri. He's never had to carry the ball 25 times against a real defense. He could very well do what everybody (including us) is saying he will do, but it's still a little much to expect it all to come true.
Player People Will Be Pleasantly Surprised By
Receiver Keenan Davis. Davis has caught 15 passes in his first two seasons at Iowa, but expect the production this season to obliterate that of the first two. He has run with the first unit consistently and is providing a solid target opposite Marvin McNutt. He also has some ability after the catch, which will be needed with Derrell Johnson-Koulianos gone.
Running back Mika'il McCall. McCall has made an early impression in fall camp. While he is currently listed somewhere around third on the depth chart, many are expecting the 6-0 220-pounder to be the number two guy for the Hawkeyes this year and get 6-10 carries per game.
Best Reason They Won't Be Undefeated
Lack of playmakers in the front seven. Right now, there are none. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels is the lone attention-getter in the front four, but even he's an overachiever type. The defensive ends in the mix for playing time had a grand total of three sacks last season. The linebackers, aside from middle linebacker James Morris (who should top 100 tackles and be in contention for All-Big Ten), don't seem to be anything special. But then most Iowa linebackers come out of the blue, like Morris did last season as a freshman.
Best Reason They Will Be Undefeated
They don't play Ohio State or Wisconsin. Any time you can avoid two of the top three programs in the conference, you're doing something right. They just have to take advantage of it.
Something They Do Well
Get activity from their defensive tackles. Go back through recent history, and you'll see undersized Hawkeye defensive tackles fighting and slipping by offensive linemen. That may change a bit this season, as guys like Mike Daniels (6-1 280) and Carl Davis (6-5 310) muddle up the middle. Davis, if he actually wins the job, is the antithesis of Hawkeye defensive tackles. It will be up to him to prove that he can be as disruptive as the standard 270-pound former linebacker they normally put out there.
Something They Don't Do So Well
Finish. In each of their five losses last season, the Hawkeyes were tied or leading in the fourth quarter. In fact, in their eleven losses since 2008, they've led or been tied in the fourth quarter in nine of those games. And over the last two seasons, Iowa is a combined 1-5 in their final three regular season games, with the lone win coming over Minnesota in 2009.
Running back depth. Heading into last season, the Hawkeyes were trying to figure out how to get three talented running backs involved. Three weeks into the season, due to Brandon Wegher leaving and Jewel Hampton's torn ACL, they were essentially down to one guy. Not wanting to ever be down to one guy again, expect a couple of freshman backs to carry some of Marcus Coker's burden this season. Mika'il McCall was already mentioned, but also keep an eye on speedy Jordan Canzeri, whose shiftiness intrigues Kirk Ferentz. There is also current backup Jason White who has rushed for all of fourteen yards in his first two seasons.
What's Gotten Worse?
The defensive line. Iowa lost three starters from last season, and even though defensive end Adrian Clayborn didn't duplicate his 2009 season, he kept offenses occupied. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the entire season hinges on how this defensive line comes together. If they underperform, then each level behind them will do the same.
Anything Else We Should Know About?
The offensive line looks to be very good. Despite losing two starters from last season, Iowa returns five guys with starting experience. Tackles Riley Reiff and Markus Zusevics form a nice pair of bookends, and center James Ferentz is solid in the middle. Senior Adam Gettis has apparently secured one guard spot, and Nolan MacMillan should eventually have the second one. He's still dealing with a sports hernia from the spring, but he started six games last year as a redshirt freshman.
Make a Wish
Quarterback James Vandenberg will be just fine. There's never been a doubt that this would be Vandenberg's team in 2011, and he's been preparing for it like he was the incumbent. He's performed very well in practices and he has the skills to do what the Iowa coaches will ask of him. The question, however, is can he do more? Can he elevate this program, or is he just a guy who is good enough to keep it where it is? Numerous Iowa quarterbacks have been able to be placeholders, but few have been able to take the Hawkeyes to the next level. Where does Vandenberg fall into this mix?
That all ligaments remained unharmed.
Iowa will defeat Northwestern this year. Somehow. Perhaps a meteor will strike Dan Persa down early in the third quarter. And then again in the fourth quarter when he returns. And then maybe one last time in overtime during a two-point conversion.
Scandal Most Likely To Rock the Program
Actually, Rhabdo-gate has always been the most likely scandal at Iowa, because, like prison, all there is to do in Iowa is lift weights and trade cigarettes for cell phones.
If The Head Coach Was a Superhero, What Would His Super Power Be?
Not really sure what his super power would be, but high expectations would surely be his kryptonite.
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