The latest team in our preseason Q&A is Iowa. RossWB from Black Heart Gold Pants was kind enough to answer some questions about the Hawkeyes, who are looking to rebound from a 4-8 season.
1. Looking back at 2012, was it as much the disaster as it appeared to be? Were there unfortunate problems? Or was it really just a mess all around?
Well, it certainly wasn't a picnic. As for was it as much of a disaster as it appeared to be... Iowa went 4-8, lost their last six games of the year, got utterly humiliated by Penn State and Michigan, lost on last-second field goals to Central Michigan and Purdue, lost a game to Iowa State where the Cyclones only scored 9 points (unfortunately, Iowa only scored 6 points), Iowa threw the fewest passing touchdowns in my lifetime (7), and the new Greg Davis-ified offense in general was so inept and unspeakably awful that by the end of November I would have rather watched an infinite loop of Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box at MOMA.
I suppose there are ways it could have been worse -- Iowa didn't lose to UNI and have to do the FCS Defeat Walk of Shame, they did beat Minnesota and regainthe greatest traveling trophy in college sports, and they did somehow manage to defeat Michigan State in a game that seemed like a loving homage to the infamous 6-4 Iowa-Penn State game.
There were injury problems -- Iowa lost their best offensive lineman (Brandon Scherff) in the Penn State disaster, as well as another capable offensive lineman (Andrew Donnal) in the same game (within the span of a few plays, in fact), and another starter on the offensive line (Austin Blythe) missed a handful of games, too. And there were the usual antics from AIRBHG -- presumed starter Jordan Canzeri tore an ACL in spring practice, freshman-with-some-training-
But injuries were only part of the story for Iowa's incompetence last year, and probably not even a very big part (although the loss of Scherff hurt a lot). Iowa just didn't have much in the way of talent or experience last year and that, coupled with a host of new coaches and some unfamiliar schemes (particularly on offense) added to a big ball of godawful football.
2. That said, the Hawkeyes came into East Lansing and won. Mark Dantonio is 2-4 against Iowa, with all four losses being in heartbreaking fashion (double OT, final play, blowout of undefeated team, double overtime). Is there any sort of rivalry here? I know Iowa fans don't care for Jerel Worthy, but this seems to be quite the on-field rivalry, at least.
There are some rivalries that get stoked as much by what happens off the field and by your interactions with rival fans as they do by what happens on the field. For Iowa fans, this is where the rivalries with Iowa State, Nebraska, and Minnesota fit in -- the games are certainly one level of the rivalry, but Iowa fans living in Iowa tend to have a lot of run-ins with fans from those teams, which certainly adds a lot of color to the rivalry. And then there are some rivalries that are almost purely based on the action on the field, which is where the Michigan State rivalry fits in.
Outside of maybe Iowa-Wisconsin, I can't think of another series Iowa's had with another Big Ten team that's involved so many close, exciting, and memorable games. And it's been that way for a while, even going back to the Hayden Fry and George Perles days in the '80s. Since 1980, 17 of the 26 Iowa-Michigan State games have been decided by a touchdown or less, which is pretty remarkable. There have been overtimes aplenty and some seriously dramatic finishes (although the two that I remember most were both Iowa wins, "7 got 6" in 2009 and Chuck Long's bootleg in 1985.
I think when two teams play so many close games like that, it's almost impossible not to feel a little something extra when Sparty rolls into town. But there's more to it than just the competitiveness of the games, too. Ferentz doesn't seem to like Dantonio very much, whether that's because of on-field antics or recruiting beefs or something else. I think that bleeds into the fans to a degree, although Iowa fans also just don't have a very high opinion of Dantonio in general. There are a lot of reasons for that -- his sideline demeanor, his attitude toward playing time and player discipline, his behavior after the Colin Sandeman hit in the 2009 game, the Jerel Worthy nonsense in 2011, and the stories about negative recruiting, to name but a few.
3. Moving to 2013, what's the quarterback situation looking like?
Seriously, we have no idea right now. Jake Rudock is the very slight favorite after spring practice, but it's unclear if that means anything as far as the season is concerned. Rudock has been at Iowa the longest -- a year longer than Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard, who redshirted last year, and Nic Shimonek, an incoming freshman -- and he looked slightly better than Sokol and Beathard in the two practices that were open to the fans, so that's what has him as a slight favorite right now. But Ferentz hasn't really tipped his hand at all and all three guys should continue to split reps in fall practice and likely in the first few games of the season.
