Last season, Iowa bounced back strong from a 4-8 2012 season to finish 8-5 and make a New Year's Day bowl game. Doubts about Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz were lessened with a bounce-back season. The curse that was AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) was no where to be found, and fans in Iowa were pleased to know that Floyd of Rosedale and the Overpriced Grocery Store trophy were filling a trophy case in Iowa City.
One of the biggest concerns going into 2013 was quarterback as nobody on the roster had taken a snap in a college game. Enter junior Jake Rudock (6'3" 208 pounds), who completed 59% of his passes for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns. Phil Steele says that Rudock looks like a prototypical drop-back passer, but in offensive coordinator Greg Davis' offense, he also showed a little mobility, rushing for 218 yards and five touchdowns. Maybe not great numbers for an offense that went to the air more than running the ball on the ground, but it was certainly effective. Rudock wasn't great at the start of the season, but improved throughout the season, much like Michigan State's Connor Cook. He'll be backed up by sophomore C.J. Beathard (6'2" 203 pounds) who only completed nine of 27 passes in a relief role last season.
With the curse of AIRBHG taking a breather, the three running backs in the stable put up decent numbers. Senior Mark Weisman (6'0" 240 pounds) rushed for 975 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. The former fullback isn't exactly a speed demon, but his 4.3 yards per carry average is effective grinding out yards. Senior Damon Bullock (6'0" 205 pounds) was the main backup, rushing for 467 yards and a touchdown. Junior Jordan Canzeri emerged down the stretch as the most dynamic back, rushing for 481 yards and two touchdowns last season. Sophomore LeShun Daniels (6'0" 230 pounds) might be the most talented back of the bunch; he rushed for 142 yards last season on 36 carries.
The biggest problem in the Iowa passing game is any sort of game-breaking receiver. Marvin McNutt left in 2011 and nobody has really emerged since. Senior Kevonte Martin-Manley (6'0" 205 pounds) did catch 40 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns. He's more of a weapon returning punts; against Western Michigan, he became the first Big Ten player to score on back-to-back punt returns.Senior Damond Powell (5'11" 180 pounds) struggled to pick up the playbook last season. But when he did play, he was electric as his 12 catches for 291 yards and two touchdowns can attest. Maybe he's the long overdue replacement for Marvin McNutt, who's game breaking threat Iowa's offense has sorely missed the last two years. Junior Tevaun Smith (6'2" 200 pounds) is a physical receiver who caught 24 passes for 310 yards last season. And since it's Iowa, expect the tight ends to be heavily involved; senior Ray Hamilton (6'5" 252 pounds) is more of a blocker than a receiver though. He caught 8 passes for 95 yards last season. Junior Jake Duzey (6'4" 245 pounds) caught 19 passes for 270 yards and two scores last season; he's been injured during preseason practice.
If there is one thing you can usually count on from an Iowa offense is a big beefy line. 2014 will not be an exception, with senior left tackle Brandon Scherff (6'5" 320 pounds) leading the way. Last year, a second team all-American...this year, a preseason favorite to win the Outland Trophy. KIrk Ferentz calls him him one of the "all-time players in Iowa history." Junior center Austin Blythe (6'3" 290 pounds) is a two year starter and honorable mention all-Big Ten last year as a sophomore. Junior right guard Jordan Walsh (6'4" 290 pounds) also returns.
Kirk Ferentz probably didn't enough credit for the Hawkeyes impressive defense last season; I doubt most Big Ten fans would have listed Iowa's defense as the second best in the Big Ten behind Michigan State (sixth nationally, just behind Alabama) last season. But this season, with only two of the top seven tacklers from last season returning, there are major question marks on the defensive side of the ball. Not on the defensive line though, which will be led by senior defensive tackles Carl Davis (6'5" 315 pounds) and Louis Trinca-Pasat (6'3" 290 pounds). Both blossomed last season, with Trinca-Passat earning honorable mention all-Big Ten honors while Davis earning second team honors with 38 and 42 tackles respectively. Giltner, NE native Drew Ott (6'4" 270 pounds) was pressed into service as a true freshman and was the leading tackler on the defensive line as a sophomore (50, with 6.5 for loss). And in preseason practice this year, he switched sides to battle Brandon Scherff on a regular basis.
The huge hole on the Hawkeye defense is at linebacker, where all three stars have departed for the NFL. And since the Hawkeyes were remarkably healthy last season, the backups only saw spot duty. Senior middle linebacker Quinton Alston (6'1" 232 pounds) led the returning linebackers with 12 tackles last season. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman Josey Jewell (6'2" 225 pounds) who impressed this spring and could start at weakside linebacker. Also impressing is redshirt freshman walk-on linebacker Bo Bower (6'1" 220 pounds) who played himself as a co-starter at outside linebacker.
The Hawkeyes are scrambling to find depth in the secondary with the loss of 1st team all-Big Ten cornerback B.J. Lowery, free safety Tanner Miller, and strong safety NIco Law. Senior strong safety John Lowdermilk (6'2" 210 pounds) leads returning Hawkeyes with 78 tackles last season. Sophomore cornerback Desmond King (5'11" 190 pounds) started as a true freshman, with 69 tackles and eight pass breakups. Junior free safety Jordan Lomax (5'10" 200 pounds) has missed almost all of the last two seasons with injuries; he moved from cornerback to safety in the offseason. Sophomore Greg Mabin (6'2" 195 pounds) moved from wide receiver to cornerback in the spring, and has played well enough to start the season on top the depth chart.
Iowa is a popular favorite to win the Big Ten's west division in 2014 because of their schedule: Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin at home. From the east, they play Maryland and Indiana It's not inconceivable to think that Iowa could be undefeated in conference play entering November. But that being said, I see too many question marks on the Hawkeyes to make them the pick in the west. The defensive line will be solid, but the back seven on defense is a big uncertainty. If you've read the Iowa preview by SB Nation's Bill Connelly, you'd realize that Iowa's offense last season was just "competent" and "average". More importantly, the lack of injuries (no AIRBHG in 2013!) meant that for most of the season, Iowa played just six offensive linemen and the same 11 defenders. Could they win the West in 2014? Absolutely. But like Wisconsin, a lot of question marks have to become exclamation points...and frankly, I like the Badgers chances over the Hawkeyes, if you are picking teams with question marks, in the correctly named Big Ten West division.