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Previewing the 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes

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Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when you make predictions, you just get things wrong. I try to be thorough and go in-depth so that I'm not going off half-cocked. I thought Southern Miss would be much improved this season and that Purdue would pull off an upset this season. (Didn't think it would be Dear Old Nebraska U, though.)

But in eight years of doing these previews for CornNation, there's no bigger blown prediction than my preview of the 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes. I knew the schedule set up to make 10-2 a possibility, but I saw 4-8 to be a much better proposition this season.

And if you would have told me in August that the Hawkeyes would be in the College Football Playoff discussion in November, I would said you were nuts. Heck, I thought the concept was nuts in October. Iowa beat 1-AA Illinois State by 17 points in the season opener, then scored twice in the final three minutes to defeat Iowa State, followed by a last-second victory over Pitt on Marshall Koehn's 57 yard field goal.

One could argue that for all of the bad luck Nebraska has had in 2015, that Iowa has had good luck. Wisconsin had the ball at the Iowa one yard line, preparing to take the lead in the fourth quarter, only to have an offensive lineman trip up quarterback Joel Stave, causing him to fumble the handoff to Taiwan Deal. Iowa recovers the fumble, and holds on for 10-6 victory.

The offensive spark has been provided by quarterback C.J. Beathard, who's completed 61% of his passes for 2257 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's also capable of making plays with his feet, as he's averaging 3.5 yards per carry on the ground.

Senior tight end Jake Duzey was expected to be a major target in Iowa's passing game this season, but he's missed the entire season with a knee injury. In stepped senior Henry Krieger-Coble, who's second on the team with 27 catches for 338 yards and a touchdown. Junior tight end George Kittle has caught 16 passes for 229 yards and five touchdowns. But the biggest playmaker is junior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg, who's caught 56 passes for 594 yards and three touchdowns this season. Tevaun Smith has caught 24 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns.

In some respect, Iowa's infamous AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) curse has attempted a bit of a comeback in 2015. Leshun Daniels claimed the starting job in the preseason, but an ankle injury suffered against Iowa State limited him for two months until he broke out for 195 yards against Minnesota. On the season, he's rushed for 590 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games. Jordan Canzeri took over for the next four games (including a 43 carry, 256 yard performance against Illinois) before a high ankle sprain kept him out for the next three weeks. Canzeri is the Hawkeyes' leading rusher this season with 824 yards and ten touchdowns. Between Canzeri's departure and Daniels' return, Akrum Wadley filled the bill nicely, rushing for 449 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. Will we see all three at various times this week?  All appear to be healthy, and with a short week, Iowa might be looking for a three-man rotation at running back. Or at least in running situations, because if you see Derrick Mitchell in the game at running back, it could be a strong hint that Iowa is going to throw the ball.

Another key to Iowa's strong start this season is their rush defense - especially in the early part of the season. Last season, Iowa gave up 168 yards a game on the ground, but this season, it's down to 108 per game. But while Iowa only gave up one rushing touchdown in the first eight games, the Hawkeyes have given up six in the last three games. Are the Hawkeyes wearing down defensively this season? It wouldn't be a surprise when you look at how little Iowa has substituted in their front seven this season. Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette pointed out that Iowa's three starting linebackers have each been on the field for 94%, 99% and 99% of the snaps this season. The starting defensive tackles have been on the field for over 81% of the snaps; the starting defensive ends each over 70%.

Oh, need I remind you that this is a short week for the Hawkeyes, and they might be even more fatigued at this point of the season?

Certainly the loss of senior defensive end Drew Ott has affected Iowa's depth up front, and that explains some of the lack of rotation. But not at linebacker, where former starter Bo Bower, who had 38 tackles last season as a starter, has only seen enough action to total five tackles this season.  Josey Jewell and Cole Fisher lead the Hawkeyes with 102 and 92 tackles respectively. Defensive end Nate Meier leads the Hawkeyes with 6.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries.  The secondary is pretty special for the Hawkeyes, led by cornerback Desmond King and his eight interceptions and ten more passes broken up. Safety Jordan Lomax is third on the team in tackles with 71 this season.

