2012 Iowa Preview - Time To Win Big

Posted May 9, 2012

Could this be an out-of-the-blue special year for the Hawkeyes?

Iowa Hawkeyes

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Kirk Ferentz
14th year: 96-66
17th year overall: 108-87
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 18, Def. 19, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 23
Ten Best Iowa Players
1. CB Micah Hyde, Sr.
2. TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, Jr.
3. C James Ferentz, Sr.
4. LB James Morris, Jr.
5. LB Christian Kirksey, Jr.
6. QB James Vandenberg, Sr.
7. WR Keenan Davis, Sr.
8. OT Brandon Scherff, Soph.
9. S Tanner Miller, Jr
10. OT Brett Van Sloten, Jr.
2012 Schedule
Sep. 1 No Illinois (in Chicago)
Sep. 8 Iowa State
Sep. 15 Northern Iowa
Sep. 22 Central Michigan
Sep. 29 Minnesota
Oct. 13 at Michigan State
Oct. 20 Penn State
Oct. 27 at Northwestern
Nov. 3 at Indiana
Nov. 10 Purdue
Nov. 17 at Michigan
Nov. 23 Nebraska
Where is the bar set for Iowa football now?

There has been just enough success under head coach Kirk Ferentz to expect a solid team year-in-and-year-out, and there's always the possibility for the really, really big season to come from out of nowhere, but there's no consistency at a high level.

While two Orange Bowl appearances were great, Ferentz has yet to be in Pasadena with Iowa's last Rose Bowl appearance coming in 1990. The stunning run to Orange Bowl in 2002 happened a decade ago; the Drew Tate miracle over LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl is well in the rearview mirror; and the 11-2 Orange Bowl-winning campaign of 2009 was helped by getting every close call, tight win, and break. No, those great years weren't flukes in any way, but they all came a bit out of the blue.

More than that, even when Iowa does have one of its phenomenal seasons under Ferentz there's a hard ceiling on what the program and team can do.

The Hawkeyes are 15-11 over the last two seasons, but wins over Michigan last year and Michigan State and Missouri in 2010 showed that they're capable of doing more than just hang around with the big boys.

They had Wisconsin in big, big trouble and lost to Ohio State 20-17 two years ago. They manage to beat the mid-level bowl teams on a regular basis, but they'll whack Northwestern and then will lose to Minnesota. They'll blast Michigan State in 2010 by 31 and then need everything in the bag the next week to beat Indiana.

Basically, as 2009 showed, there's absolutely no margin for error. If Iowa gets on the right side of every close game, has a little bit of magic sprinkled here and there, and it doesn't lose to anyone it's not supposed to, it can have a big season. Simply put, Iowa just isn't good enough to win big unless it does everything right.

The problem is that the talent level isn't quite high enough to overcome the rough patches. Few programs do a better job of getting players who fit the system, beef them up, and make players out of them, but it doesn't always work. Last year the offensive line had a Riley Reiff and plenty of talent across the board and was mediocre. The defensive line was full of veterans and got pushed around too often. There wasn't any consistency and there were too many mistakes, but last year's team was full of veterans while this year's squad has lots of issues and plenty of work to do across the board.

It's Iowa so the lines will turn out to be fine, but the defensive front is all but starting from scratch and the offensive front has hope for some good young players to quickly emerge as stars for the offense to work.

The constant issues at running back will continue after the early departure/booting of Marcus Coker, and while there's talent, once again Iowa has to hope for someone to emerge from relative obscurity to become a star for the ground game. Considering the O line will be a work in progress, the running attack can't be counted on after finishing dead last in the Big Ten, and that means QB James Vandenberg will have to do even more despite losing No. 1 target Marvin McNutt.

The linebacking corps will be great, the secondary will be fine, the schedule is manageable, and the coaching staff continues to be good enough to ensure another winning season and a good bowl bid, but is that enough? Would 8-4 and a solid post-season appearance be enough to generate hope for a possible Big Ten title run in 2013?

Yes, being very good is nice, but Michigan State has been stronger over the past few seasons, Wisconsin has been special, Ohio State has been elite, and Michigan is about to get national title-good again soon. Iowa has to show this year that it's about to raise its game again soon or else it might have to accept life in the middle of the pack.

