Experience, schedule point toward Iowa improvement in 2008

All of America will watch Iowa on Jan. 3. Unfortunately for Hawkeyes fans, America will be watching the Iowa caucuses, not the FedEx Orange Bowl. Caucuses might fill the local hotels and restaurants, but they don't satisfy Hawkeyes fans who have been treading water for three seasons.

Iowa went 7-5 in 2005 and 6-7 in 2006. Mathematicians might say the Hawkeyes "improved" to 6-6 this season. To the rest of us, the record indicates that Kirk Ferentz's team jogged in place. A closer look, however, indicates that Iowa didn't stand in place. The Hawkeyes turned the corner.

When the Hawkeyes begin winter workouts, they will have more than 50 returning lettermen, as opposed to 37 last winter. They will have at least 15 returning starters. And unlike in 2006 -- when the team went through the motions in the second half of the season, finishing 1-6 -- this squad improved. These Hawkeyes won four of their last six.

"Even when we lost four in a row, I felt like the attitude of this team was more than solid," Ferentz said Friday. "We were making progress. We have a lot of work to do. That last game will serve as a reminder of where we are."

Iowa lost that last game, 28-19 to Western Michigan, when a victory would have meant a bowl game. But the same inexperience that contributed to a 2-4 start had everything to do with taking the Broncos of the Mid-American Conference for granted. Ferentz played 31 freshmen -- 11 true, 20 redshirt -- in 2007.

The offense, hit with a rash of injuries in August and September, bore the brunt of the inexperience. Iowa finished last in the Big Ten in the well-known categories (total offense, scoring, third-down conversions). More obscure numbers pointed out the problems, too. Iowa forced 21 turnovers but created only 37 points from them. The average touchdown drive went only 53 yards. Ryan Donahue set a school record by punting 86 times. And so on.

The offense floundered in part by design. If offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe had been any more conservative, he would lead former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the Iowa state polls. For instance, sophomore quarterback Jake Christensen didn't look downfield very often. The top five receivers averaged 11.5 yards per catch, and freshman Derrell Johnson-Koulianos led the team with only 38 catches.

But O'Keefe knew what he was doing. Christensen didn't turn the ball over. Iowa committed only 13 turnovers, third in the country. Christensen threw two interceptions in the Western Michigan loss after throwing a total of three in the previous nine games.

The point for Iowa is simple. There is promise. In addition to the freshmen who gained experience, among the injured expected to be healthy are wide receiver Andy Brodell (hamstring), offensive lineman Dace Richardson (knee) and tight end Tony Moeaki (elbow, hand). Moeaki had a second surgery last week and will miss spring practice, Ferentz said.

The defense does lose leadership up front from ends Kenny Iwebema and Bryan Mattison and linebackers Mike Humpal and Mike Klinkenborg. Four of the top six tacklers won't be back. Look for freshman middle linebacker Jacody Coleman to emerge next season.

The 2008 schedule has no Ohio State, no Michigan, and home games against Wisconsin and Penn State. In other words, the Big Ten has set the table. A year from now, Iowa should be talking about football, not politics.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.