Give Iowa all the credit for being 11-0 at this point in the season, but from my perspective, Iowa has overachieved almost as much as Nebraska has underachieved. Is this the week that the two teams return to the mean? Maybe, but let's be honest, Iowa has been consistently good all season long, while Nebraska has been manically inconsistent. Somehow the Huskers managed to find a way to lose to Purdue AND beat Michigan State.  The team that lost to the Boilermakers stands absolutely no shot to hoist the overpriced grocery store manufacturered trophy on Black Friday.

The team that pulled off the upset of Sparty in Lincoln?  A whole other story entirely.  And now, in  the interest of full disclosure, here's the preseason preview of the Iowa Hawkeyes as it originally ran in August.

Preseason Preview of Iowa

Over the years, I've found that fans of the last team on Nebraska's schedule have taken issue with these previews. In 2009, Colorado fans didn't share my concern about their change at offensive coordinator. I thought it was a bad move for the Buffs, but the fans were pleased with it. Who was that offensive coordinator? Mark Helfrich, who left Colorado for Oregon - and has now been promoted to head coach of the Ducks. And what about that new offensive scheme for Colorado?

Well, let's just say that that Colorado fans quickly grew despondent about it. The Buffs have moved onto the Pac-12 (though they would have been better served in the Mountain West, frankly), and the Huskers have moved to the Big Ten, with Iowa filling that day-after-Thanksgiving slot on the schedule. And Hawkeye fans have replaced Buffy fans in hating these previews.

I suspect, though, that there won't be as much concern about "shooting the messenger" this season. It's not because I'm predicting a great season for the Hawkeyes in 2015...but rather, it's acceptance that Iowa football seems to be stuck in the middle of the middle of the Big Ten. It's a program that is going to usually win seven or eight wins a season. Sometimes, if all goes well, a couple more. Sometimes a couple less.

Is this a couple more or a couple less season? Last season, Iowa stuck with Jake Rudock throughout the season for better or worse - and he put up decent numbers, for the most part: 62% completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions. But against Pitt, Minnesota and Tennessee, Rudock was bad... and in that Gator Bowl, got benched for junior C.J. Beathard (6'2" 209 lbs.), the savior of the Pitt game. Beathard wasn't a whole lot better in the Gator Bowl, but Kirk Ferentz decided to make the change that fans were clamoring for. Beathard was named the starter for 2015 in January, and Rudock departed as a graduate transfer to Michigan. Beathard is a little more mobile and has a stronger arm, so the move is to try and generate some sort of spark on offense. Rudock's departure leaves Iowa sorely lacking in depth: three freshmen will back up Beathard this season. (Not that Iowa does much experimenting with their quarterbacks; three years ago, Iowa stuck with James Vandenberg during a woeful 4-8 season.)

Iowa doesn't appear to be looking at their running backs for some sort of spark on offense. In the wake of the "Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God" era, Ferentz put his trust in Mark Weisman, a converted fullboack who plowed ahead for a dependable four yards a carry while not fumbling. Now Weisman is gone, and the leading candidate is junior LeShun Daniels (6'0" 225 lbs.). Last season, Daniels rushed for just 49 yards before sustaining a stress fracture. In many respects, Daniels might be described as Weisman-lite; a little lighter and even less explosive. But he's earned Ferentz's trust. Senior Jordan Canzeri (5'9" 192 lbs.) has a little more speed, rushing for 494 yards last season. (120 of those yards came in the Gator Bowl.) Sophomore Akrum Wadley (5'11" 185 ls.) might be the biggest playmaker Iowa has at running back; he rushed for 174 yards against Minnesota and Northwestern, but found himself riding the bench after fumbling twice in his 33 carries.

