We're counting down the weeks until kickoff by profiling a different Big Ten team each week. Today, Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes are up.
Times have been tough in Iowa City over the last three seasons. After leading the Hawks to three straight 10+ win seasons and a #8 finish in the final polls, Ferentz has guided his teams to a 19-18 record in the last three campaigns, including an 11-13 conference record.
COACHING: Ferentz is the highest paid coach in the Big Ten at just over $3 million a year and his career record as a head coach stands at 73-70 (for comparison Tressel is 73-16 at OSU). Throw in the fact Iowa has had 14 players arrested since last April and that is a recipe for the hot seat. This is a huge season for the Kirk and his coaching staff.
OFFENSE: The Hawks have 8 returning starters back from a team that averaged 18.5 points a game and went 6-6, so they should be omproved on this side of the ball. Junior quarterback Jake Christensen returns after starting every game last year, throwing for 2269 yards, 17 touchdowns and only 6 picks.
Iowa's running game is the major question on offense. They lost every running back from last year and must rely on Nate Guillory, a JUCO transfer with 4.37 speed and Shonn Greene, a junior who missed last season. The backs should have a good line to run behind, as every starter and their backups return.
The receiving corps should be better, but injuries and suspensions have hampered the development of this group. Derrel Johnson-Koulianos lead the Hawks with 38 catches for 482 yards and 2 touchdowns last year. He will be joined by seniors Andy Brodell and Tony Moeaki (TE), who will both be returning from injuries. If healthy, 8 of their top 11 receivers from last year return.
DEFENSE: The defense has been the strength of this program as of late, giving up an average of 19.8 points per game over the last three seasons, but will be returning just 5 starters. Norm Parker is entering his 10th season as DC and will have to replace 4 of his top 6 tacklers from a year ago, including linebackers Mike Humpal (123 tackles) and Mike Klinkenborg (79 tackles).
The D-line will be the anchor to start the season, as Matt Kroul and Mitch King return for their senior seasons. It seems as if these two beast have been there since Hayden Frye was enjoying his dumplings. The rest of the defense will be comprised of new corners, ends and 2 linebackers, most of them sophomores. In this critical season, Parker may have to do his best coaching job.
KEY GAME: Iowa doesn't have a game that sticks out as THE key game, but the stretch of 3 away games in 4 weeks will be crucial. The Hawkeyes play at Pittsburgh on Sept. 20 and after a home tilt with Northwestern the following week, Kirk's troops will travel to Michigan St. and Indiana.
BEST-CASE: The almighty Phil Steele has the Hawks finishing fourth in the conference and Vegas has Iowa's over/under win total at 7.5, 6th best in the Big Ten. It is tough to argue against Iowa's favorable schedule, with OOC games against Maine, Florida Int'l, Iowa State and at Pitt.
Again, sticking with my theme, Iowa should go 4-0 against their OOC games, but they are only 3-7 against the Cyclones in the last 10 meetings and we all know what a great coach Dave Wannstedt is, just ask RichRod. The Hawks don't have to face Ohio State or Michigan and they get Wisconsin and Penn State at home. If all goes well, a 4-4 conference record is obtainable.
WORST-CASE: With their recent troubles, I am not convinced that Iowa is going to turn things around and the worst case scenario is more likely. The question marks at running back, receivers, linebackers and corners need answered early on or the Hawks will be on their way to a fourth straight mediocre season around 6-6.
It is tough to envision wins against Wisconsin and PSU, coupled with losses at Illinois, MSU and Pitt. That means Iowa would have to run the table at home against Northwestern, Purdue, at Indiana and at Minnesota to secure a winning record.
Iowa's season is one I am anticipating most. I know injuries played a major role last year and the team has kept local law enforcement busy, but this program has fallen quickly. The Hawkeyes are a team the Big Ten needs to regain their swagger, helping the conference with their reputation.
I lived for six years in Iowa City and the town provides a great college atmosphere, too good from my personal experience. The state rallies around the football program and a winning season is needed to help ease the pain of the recent floods and tornadoes. Kirk and his coaches have some major work to do this season and it is going to be interesting to watch which direction the team takes.