One of the biggest fallacies in football today is to evaluate a team based on their schedule. Sure, an easier schedule makes it easier to win games, and a tougher one certainly makes it tougher to consistently win games. But schedules can't run, catch, block, or tackle; they have no material impact on the ability of a football team, other than gaining confidence or inducing fatigue. Teams with issues can hide behind a soft schedule, but in the end, performance, not the schedule, will be the determining factor in evaluating the success of a team.
Take the 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes, for example. Some prognosticators looked at their schedule, and saw the potential for a 10-0 start. A few were even so bold to proclaim Iowa a dark horse candidate to win the west division and earn a berth in the Big Ten championship game. Nevermind the obvious holes in the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball... just look at that schedule! No Ohio State, no Wisconsin, with a non-conference schedule that featured in-state rivals Iowa State and 1-AA Northern Iowa.
Well, the Hawkeyes stumbled in game two against Iowa State, then were upset at home by Central Michigan. They bounced back to beat Minnesota and Michigan State, then lost the final six games of the season. The 10-0 dream became the reality of 4-8.
One of the reasons why some thought Iowa would be better in 2012 was senior quarterback James Vandenberg. Predecessors like Ricky Stanzi improved their senior season, so Vandenberg should, right? Instead, Vandenberg regressed in 2012, going from a 59% completion percentage and 25 touchdowns to 57% and just seven touchdowns. Was it all his fault? Not entirely; nobody stepped forward at receiver to replace Marvin McNutt as a deep threat last season. Still, it was very curious that with the offense struggling all season long, Vandenberg took every snap in 2012. That commitment to Vandenberg in 2012 means that in 2013, Iowa does not have a single quarterback who has ever taken a single snap in a college game.
On Friday, Iowa announced that sophomore Jake Rudock (6'3" 205 pounds) would start the season opener against Northern Illinois. Rudock redshirted in 2011, so Rudock certainly was available to play in 2012...but didn't. The only assumption you can make is that despite Vandenberg's struggles in 2012, Rudock wasn't even worthy of some relief snaps, let alone the "this isn't working with Vandenberg, let's see somebody else and maybe build for the future" experiment. For what it's worth, Rudock completed 18 of 29 passes for 174 yards in the spring game. Going into the fall, I suspected that Iowa would turn to junior college transfer Cody Sokol (6'2" 215 pounds), but he's listed as the backup along with redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard (6'2" 195 pounds). All three are of the immobile dropback passer model, for what it's worth. Bottom line to me is that if the guys who redshirted last season couldn't beat out the guy who wasn't good enough to sniff the field when they were struggling, Iowa's quarterback issues aren't going to be resolved anytime soon.
It would really help Rudock, Sokol, or Beathard if a deep threat receiver emerges in 2013. Nobody last season filled the shoes of Marvin McNutt, and that inability to stretch the field made it a lot easier to defend the Iowa offense. The leading receiver last season was junior Kevonte Martin-Manley, who caught 52 passes for 571 yards and two touchdowns. He's a slot receiver who excels catching the short pass. In the offseason, the hope was that sophomore Tevaun Smith (6'2" 200 pounds) might emerge at the other receiver spot and become that deep threat. Instead, Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis made the safe choice with senior Don Shumpert (6'3" 200 pounds), who brings experience to the field. But does that really solve the problem of the lack of playmakers in the passing game?
Undoubtedly, the Hawkeyes will turn to senior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz more this season. At 6'7" and 265 pounds, he's a matchup nightmare once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage. Last season, he caught 45 passes for 433 yards and a touchdown; if those numbers don't increase significantly in 2013, that's an indication that Iowa's offense has regressed even further. Look for Iowa to utilize more two tight-end sets and get 6'4" 245 pound sophomore Jake Duzey involved in the passing game. That should give Iowa plenty of options in the short and intermediate range, but this personnel grouping likely won't help stretch the field.
