Iowa vs Illinois State Football, September 5, 2015
(Justin Torner/The University of Iowa)

2015 Record: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)

2016 WNUR Sports Staff Projection: 11-1 (8-1 B1G), 1st in B1G West

Key Returning Players: DB Desmond King, QB CJ Beathard, DL Jaleel Johnson, LB Josey Jewell

Key Departing Players: RB Jordan Canzeri, K Marshall Koehn, OL Austin Blythe, DL Drew Meier

Outlook:

One of the biggest surprises in all of college football last season, the Iowa Hawkeyes took both the conference and the nation by storm in 2015, winning their first 12 games of the year en route to appearances in the Big Ten Championship game and the Rose Bowl. With much of last year’s solid offensive personnel and many defensive impact players returning, Kirk Ferentz’s squad has earned the billing of Big Ten West Division favorites heading into 2016.

Offense:

Iowa had a sneaky good offense last year that averaged just under 31 points per game, which was good for fifth in the Big Ten. Its 386 yards per game also ranked fifth in the league. True to form, the Hawkeye offense was built upon a ground game that produced just under 182 rushing yards per game, fifth-most in the Big Ten. Sensing a pattern?

Jordan Canzeri’s 82 rushing yards per game were fourth-most in the conference, and his departure could spell a little trouble for the Hawkeyes. But while Canzeri was definitely the feature back, the Hawkeyes had and will have plenty of backfield depth in now-senior LeShun Daniels and now-junior Akrum Wadley, who both averaged around 55 rushing yards per game themselves. Northwestern fans are well acquainted with the latter, as he rushed for over 200 yards and four scores in the 40-10 rout of the Wildcats this past year.

The passing game isn’t quite as dynamic as the rushing, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Even though C.J. Beathard’s 200 passing yards per game were just eighth-most in the league, he had the second-best completion percentage and the fourth-best passer rating. He may not be as high-profile as some other conference QBs, but Beathard is very important to Iowa’s success and many are projecting him to have something of a breakout year. Helping him out will be senior wideout Matt VandeBerg, the team’s leader in receiving yards, and senior tight end George Kittle, the team’s leader in touchdown catches. And it may not be a sexy position, but Iowa has long been known for its talent on the offensive line – and they have three starters from last year coming back.

Defense:

It’s no secret that much of Iowa’s success last year was due to its defense. The Hawkeyes surrendered 20.4 points and 341 yards per game last year, fifth- and sixth-best in the league, respectively. They had playmakers at every level of defense as well. Each of Jaleel Johnson, Nate Meier, and Drew Ott tallied at least four sacks from the defensive line, but Johnson is the only returning starter. He’ll be helped by fellow interior lineman Nathan Bazata, who picked up three sacks himself last year, and, likely, a pair of sophomore ends.

In the middle of the defense, Josey Jewell is back for his junior year fresh off a campaign where he tallied 126 tackles, second-most in the entire league. Did I mention his three sacks, four interceptions, and forced fumble? The man is a beast. Fellow junior Ben Niemann is also back as the Sam backer, but the departure of Will linebacker Cole Fisher leaves a big hole that might be filled by sophomore Aaron Mends, a player who recorded just four tackles a year ago.

But the best part of the defense is the last part: the secondary. Led by eight interceptions from All-American Desmond King, the Hawkeyes picked off 19 passes last year, six more than second-place Rutgers’ 13. My words can’t quite describe how talented King is, and he is only one of three returning starters in the secondary. You can call these guys the BallHawkeyes. I’ll show myself out.

In all seriousness, with an offense that looks to be decent but not spectacular, it will be up to Iowa’s defense to carry them through the year. For as good of a unit as they were, they were remarkably poor in conversion situations, a statistic that must improve.

A team anchored by its standout defense with a solid ground game and a mediocre passing game? Sounds like another Big Ten team that I know.

Special Teams:

The Hawkeye’s special teams unit will probably look a bit different this season. First and foremost, they lost placekicker Marshall Koehn, a second team All-Conference selection this past year who connected on a respectable 80% of his field goal attempts (16-20), including this 57-yarder as time expired to beat Pitt. What’s interesting is that while Koehn was reliable from range, he was very poor on PATs – his 87% success rate wasn’t even in the top 10 in the conference. He’ll likely be replaced by Miguel Recinos, a sophomore who connected on the two PATs he attempted last season. Punter Dillon Kidd is also gone. But as long as Desmond King, who averaged 24.4 yards on kick returns and 14.2 on punt returns, is back deep to receive, the other side of Iowa’s special teams will be scary.

Best Case:

The Hawkeyes have a lot of proven commodities returning. If they all play as well or better than last year’s breakout campaign, it could be another pretty comfortable season in Iowa City. The home matchup with Michigan looks like a likely loss, but Iowa has a very realistic chance to go 11-1 this year and run away with the West Division title once again.

Worst Case:

Iowa has to find a way to replace two of the conference’s leaders in points, Canzeri and Koehn. Any of the following could conceivably happen: the duo of Wadley and Daniels falter, the kicking and punting game becomes a weakness rather than a strength, or a new-look defensive front means the other two defensive tiers get overtaxed. If any combination of those factors occurs, Iowa could disappoint. Maybe they lose two more not-easy games (Northwestern and Nebraska should both be decent teams). Even still, with that doable of a schedule, anything less than 9-3 would be a disappointment. Though, if I’m honest, 9-3 might still be good enough for first place in the division anyway.

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