I think Ferentz will settle on a quarterback by the start of Big Ten play, but right now I really don't know who that might be. If you had a gun to my head and forced me to pick one of those three, I'd probably go with Rudock on the basis of his tiny "experience" advantage, but right now I don't feel particularly good about that pick.
4. What about the rest of the offense? Only six starters return. Outside of Marc Weisman, what weapons are there on offense, and what hope do you have for this "no-huddle" offense?
I hope the much-talked about no huddle offense is a real thing and not just a spring practice fever dream that doesn't make it into live games this fall; I'm somewhat skeptical of that, given Ferentz's track record, but I also think they spent too much time on it this spring to completely abandon it, too. More than anything, I just want an offense that isn't as excruciating to watch as a root canal. Touchdowns seemed semi-miraculous last year and even first downs felt like they took an inordinate amount of effort for Iowa; I'd like to see an offense that at least seemed competent and able to move the ball without needing an act of God. I hope that's not asking for much.
As for offensive weapons, that's a good question. Weisman is a known quantity as a bruising power runner and Iowa fans remain optimistic that this will finally be the big breakout campaign for tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, a stunning physical specimen whose productivity has so far failed to live up to his impressive measurables, but beyond that there's a whole lot of question marks.
Iowa's entering the season with the healthiest collection of running backs they've had in a long time (/knock on entire Amazon rain forest) and hopefully one of those guys -- Canzeri? Hill? -- will emerge as an effective complement to Weisman. Iowa has almost completely turned over their wide receiving corps in the last few years, mostly in pursuit of smaller, speedier options that will theoretically be a better fit for the Iowa offense. Theoretically. Hopefully some of them can a) catch the damn ball and b) do something with the ball when they do catch it.
5. On the other side of the ball, a lot of experience returns. No where to go but up, right?
Compared to the Clockwork Orange-style eye torture perpetrated by the Iowa offense last year, the Iowa defense was actually reasonably OK at times. They got shredded to bits by Michigan, Penn State, and (inexplicably) Central Michigan, but they held their own in several other games, even with the offense usually failing to give them any advantage at all in terms of field position or scoring drives.
That said, there's certainly a lot of room for improvement for the Iowa defense. Upfront, the defensive line needs to be much better than they were in 2012, when they generated very little pass rush and struggled at times to control the run. In the back, the secondary needs to be much sturdier, too. Iowa returns several players at all levels of the defense, so the hope is that experience turns them into better, smarter players this year -- time will tell if that's a pipe dream or not. I'm optimistic that the defense isn't going to be mauled like they were in 2012, but I'm not deluded enough to think that they're going to have a lights out defense, either.
6. What are the overall expectations for this team? It feels weird to ask this about Iowa, but is a bowl game a realistic goal?
After last year, getting back to 6 wins and a bowl game would be a step in the right direction. I don't think anyone would be jumping for joy at a 6-6 season and a trip to a middling bowl game, but it would be progress from last season's nightmarish collapse and overall ineptitude and might represent hope that the program is headed back in the right direction and that 2014 and 2015 might bring better results.
Can they get to 6-6 this year? Well, maybe. The schedule isn't a cakewalk, but it's not unmanageable, either. Getting to 6-6 likely means finding 3 wins in non-conference play. This year's non-conference slate features home games with Northern Illinois (and wannabe-Heisman contender Jordan Lynch), Missouri State, and Western Michigan, and a road game at Iowa State. Three wins there isn't a gimme, but it's certainly attainable, especially if the Iowa defense handles Lynch as well as they did last year.
Finding three wins in Big Ten play might be a little bit harder. Road games at Ohio State and Nebraska and a home game with Michigan certainly don't look very favorable for Iowa. Northwestern has had Iowa's number for several years now, home and away, so even getting them in Kinnick Stadium doesn't bode as well as it might otherwise. Wisconsin is a wildcard since I have no idea what to expect from them under a new coach, but they're still pretty talented. The three most winnable Big Ten games for Iowa appear to be Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue; the fact that the latter two games are on the road does not fill me with great confidence.
Still, six wins seems attainable -- if Iowa really is improved from last season, which remains to be seen. Is the offense capable of moving the ball down the field and treating the end zone like it's not filled with land mines? Is the defense capable of making a few more stops and forcing turnovers? I'm not sure yet. There are a lot of new faces (especially on offense) that we need to see in action. But it's July and my enthusiasm hasn't been worn down to a nub yet, so I'll embrace hope and say that, yes, Iowa will get back to a bowl game in 2013.
(Thanks to RossWB for taking the time to answer some questions. Make sure you check out BHGP.)