Big plays from the Iowa offense look like they'll come from the receivers, and it'll start with senior split end Tevaun Smith (6'2" 205 lbs.) who caught 43 passes last season for a team leading 607 yards and three touchdowns. Senior tight end Jake Duzey (6'4" 248 lbs.) will continue to be a solid possession target; he caught 36 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns last season. Keep an eye on true freshman Jerminic Smith (6'1" 180 lbs.), who's made a splash in preseason practice in a bid to play early.

Iowa's rushing attack was surprisingly anemic when you consider that the offensive line was anchored by Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff. He's gone to the NFL, as is Andrew Donnal, a fourth round draft choice of the St. Louis Rams. Iowa will have to build around senior center Austin Blythe (6'3" 290 lbs.), a second team all Big Ten honoree last season. But the challenge is to find new tackles to replace Scherff and Donnal; the leading candidates are sophomores Boone Myers (6'5" 300 lbs.) and Ike Boettger (6'6" 300 lbs.)

On defense, the Hawkeyes return six starters - but Iowa will need to replace several of last seasons biggest contributors, starting with defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, who are off to the NFL. Giltner, NE native Drew Ott (6'4" 272 lbs.) does return at defensive end after earning second team all-Big Ten honors in 2014. On the other side, Nate Meier (6'2" 252 lbs.) gives Iowa one of the better defensive end combos in the Big Ten. Each tallied 57 tackles last season as juniors, with Ott's 12 tackles for loss leading Iowa in 2014. Sophomore Nathan Bazata (6'4" 284 lbs.) and junior Jaleel Johnson (6'4" 310 lbs.) are being called on to fill the void left by Davis and Trinca-Pasat after playing sparingly last season as reserves. That's a big hole to fill.

Sophomore Josey Jewell (6'2" 230 lbs.) broke his hand last August, which limited him as a freshman. But by the end of the season, he had broken into the starting lineup at weakside linebacker and earned Gator Bowl MVP honors with a 14 tackle performance. He's sliding into the open middle linebacker position this season. Sophomore Bo Bower (6'1" 228 lbs.) is confounding; he started every game last season as a freshman, but now finds himself as a backup. Senior Cole Fisher (6'2" 236 lbs.; brother of former Husker linebacker Sean Fisher) outplayed Bower in August to claim the starting job at weakside linebacker. Sophomore Ben Niemann (6'3" 225 lbs.) looks to start at the other outside linebacker spot; he claimed the spot by the virtue of not sucking as much as the rest of the Hawkeyes did during the Gator Bowl. This is a pretty inexperienced group that'll have to grow up quickly this season.

The secondary should be the strength of the Iowa defense in 2015, and senior free safety Jordan Lomax (5'10" 205 lbs.) is the leader of the bunch. A converted cornerback, he is the leading returning tackler (92 last season) who'll be a steady performer. Junior cornerback Desmond King (5'11" 200 lbs) has started every game in his Iowa career; he's totaled133 tackles in his carer thus far. The only question is whether he waits until 2017 to jump to the NFL. Junior Greg Mabin (6'2" 200 lbs.) switched from wide receiver to cornerback last season, totaling 53 tackles in his first season on defense. An additional year of seasoning can only help him this season.

Other than the secondary, one can find areas of concern at every position on the Iowa roster. Some positions (offensive line) moreso than others (defensive line and quarterback, I suspect)...which make this look like a tough season in Iowa City. A relative easy schedule (drawing Maryland and Indiana from the B1G East and getting Minnesota at home) makes 10-2 a possibility.  But so is 4-8.  Would that be enough to convince athletic director Gary Barta to finally hit the eject button on Ferentz? Maybe...but until commissioner Jim Delany delivers a new television deal that assures Iowa enough money to buy out Ferentz's contract, the Hawkeyes seem to be resigned to being "saddled with a coach that sucks."