Iowa football is kind of like that annoying little brother or kid next door while you were growing up. Always trying to be just like the "big kids", but never quite there. Hawkeye fans like to think that their program is just as good, if not better than Nebraska's, in recent years. Iowa two BCS bowl berths plus two conference co-championships in the first decade of this century, compared to just one BCS bowl bid for the Huskers. Do they have a point? Yes, but let's make it clear... Iowa's best decade of football in the modern era is barely better than Nebraska's worst decade. (Iowa's 86-41 vs. Nebraska's 85-46)
And let's not forget that, even in that worst decade of Nebraska football was a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl...someplace Iowa hasn't been since 1991. Only Minnesota and Indiana have been absent from the Rose Bowl longer. This year, some prognosticators look at Iowa's schedule and wonder what might happen. A senior quarterback and a schedule that avoids Wisconsin and Ohio State makes a nine or ten win season conceivable.
Conceivable, yes. But should that be the expectation for Iowa football in 2012?
If Iowa football is going to go anywhere in 2012, it's going to start with quarterback James Vandenberg. Iowa fans love to rattle off his 25-7 touchdown to interception ratio last season. That's the good side. But there's also that 58.7% completion percentage in his first season as a starter. Looks a little low, you think? It is low. Taylor Martinez completed 59.2% of his passes in his first season as a starter, if you are looking for something to compare him to. And let's be clear, Martinez probably was still a better runner with his ankle injury than Vandenberg is healthy. The hope for Hawkeye fans is that Vandenberg will improve like his predecessor Ricky Stanzi did from his junior to senior year. (56% completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, 15 interceptions as a junior to 64%, 25 touchdowns, and just 6 interceptions as a senior.) Bottom line is that Vandenberg is the prototypical pro-style quarterback that Pelini defenses eat alive. (Last year, Vandenberg completed just 16 of 35 passes against the Blackshirts.) If Vandenberg goes down, Iowa will likely turn to redshirt freshman Jake Rudock, who like most Iowa quarterbacks is a passer and not a threat to run.
In recent years, the shelf life of an Iowa running back is barely longer than the shelf life of a dozen eggs at a Fareway grocery store, Iowa's best grocery store chain. And seemingly just as fragile: Adam Robinson (dismissed in 2010), Brandon Wegher (quit in 2010), Jewel Hampton (injured than transferred), Marcus Coker (suspended than transferred), Mika'il McCall (transferred), Jordan Canzeri (recovering from ACL), De'Andre Johnson (dismissed), Barkley Hill (recovering from ACL). So who's left? Sophomore Damon Bullock becomes the starter, seemingly by default. The 6'0" 195 pound sophomore rushed for 20 yards last season; he won't bowl anybody over but might outrun and juke out a few people. Keep an eye on 6'1" 200 pound freshman Greg Garmon, who might have a little more power. The Hawkeyes might also use fullback Brad Rogers in some short yardage situations as well. Of course, you know that by next summer, Bullock and Garmon will probably be gone as they too are doomed to become another "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God". AIRBHG, to be concise.
It'll help what Iowa running backs are still eligible/unsuspended/uninjured/alive to have a passing threat to take some of the pressure off. And with Marvin McNutt, Iowa's leading receiver last year, off to the NFL to try to be Kirk Ferentz's first receiver to catch a pass on Sunday's, senior Keenan Davis is going to need to take the lead. Last year, the 6'3" 215 pound receiver caught 50 passes for 713 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley should slide into McNutt's slot after catching 30 passes in his freshman season.; I wouldn't be surprised if he's the go-to receiver for Vandenberg. Many expect big numbers from junior tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who's hard to miss at 6'7" and 265 pounds. Last season, he only caught 16 passes for 167 yards as a spot starter. With Iowa likely to use two tight end sets frequently, look for senior Zach Derby to also see plenty of playing time; he caught 12 passes for 117 yards alternating with Fiedorowicz.
Ferentz's background as an NFL offensive line coach has meant that Iowa's always had a strong offensive line during his tenure. Longtime offensive line coach Reese Morgan shifted over to defense to replace Rich Kaczynski on the line, creating an opening for Ferentz's son Brian. The star on the line is Brian's little, er, younger brother James, who's started at center the last two years and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last year. Also returning is senior left guard Matt Tobin, who started 10 games last year. Sophomore Brandon Scherff will replace Riley Rieff, a first round NFL draft pick this spring, while freshman Austin Blythe (6'3" 275 pounds) seems to have pushed past junior Conor Bofffeli (6'5" 290 pounds) to replace second-team all-Big Ten right guard Adam Gettis.
Only five starters return on defense, and on the defensive line, the Hawkeyes are starting with an all new group. Junior defensive end Dominic Alvis is technically a returning starter...but that was in 2010 after missing last year and the spring with a knee injury. The rest of the line is a muddled mess of journeymen backups and young talent; by the time the Huskers arrive in Iowa City, look for redshirt freshmen end Riley McMinn to be playing opposite Alvis.
The strength of the Hawkeye defense is at linebacker where juniors James Morris and Christian Kirksey tied for the team lead with 110 each. Morris earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors at middle linebacker last season and freshman all-American honors the year before. If junior Anthony Hitchens' knee is finally healthy, he'll provide a boost at weakside linebacker. Backing up these three is a group of sophomores with little experience and freshmen, including redshirt freshman Cole Fisher, brother of Nebraska's Sean.
Leading the secondary is senior cornerback Micah Hyde, an honorable mention all-Big Ten pick last season after being second-team all-Big Ten in 2010. But Iowa will feel the loss of all-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Prater as well as seventh round draft pick Jordan Bernstine. Junior B.J. Lowery (5'11" 188 pounds) will replace Prater at cornerback; he's a versatile back who could just as easily play safety. Either senior Tom Donatell or sophomore Nico Law will take over at strong safety. Junior free safety Tanner Miller returns after a fine 76 tackle season (fourth on the Hawkeyes) who'll only get better.
The biggest unknown is how Iowa will react to new offensive and defensive coordinators along with two other new assistant coaches. Greg Davis resurfaces in Iowa City after being run out of Austin, Texas. His background running the spread offense with Colt McCoy and Vince Young seems an odd match with Vandenberg, but Davis promises to fit whatever he does with what his players do best. That probably means throwing the ball a little more than in the past. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker gets promoted from secondary coach, so his style probably is going to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.
Looking at Iowa's schedule, you have to expect the Hawkeyes to be favored in the first five games. After a tough road trip to East Lansing, there are three more games that Iowa has a good shot to win. An 8-1 start is not out of the question for Iowa...but Iowa also has a habit of pulling off the upset, then getting upset themselves. So while 9-0 could still happen, so could 6-3 or worse. That's what the Hawkeyes need to avoid as the season ends with a trip to Michigan before hosting Nebraska to end the regular season.