With all of the question marks surrounding the Iowa passing game, look for Iowa to try relying on their running backs as much as ever before. Of course, that's easier said than done with the curse that is AIRBHG. (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God). Last year, I predicted that Damon Bullock and Greg Garmon would be the next victims of AIRBHG, and sure enough, they were. Bullock missed six games, and Garmon suffered an arm injury and transferred to a junior college in December. Air Force transfer Mark Weisman (6'0" 236 pounds) took over after Bullock was injured, and went on to rush for 837 yards and eight touchdowns. And when Weisman suffered the wrath of AIRBHG and missed two games, Bullock (6'0" 200 pounds) was back. Adding to the depth is Jordan Canzeri (5'9" 192 pounds), a speed back who missed 2012 with a knee injury. So assuming that AIRBHG continues, Iowa will undoubtedly be playing another back by November out of necessity. True freshman LeShun Daniels (6'0" 220 pounds) looks like the real deal, and while Ferentz might hope to redshirt him, AIRBHG may have other plans for Daniels.
One reason why Iowa keeps finding new running backs in the wake of AIRBHG is the offensive line, and with three starters back in 2013, the Hawkeyes should be fine up front. Sophomore Austin Blythe slides over to replace the departed James Ferentz at center. Ferentz was a second team all-Big Ten honoree last year, but Blythe was a freshman all-American at right guard. Blythe is up to 300 pounds after playing last year at 275 on his 6'3" frame. Junior left tackle Brandon Scherff (6'5" 315 pounds) started the first seven games last season until he injured his leg. He's back and healthy and so is senior right tackle Brett Van Sloten (6'7" 300 pounds).
Seven starters return on defense for the Hawkeyes, who finished in the lower half of the Big Ten in most defensive statistics thanks to turnover up front. Senior defensive end Dominic Alvis (6'4" 265 pounds) is the elder statesman of the bunch, but his numbers (31 tackles, 3 sacks) weren't anything to brag about. Junior defensive end Louis Trinca-Pasat (6'3" 290 pounds) didn't do much more (40 tackles, 4 for a loss). Injuries have been a problem with both men. The hopes are high that junior defensive tackle Carl Davis (6'5" 315 pounds) is ready to do more - much more this season. Last year, things go so desperate for the Hawkeyes up front that they burned Giltner, Nebraska native Drew Ott's redshirt after seven games. Ott only totaled three tackles, but the 6'4" 265 pound sophomore defensive end is expected to do much more in 2013 as the starter opposite Alvis.
The linebackers will be the stars of the Hawkeyes on defense as all three return. Senior weakside linebakcer Anthony Hitchens (6'1" 233 pounds) led Iowa with 124 tackles last season. Senior middle linebacker James Morris (6'2" 240 pounds) added 113, while senior strongside linebacker Christian Kirksey (6'2" 235 pounds) added 95. The numbers look fine, but what the numbers don't show is how far downfield these tackles were made. Look for Iowa to try and get the reserves more playing time in 2013 to help backfill for next season. One name to keep an eye out for is sophomore Travis Perry (6'3" 230 pounds), while junior Quinton Alston (6'1" 220 pounds) has caught the coaches eyes during preseason practice.
Only two starters return in the secondary, and the big loss is cornerback Micah Hyde, a fifth round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers. Speedy sophomore Jordan Lomax (5'10" 195 pounds) is the heir apparent; he missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. Senior B.J. Lowery (5'11" 193 pounds) returns to start at the other cornerback spot; he battled injuries last season as well. At free safety, senior Tanner Miller (6'2" 207 pounds) has started the last two seasons and should anchor the secondary. He's good covering both the run and the pass. At strong safety, junior Johnny Lowdermilk (6'2" 203 pounds) has impressed this offseason to take the spot away from fellow junior Nico Law, who started four games last season.
The pressure is on Kirk Ferentz this season; Iowa fans expect more - much more - from the $3.86 million that Ferentz earns each year. But frankly, unless the passing game significantly improves and playmakers emerge somewhere other than at linebacker on defense, it looks like another rough season in Iowa City. That being said, Ferentz's seat is well insulated by his $19 million buyout clause on his contract. So barring a Dan Hawkins-style meltdown, it seems that Ferentz won't be going anywhere anytime soon.