College football season is fast approaching. Soon we'll be flush with teams laying out their plans for the coming season and updates from August training camps. In the meantime, we're setting a bar for each team in the conference and weighing in on why they may or may not reach it during the 2015 season.
We think of Iowa as a possible contender in the West Division, and in fact the Hawkeyes were in the division hunt up until the final two weeks last season. But this program has been stuck in a rut of mediocrity. Kirk Ferentz's teams won nine or more games five times from 1999 to 2009. But since that 11-win campaign in '09, the Hawkeyes have not gotten back to the nine-victory plateau, with the 8-5 records in both 2010 and 2013 serving as the high-water marks.
Can Iowa improve that this year and soothe a grumbling fan base?
Why Iowa will will nine games in 2015:
Potential for a more explosive offense: This is Iowa under Ferentz we're talking about, so don't expect this team to suddenly morph into an up-tempo spread attack averaging 35 points per game. But the Hawkeyes at least have the potential to stretch the field vertically and rip off more big plays in the run game in 2015. Ferentz rolled the dice and anointed C.J. Beathard the starter shortly after the bowl game, which sent Jake Rudock packing for Michigan. The big-armed Beathard often gave the offense a spark when he came into games and should allow coordinator Greg Davis to go for more home runs, especially to wideout Tevaun Smith. And no offense to Mark Weisman, who was a hard-working, dependable bull of a running back the past couple of years, but the tailback position should have more explosiveness with Jordan Canzieri and Akrum Wadley leading the charge. A lot has to go right, including better run-blocking up front, more receivers emerging as reliable targets and Beathard cashing in on his promise. But at least the potential is there.
The schedule -- again: Iowa missed a golden opportunity last year by going 7-5 against a regular-season schedule that seemed handed down from heaven. The good news is that the schedule isn't much more difficult this year except that Wisconsin and Nebraska are on the road. The Hawkeyes get arguably the two weakest teams from the East as crossovers -- Maryland and Indiana -- and don't leave their state until October. The only games in which the Hawkeyes should be a significant underdog are the ones against the Huskers and Badgers. If they simply take care of business -- and beating Iowa State is job No. 1 on that front -- then plenty of wins are available.
Why Iowa won't win nine games in 2015:
Talent gap: Think of what Iowa lost off a 7-6 team from a year ago. A top-five NFL draft pick at left tackle in Brandon Scherff. Two extremely productive defensive tackles in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. Another NFL draft pick off the offensive line in right tackle Andrew Donnal. That's a lot to replace, especially in the trenches, and some departures at wide receiver have left that group thin. Special teams was rough last year, especially on kick returns. There's no experience behind Beathard should he struggle or get hurt. Iowa certainly has some talent -- defensive end Drew Ott, cornerback Desmond King and center Austin Blythe ranking high on that list -- but the roster isn't full of studs a la Ohio State and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes aren't dominant in any one area and are often highly predictable, which leaves them susceptible to getting beaten by anyone on the schedule.
Trending in wrong direction: Ferentz has surprised us before by bouncing back when it looked like his program was down. Still, it's hard to dispute that Iowa is stuck in neutral right now at best, and division rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota appear to have zoomed past it. Hawkeyes fans are extremely loyal, but disillusionment with the Ferentz regime is running high right now in and around Iowa City. An early loss, especially one in Ames or at home against Pitt, could turn things ugly quickly. This team has a lot to prove before you can trust it to pull out nine victories.