Imagine that during last season, Nebraska found a way to win games instead of lose them at the last moment. Instead of giving up the game winning field goal at the end, the Huskers kicked a 57 yarder to win the game. With a one score lead in the closing minutes of a game, the Huskers punched the ball into the endzone instead of throwing incompletions that gave the opponent a chance to come back and win the game. Instead of the opponent making an incredible play for the game-winning touchdown, the opponent's quarterback gets tripped up by his own offensive lineman and fumbles at the one yard linel.
That was Iowa in 2015. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a 17 point win over division 1-AA Illinois State, lead Iowa State by three points with three minutes to go, and needed a 57 yard field goal to beat Pitt. Wisconsin had the ball at the Iowa one-yard line, but Joel Stave was tripped up by his offensive lineman and fumbled the handoff; threat averted, and Iowa won.
Iowa went 12-0 and entered December in College Football Playoff consideration. But advanced stats, such as Bill Connelly's S&P+ weren't so kind in ranking the Hawkeyes. Iowa ended the season ranked 47th.
Nebraska was 48th. What's the difference? Iowa maximized Ferentz-ball all season long and avoided shooting themselves in the foot. On the other hand, Husker fans watched the Huskers leave the field seven times, shaking their heads and thinking "we could have won that game."
In the wake of the Gator Bowl debacle, Kirk Ferentz named C.J. Beathard the starter, which led Jake Rudock to use the graduate transfer option to move to Michigan. It was a move that benefited both programs; Rudock led the Weasels to a 10-3 season while Beathard captained the Hawkeyes on their Magical Mystery Tour to Pasadena. Beathard completed nearly 62% of his passes for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also added 237 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. More importantly, he protected the ball, as he only threw five interceptions all season long. If Beathard goes down, sophomore Tyler Wiegers (6'4" 225 lbs.) likely gets the call; he completed three of four passes last season.
The days of AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God) may be history, though senior LeShun Daniels (6'0" 225 lbs.) seems to spend more time banged up than healthy. He's the Hawkeye's leading returning rusher after rushing for 646 yards and eight touchdowns last season with a modest 4.5 yards per carry average. Junior Akrum Wadley (5'11" 190 lbs.) rushed for 496 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Fumble problems have been Wadley's biggest issue in his first two seasons in Iowa City.
Beathard's favorite receiver, senior Matt Vandeberg (6'1" 190 lbs.) returns after catching 65 passes last year for 703 yards and four touchdowns. That's good news for Iowa. The bad news is that the next leading returning receiver is sophomore Jerminic Smith (6'1" 185 lbs.), who only caught six passes for 141 yards last season. Senior tight end George Kittle (6'4" 246 lbs.) caught 20 passes for 290 yards and six touchdowns. Needless to say, things look a little thin here. Sophomore Jay Scheel (6'1" 195 lbs.) has only been healthy enough to play in two games in his first two seasons as a Hawkeye, but he's expected to be a key part of the Iowa passing game this season.
One thing Iowa has done consistently during Kirk Ferentz's time in Iowa City is develop solid offensive linemen, but this year, they'll miss departing all-American center Austin Blythe and all-Big Ten right guard Jordan Walsh. Junior Sean Welsh (6'3" 288 lbs.) slides over from tackle, where he started all 14 games last season to replace Blythe. Senior Cole Croston (6'5" 307 lbs.) started 10 games last year and is slated to play left tackle this season, while junior left guard Boone Myers (6'5" 305 lbs.) started ten games last season. Needless to say, Iowa will be a little less experienced on the line, but shouldn't drop off too far.
Iowa returns eight starters on a defense that ranked in the upper half of the Big Ten last season. That should set the stage for an even stronger defense in 2016. Sophomore defensive end Parker Hesse (6'3" 250 lbs.) made the most of his opportunity to replace Drew Ott last season and contributed 44 tackles in replacing Ott in the second half of the season. Inside, junior Nathan Bazata (6'2" 285 lbs.) and senior Jaleel Johnson (6'4" 310 lbs.) started the entire season and put up decent numbers (42 and 45 tackles respectively).
At linebacker, junior Josey Jewell (6'2" 235 lbs.) returns at middle linebacker after a second team all-Big Ten season in 2015. Jewell led the Hawkeyes with 126 tackles, was second on the team with 7.5 tackles for a loss, second on the team with four interceptions and tied for third with six pass breakups. Junior Bo Bower (6'1" 235 lbs.) started every game as a freshman, but then found himself as a backup last season. He reclaimed his starting position this summer at the weakside linebacker spot. Junior outside linebacker Ben Niemann (6'3" 230 lbs.) started all 14 games last season with 45 tackles. This front seven should provide the Hawkeyes with a solid defense against any rushing attack that doesn't include Christian McCaffrey. (/stanfordScoredAgain)
Iowa led the Big Ten with 19 interceptions last season, and with three starters back in the secondary, the Hawkeyes could be even better in 2016. Senior cornerback Desmond King (5'11" 203 lbs.) was an all-American last season, intercepting eight passes and breaking up 13 more. Senior Greg Mabin (6'2" 200 lbs.) is a two year starter at the other cornerback spot who broke up eight passes and intercepted two. Iowa didn't substitute much last season, so the Hawkeyes will be turning to sophomore walk-on Brandon Snyder (6'1" 210 lbs.), who had 11 tackles last year, to replace third-team all-Big Ten safety Jordan Lomax.
Last year's Iowa team took a favorable schedule and then took advantage of getting nearly every bounce going their way in the regular season to run away with the Big Ten's west division last season. Arguably, the Hawkeyes played their best game of the season in Indianapolis, losing to Michigan State when the Spartans drove the field in the final seconds. Reality may have set in Pasadena on New Year's Day as Stanford boatraced the Hawkeyes in the first half, but that doesn't change the fact that Iowa fans had a blast during 2015 with their team.