A random, too-soon look at Iowa's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. The Hawkeyes have a reputation as close-to-the-vest, salt-of-the-earth, rugged iso runners of the plains, but before last year, that really wasn't the case at all:
This was the same team, you might remember, that was so thin at running back that its own fans spent the summer writhing in apoplectic visions of walk-on Paki O'Meara, spring starter, carrying most of the load. How do you go from "inevitable non-scholarship disaster" to "strongest running game in six years"?
There's no MVP award in college football, but they awarded one on merit, Shonn Greene could have easily won it last year for emerging from academic purgatory and blasting his way to near-unanimous All-America nods. He deserved all of it, and a golden hot tub in appreciation of his consistency and endurance: Greene was the only runner in the country to break 100 yards in every game (including 117 in the upset over Penn State); was never held below four yards per carry; scored 14 touchdowns in the last six games; and generally ground tacklers to dust as games wore on. So welcome to the NFL, Shonn Greene.
The premature passing of that supernova leaves Iowa either in perilous shape without its star or entering reload mode with three returning starters on the line (plus two veteran part-time starters) and Jewel Hampton, another short, stacked runner who averaged five yards per carry behind Greene last year as a true freshman. Yes, this is a better situation than the Hawkeyes faced at running back at this time in 2008, by the simple virtue of Hampton's role as the obvious starter, but they can't possibly find two All-Americans in a row waiting in the wings. That just ... no. Hampton would be doing just fine to get to half of Greene's outrageous production; either way, a reversion to a more 50:50 run:pass philosophy seems more or less inevitable.
What's the Same. Most top-10 defenses that return five of their six leading tacklers can count on high expectations, and it's a good bet eight returning starters from the best statistical unit in the Big Ten will fall readily under that assumption. The Hawkeyes held four different opponents last year to their lowest point total of the season, and held all 13 opponents under their season scoring average -- usually (with the exceptions of Northwestern and Illinois, which came close) well under, by at least a touchdown.
Like the running game, though, the improvement was so abrupt --
-- that predicting another year of that kind of success seems extremely shortsighted, returning starters or not. And not everyone is back: The interior has two critical holes to fill where Mitch King, the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year, and Matt Kroul were both four-year starters and the key cogs in the league's best run defense. The projected replacements, Mike Daniels and the unlikely named Karl Klugg, have little experience and no recruiting hype whatsoever to recommend them; a serious decline in the middle of the line loom large, and could undercut the entire operation.
Running a Stanzi scheme. We know this much: Ricky Stanzi, finally, is your quarterback. It took Stanzi two tries to unseat returning starter Jake Christensen -- he took over the job in the second game of the season, only to lose it again against Iowa State, then win it back for good in the loss to Pittsburgh -- and he played alright. Down the stretch, the floppy-haired sophomore was really alright, with big games in the year-end blowouts over Minnesota (season-high 255 yards, 3 touchdowns in a 55-0 laugher) and South Carolina and the epic winning drive to beat Penn State, on which he completed four passes for first downs to set up the clinching field goal and seal himself in Hawkeye lore for another generation, at least.
All of that, though, was firmly in the "game manager" mold, with the defense and Greene's unreal consistency keeping the young quarterback out of trouble: There were no shootouts, and almost no situations when the running game wasn't viable. Stanzi seems like a solid, improving passer who can string together a few drives when everything is working and the defense is forced to respect play-action. What we don't know: a) How Stanzi will react to the burden of carrying the offense without the luxury of a strong running game, or b) How he'll react to being forced into must-throw situations, when defenses can afford to pin their ears back, which they rarely could with Greene in the lineup. As a junior with more or less a full season under his belt, Stanzi should be out on much more of a limb this time around, and how well he balances on it could be the deciding factor between another New Year's Day appearance and staggering into the Champs Sports Bowl.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Stanzi won't have any shortage of receivers, although -- aside from presumptive go-to guy Derrell Johnson-Koulianos -- there's hardly any way to predict at this exactly which combination of candidates will emerge. Two of them, seniors Trey Stross and Toney Moeaki, can be a major upgrade to the the passing games in terms of experience and athleticism, if only they can manage to keep themselves in one piece. Both have battled nagging and sometimes serious injuries throughout their careers and come back with one more chance to make good on their perpetually stunted potential. Stross was available in the spring and reportedly played well -- well enough to end practices back on top of the post-spring depth chart, anyway -- but Moeaki was still on crutches, recovering from a second surgery to repair a broken that hadn't healed as expected since he was first stricken down in August.
If there was a revelation at the position, though, it might have been converted quarterback Marvin McNutt, who opened some eyes during his first shot at receiver and reportedly ran quite a bit with the first team, though he remains officially listed behind Stross. That's an investment that had better pay off; McNutt's old position, backing up Stanzi, remains one of the lineup's greatest and most foreboding mysteries.
Best-Case. The Hawkeyes have two critical three-game stretches, one in September against Iowa State, Arizona and Penn State, then in October against Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State. The second trio is more critical: If Iowa can run the table against the Wolverines, Badgers and Spartans and take care of business against Indiana and Northwestern, it could set up a showdown at Ohio State with major Big Ten championship implications on Nov. 14. I'm pretty confident when I rule out wins at Penn State and Ohio State, but an upset on either trip and some outside help against the other would put the Hawks right at the top of the mix for the Rose Bowl. If that sounds too ambitious, consider that Iowa will probably be favored in 10 of its games going into the year. With that potential, I wouldn't rule out a strong push for an at-large BCS bid at 10-2.
Worst-Case. At least half of those possible triumphs are effectively toss-ups -- take Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Northwestern and Minnesota. Assuming probable losses to the Lions and Buckeyes, a split against those six peers would leave the Hawkeyes at a very meh 7-5. A losing record against that stretch would risk submarining a bowl game altogether. If the running game is running in place, 6-6 is not out of the question at all, and the grumblings over Kirk Ferentz's salary can begin anew.
Non-Binding Forecast. There are a lot of "darkhorse" factors at work here: Iowa's four losses were all near-misses by a combined 12 points; the team got hot at the end of the year; and the vast majority of a strong defense returns, along with a respectable quarterback. Maybe. But the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse sums up the departures nicely -- the quality matters more than the quantity:
I’m interested in seeing what Stanzi does in the post-Shonn Greene, post-Mitch King and Matt Kroul and post-Rob Bruggeman and Seth Olsen. Iowa is losing a lot of what made it 9-4 last season, the heart of the running and stopping the run.
How can a team so dependent on interior line play pick up the slack minus its best interior linemen? Because those absences are so key, and risk completely changing the nature of a legitimately physical team, I have a hard time forecasting any improvement here. The Hawkeyes may work their back to 8-4, but with so many potential pitfalls on the schedule, I'd go with 7-5, and nothing better than the Alamo Bowl.