Iowa: The Hawkeyes are coming off a somewhat disappointing 2010 season finishing .500 in the conference and 8-5 overall with a bowl win. Iowa was my choice last year to win the conference title, and after starting off the year 7-2 and 4-1 in the conference the wheels. Their lone conference loss was a one-point decision at home against Wisconsin. They were starring at a 4-1 record when the wheels began to fall off for their season. They headed to Evanston to face the Wildcats and maintain a share of the conference lead. With less than seven minutes to play and up by ten points the Hawkeyes let another one slip away as Northwestern scored twice in a five minute span to send them away with another conference loss. Facing Ohio State the following week the Hawkeyes were in dire need of a win to keep their fading title hopes alive. Again they fought hard but came out on the short end of the stick once again, losing by a score of 20-17. Their final conference game was against rival Minnesota who was sporting a 1-6 conference record and had fired their coach midseason. For some unexplainable reason the vastly superior Iowa team lost to the Gophers 27-24 and had to surrender Floyd. 2011 will be part reloading, part rebuilding as the Hawkeyes have to replace several key pieces on both sides of the ball.
Offense: There are two things I have come to know about a Kirk Ferentz coached team. One, he typically gets the most out of his players. Second, his offensive line can almost assuredly be counted on as being a strength. With three returning offensive line starters, and one part-time starter the Hawkeyes will once again be fundamentally strong along the line of scrimmage. This will help ease the transition from quarterback Ricky Stanzi to James Vandenberg and should provide for a respectable running game. Vandenberg has some game experience, having filled in for Stanzi in 2009 when he was unable to perform due to injury. What he won’t have are all the receiving targets from the previous season as two of the top three have graduated. The good news is that leading receiver Marvin McNutt returns for his senior season. Iowa will need to find another WR to complement McNutt as well as a TE to replace Allen Reisner and his 42 receptions. The Hawkeyes have been snake bit that couple of seasons with regards to injuries of their running backs. Prior to the 2009 season Iowa lost Jewel Hampton for the entire season due to a knee injury, and last year leading rusher Adam Robinson was out for their bowl game. Marcus Coker filled in for Robinson in the bowl win over Missouri, rushing for 219 yards. With Hampton having transferred and Robinson being dismissed from the team, it appears that Coker, and incoming recruits will be looked up to provide a ground attack.
Defense: The Hawkeyes appear to have taken the biggest hit player wise on this side of the ball. Iowa will be looking to replace All-American DE Adrian Clayborn, All Big-Ten first teamer Tyler Sash, and second teamers Karl Klug, Jeremiha Hunter, and Brett Greenwood, as well as graduate Christian Ballard. Clayborn, Klug and Ballard were all part of a very strong and talented defensive front. The lone returning starter is senior DT Mike Daniels, but he will not be without some support as senior DE Broderick Binns should ease some of rebuilding pain. Binns has extensive playing time and is in his own right a very tough individual to block. He likely would have started for many other conference teams, but having a player like Clayborn in front of you the opportunities are limited. Binns and Daniel probably won’t make anyone forget Clayborn and Klug, but they are a formidable pair and are proven. The departure of Hunter from the linebacking unit will be tempered by the return of sophomore James Morris and senior Tyler Nielsen. Morris garnered Sporting News freshman first team All-America honors for his play. Morris finished fourth on the team with 70 tackles. Nielsen started for most of the season before sustaining an injury against Michigan State. He finished the year with 42 tackles in eight games. There are a host of talented players vying for Hunter’s old weakside spot, as linebacker appears to be deep. The secondary returns corners Micah Hyde and Shaun Prater from a starting unit that registered 15 interceptions, returning 3 for TD’s. Hyde and Prater accounted for eight, each recording four apiece. The challenge will be for secondary coach Phil Parker to find two quality safeties from a list of candidates, most of whom have seen some playing time. Expect a drop off in the number of interceptions in 2011 from this group, as they benefitted from having the strong pass rush supplied by Clayborn, Klug and Ballard, last season.
Special Team: Iowa has to replace Ray Guy award finalist Ryan Donahue. Donahue had been handling the punting duties for his entire four years in Iowa City, and finding a replacement capable of dictating field position will be a priority. Place kicking duties will be handled by sophomore Mike Meyer who connected on 14 of his 17 field goal attempts and 31 of his 33 PAT’s.
Outlook: Iowa’s out of conference schedule is negotiable but should allow just enough of a challenge to test the replacements and get them ready for the rigors of conference play. Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe are two softballs that sandwich the more difficult challenges of in-state rival Iowa State and Pittsburgh. A 4-0 start is expected. Iowa jumps into conference play against Penn State (away) and Northwestern (home) the first two weeks of the season. These two games offer the two most difficult challenges until they face MSU at home in the tenth game, and Nebraska in the finale. The remaining conference schedule includes games against Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan and Purdue. If the Hawkeyes go .500 against PSU, Northwestern, MSU, and Nebraska, and win the others they are looking at no worse than a 10-2 season.