What to watch for on offense: The Greg Davis offense will speed things up a few paces. The Hawkeyes were never exactly slow and stodgy under offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe, but they'll now get moving with a much quicker pace and a little more pop and explosion. The Iowa offense won't exactly start winging the ball all over the yard and in a perfect world it'll be balanced, but it'll want to control the tempo and will want to keep defenses on their heels. Having a veteran quarterback in James Vandenberg will help that, but he'll need time behind an offensive line that needs a little bit of work.

What to watch for on defense: It's going to get moving. Norm Parker did a good job with the defense for over a decade and was Kirk Ferentz's trusted right hand man, but the pass rush was all but non-existent last year and the big plays were few and far between. The days of Parker's conservative defense might not be completely gone, but the Hawkeyes are going to be far more aggressive and look to do far more to create big plays. New defensive coordinator Phil Parker isn't going to exactly send the house to get into the backfield, but he's going to unleash the dogs a little bit more and he'll send players into the backfield from a variety of angles and directions.

The team will be far better if … the running game works. Damon Bullock and De'Andre Johnson are among the several backs looking to get the ground attack going behind a rebuilding line, but no matter who's toting the rock the production has to come. It's not asking for too much to hit the 100-yard mark, but last year that wasn't necessarily a given. The Hawkeyes went 1-4 when they failed to hit the century mark, and the lone win came in the epic comeback against Pitt. In 2010 Iowa was 0-3 when it failed to hit the 100-yard mark, and both losses in 2009 came on bad rushing days, too.

The schedule: The Hawkeyes might need some work and have some rebuilding to do, but the schedule will make life a lot easier.

Winning the Legends might be out of the question with road games at Michigan State and Michigan, but it's Merry Christmas time in interdivisional play getting Indiana, Purdue, and a hurting Penn State – while missing Wisconsin and Ohio State. There's a rough late stretch of four road games in six weeks, but it's coming off a week off to prepare and trips to Northwestern and Indiana are winnable.

If all goes perfectly, the first half of the year won't be a problem as long as the Hawkeyes don't gag again against Minnesota and can get through pesky dates with Northern Illinois, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa. The game against the Cyclones is the toughest non-conference game by far, and there aren't any true road games before mid-October with the NIU game in Chicago.

Best offensive player: Junior TE C.J. Fiedorowicz. He might not be the team's biggest star – that should be QB James Vandenberg – and he might not be the team's most promising pro prospect – that's OT Brandon Scherff – but he should grow into a top playmaker as the season goes on. The offense needs more targets and more production with Marvin McNutt gone, and the 6-7, 265-pound Fiedorowicz appears ready to blow up as a go-to target in the new up-temp attack. He has size, hands, and route-running ability to put up big numbers.

Best defensive player: Senior CB Micah Hyde. The veteran defensive back should be the star of the secondary and is one of the Big Ten's best tackling corners, but there's a chance linebacker Christian Kirksey and James Morris go from great to phenomenal in the more aggressive defense. More of a pass rush should be a huge help for Hyde and a secondary that has to come up with more big plays.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB James Vandenberg. Jake Rudock is a nice prospect who should grow into a good playmaking quarterback, and there are other desperation options, but the season might as well be shut down if Vandenberg isn't phenomenal. The running game will be better, but it won't be great, and the defense should be slightly above-average at best. Vandenberg has to be efficient, sharp, and he has to always outplay the opposing quarterback for the Hawkeyes to win.

The season will be a success if … Iowa wins ten games. No, the Hawkeyes won't be good enough to merit the respect of a double-digit win team, but unless they gag against Minnesota again there's no reason to hope for anything less than nine regular season wins against NIU, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan, Minnesota, Penn State, at Northwestern, at Indiana, and Purdue. With losses at Michigan State, at Michigan, and against Nebraska, this can still be a great season.

Key game: Oct. 13 at Michigan State. Considering Penn State is going to be down and road trips to Northwestern and Indiana aren't that bad, the Hawkeyes might have an outside shot at going 10-0 if they can shock the Spartans in East Lansing. No, they really aren't going to be 10-0 good, and yes, they'll probably lose to someone along the way like Northwestern or Penn State, but if they're good enough to beat this MSU team, they'll be good enough to beat everyone else on the slate until the Michigan game.

2011 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Opponents 83 for 701 yards – Iowa 62 for 463 yards
- 4th down conversions: Opponents 14-of-19 (74%) – Iowa 11-of-21 (40%)
- Iowa 3rd quarter scoring: 61 – Iowa 4th quarter scoring: 105

- 2012 Iowa Preview | 2012 Iowa Offense
- 2012 Iowa Defense | 2012 Iowa Depth Chart
- Iowa Previews  2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006