Ever since it became clear that Nebraska was joining the Big Ten Conference, Iowa Hawkeye fans have crowed about the Hawkeyes "clearly" having the better program as of late, pointing to two shared conference championships and BCS bowl berths in the last decade. Hawkeye fans should be proud of four top-ten finishes for Iowa in the last ten years. But let's put that in perspective. Iowa's record over the last 10 years is 86-41, while Nebraska's is 85-46. In other words, Iowa's best decade of football is ever so slightly better than Nebraska's worst decade since the Eisenhower administration. Oh, and to rub it in a little: even considering that it's been the Huskers worst decade, they still managed to play in the Rose Bowl for a national championship. Iowa hasn't played in the Rose Bowl since 1991; only Minnesota and Indiana have been absent from Pasadena longer.
Last year, Iowa finished 9-5 and in all five of those losses, the Hawkeyes were either tied or led in the fourth quarter. You could understand the loss to Arizona in the heat on the road, or the loss to Ohio State. The Wisconsin loss was tough to accept due to the end-of-game clock mismanagement that sabotaged a potential game-winning field goal attempt. Dan Persa continued Northwestern's domination of jUI (Or does Iowa prefer jIU? I can't get all the new abbrevations right.) But the biggest black mark on the Hawkeyes record was the 27-24 loss to woeful Minnesota and Kevin Cosgrove.When you talk Iowa football over the last three years, you have to start with quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Stanzi set a school record for passing efficiency last year and became Iowa's first quarterback selected in the NFL draft since Matt Rodgers. He'll be replaced by junior James Vandenberg who only completed five of eight passes in a relief role last season. As a freshman, Vandenberg was called into service after Stanzi was injured against Northwestern. He started two games, with his first being a narrow road loss at Ohio State. So while he hasn't played much, he's played in pressure situations. After Vandenberg, the depth chart is full of inexperience: junior John Wienke (one game, one incomplete pass), redshirt freshman A.J. Derby and true freshman Jake Rudock.
In recent years, Iowa's running back situation could be best compared to a melodrama. Last season's story started with Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher, and Jewel Hampton ready for a big year. Wegher never joined the team last season. He briefly transferred to Oklahoma, and at last report, he's at Iowa Western in Council Bluffs where he's academically ineligible to play. Jewel Hampton. Hampton injured his knee against Arizona, then transferred at the end of the season to Southern Illinois. That injury forced head coach Kirk Ferentz to pull the redshirt from true freshman Marcus Coker as a backup. Which was important because in December, starter Adam Robinson was suspended, then dismissed from the squad prior to the bowl game. Robinson's now at Minnesota-Duluth. Thrust into the starting lineup in the Insight Bowl, Coker pounded the Tigers for 219 yards, earning MVP honors. Coker is a big back with good speed, and will have to shoulder the load this season. History indicates, however, that something is going to happen once again. If (when?) that happens, Iowa will probably have to turn to freshmen Mika'll McCall, Jordan Canzeri, or Marcus Binns.
Leading receiver Marvin McNutt returns from last year, but after that, it's a green group of receivers. McNutt caught 53 passes for 861 yards and eight touchdowns. He has good size and speed, and is a steady receiver. He'll be the key receiver for Iowa. Junior Keenan Davis caught 11 passes last year, but had a big spring game. The 6'3" 215 pound receiver has the physical tools to do well. Senior tight end Brad Herman should get more attention as a big (6'5", 255 pounds) target for a new quarterback. Even bigger is 6'7" sophomore tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz who was a great receiver in high school. If he can catch the ball at this level, he could be uncoverable.
When you think Iowa football, you can pretty much count on a solid offensive line, and this year is no exception with four returning starters. The Hawkeyes do lose second team all-Big Ten left guard Julian Vanderveide to the Philadelphia Eagles. Junior left tackle Riley Reiff was a second-team all-Big Ten honoree last year, and should be up for even bigger honors this season. He could head to the NFL after this season. Junior center James Ferentz (son of Kirk) started every game last season and should start accumulation honors this year. If sophomore right guard Nolan MacMillan has recovered from shoulder injuries, the 2010 freshman all-American will need a new trophy case by the time his college career is over. Senior left guard Adam Gettis should replace Vanderveide, and if he stays healthy, could be another solid performer up front.
On defense, only four starters return with just one up front. With Adrian Clayborn (1st round, Tampa Bay), Christian Ballard (4th Round, Minnesota), and Karl Klug (5th round, Tennessee) all selected in the NFL draft, the Hawkeyes have huge holes to replace. The only returning starter is senior defensive tackle Mike Daniels who's solid on run support, but like much of the Hawkeyes last season, wasn't so good in passing situations. The Hawkeyes' sack total dropped from 31 to 22 last season, and opponents completed over 62% of their passes. One player to keep an eye on is whether senior defensive end Broderick Binns regains his honorable mention all-Big Ten form from two seasons ago.
At linebacker, Iowa needs to replace two starters including second team all-Big Ten linebacker Jeremiha Hunter, the Hawkeyes' leading tackler last season. Sophomore middle linebacker James Morris was a freshman all-American with 70 tackles last season. One concern with Morris is whether the 6'2" 225 pounder is big enough to be a Big Ten middle linebacker. Senior strongside linebacker Tyler Nielsen tallied 42 tackles in eight games last season before an injury cut his season short. Add in sophomore Christian Kirksey on the weakside at 6'2" and 215 pounds, you've got an undersized group of linebackers that might be susceptible in the running game, much like Nebraska was at times last season.
Former Omaha Central standout Shaun Prater elected to return to Iowa for his senior year rather than declare for the NFL draft. Last season, Prater was an all-Big Ten performer as Iowa's shutdown cornerback. Bill Callahan never offered Prater a scholarship due to his infatuation with measurables over playing ability, and Prater committed to Iowa. Junior Micah Hyde, an honorable mention all-Big Ten cornerback on the other side last season switched to free safety in the spring. Junior Greg Castillo, a nickel back last season with 11 tackles, will take over at cornerback. All told, the secondary is probably the most talented area of the Hawkeye defense, as they finished second in the Big Ten in pass efficency defense last season.
Iowa seems to be the trendy pick this offseason as an upset to make it to the Big Ten Championship game, and the reason seems to be the Hawkeyes schedule. Whereas Nebraska has to play Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin, Iowa gets Penn State, Indiana, and Purdue from the other division. But it's frankly lazy to focus on the schedule and ignore the team itself. Iowa only returns nine starters with way too many question marks on both sides of the ball to be seriously considered a title contender. And the schedule difference isn't nearly as big as you might think: they play Northwestern, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, just like Nebraska. Nebraska has to play Wisconsin while Iowa has to play Nebraska; that's a push in terms of schedule strength. So there are really two games that Iowa has easier: Nebraska plays Ohio State and Iowa, while Iowa plays Purdue and Indiana. That should help Iowa get to bowl eligibility and position themselves for a better 2012 season.