Record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Iowa fans hoping for improvement over the 2010 season instead got nearly a carbon copy.
For the second straight year, the Hawkeyes went 7-5 in the regular season and 4-4 in the Big Ten, and for the second straight year they're heading back to the Insight Bowl. But whereas last year's team started off hot and collapsed down the stretch, this one reached the finish line after a series of starts and stops.
Well, maybe we shouldn't use the word "stops" with this particular team. Iowa turned in one of the most inconsistent defensive efforts of the Kirk Ferentz era, as the loss of three defensive linemen to last April's NFL draft took its toll. The Hawkeyes also were a much worse team on the road, losing at Iowa State and Minnesota. Their only road win came late in the year at Purdue.
The bright spot was an offense that was as productive as any in the league when the team's Big Three were rolling. James Vandenberg excelled for a first-time starting quarterback, tossing 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions while piling up more than 2,800 passing yards. His favorite target was Marvin McNutt, who blossomed into the Big Ten's best receiver. And after a slow start, sophomore Marcus Coker put up the kind of numbers people expected of him, gaining 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, that offense failed to fire in losses at Penn State and Nebraska. That mirrored the team as a whole, which never could sustain any momentum this season. Iowa is just two years removed from winning the Orange Bowl, but fans are grumbling and will want to see some real improvement next year.
Offensive MVP: McNutt. Vandenberg and Coker had standout seasons, but McNutt could change a game like no other player. The Big Ten receiver of the year had 78 catches for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns, becoming the school's all-time leader in career touchdown catches.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker James Morris. There's no obvious choice here, really, which tells you everything you need to know about Iowa's 2011 defense. Morris led the team with 105 tackles in just 11 games. Defensive backs Shaun Prater and Micah Hyde were solid, too, and defensive lineman Mike Daniels came on late in the year to lead the team with six sacks.
Turning point: Hard to say there was any real turning point, since the team's only back-to-back wins in conference play came against Northwestern and Indiana at home. But the 24-16 win over Michigan was a high-water moment, as the defense finally delivered and the Hawkeyes beat a ranked team for the only time all season. That it came after the disappointing Minnesota loss and clinched bowl eligibility made it that much more important.
What's next: Iowa is a heavy underdog in the Insight Bowl against Oklahoma, which was ranked No. 1 in the country for most of September. But the Hawkeyes have been very good in bowl games under Ferentz. McNutt will be gone, but Vandenberg and Coker give the offense a nice nucleus for 2012. The defense simply must get tougher.