IOWA CITY, Iowa – We’ve arrived in game week. Finally. Thankfully. The horse has been beaten dead.
We no longer wait and wonder what C.J. Beathard will do as a starting quarterback. Talk about life after Brandon Scherff turns to games without the Outland Trophy winner. Speculation regarding Kirk Ferentz’s future with the program moves on from message board and Twitter arguments to crystallization from actual on-field results.
While Ferentz, the man, should raise little debate, slumping attendance and palpable apathy in the fan base certainly have created polarization among the Hawkeye faithful on where they stand with the 17-year head coach. And that he turned 60 earlier this month, his tenure likely has reached the homestretch, one way or the other.
The believers in this admirable man, who has helped carry a proud program into the 21st century with state of the art facilities, point to his past as reason for optimism. They recall his rebuilding job that resulted in three Top 8 national finishes from 2002-04. After a lull in ’07, the memory of the ’08-’09 run to an Orange Bowl victory helps keep the faith.
Since that win in Miami, Iowa owns a 34-30 overall record with a 19-21 mark in the Big Ten. Those numbers have a growing faction of the fan base questioning Ferentz and whether or not the game has passed him by. A 16 percent drop in season ticket sales magnifies discontent.
Fortunately for Ferentz, he controls his own destiny and legacy. The criticism now matters little if he wins enough games this season and beyond to silence it.
What’s a satisfactory number of victories to restore more excitement here? Eight appears to be the line of demarcation. But with a less-than-daunting schedule, maybe even that total will fall short of creating a positive buzz.
The Hawkeyes must avoid losing their four trophy games as they did a year ago. If they drop decisions to Iowa State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska again and defeat everyone else, it probably will be an eight-win campaign ringing hollow for too many folks.
Having covered 18 years of Iowa football, I usually have some kind of handle on the team as the season approaches. This August, I have none. Of course, some of that could be deteriorating memory coming with aging.
Be that as it may, I’m obligated to continue this exercise of predicting the upcoming slate. I say with confidence that this is the latest I’ve ever done it.
With that glowing endorsement, here we go:
Sept. 5 vs. Illinois State
Summary: The Red Birds come to Kinnick Stadium as the top-ranked team in the FCS after finishing runner-up in that division a year ago. That’s a scary proposition for an Iowa team that hasn’t shot out of the gates strong the last several years. Illinois State is coached by Brock Spack, whose defenses at Purdue under Joe Tiller created problems for the Hawkeyes. Quarterback Tre Roberson, who faced Iowa while at Indiana, and running back Marshaun Coprich (2,274 yards, 27 TDs in ’14), lead an offense that averaged 38.3 points a year ago. The Hawkeyes struggled with dual-threat QBs and containing high-end rushers last fall. Reggie Spearman, who started last season as Iowa’s No. 1 WLB, is listed as the backup at that position on ISU’s most recent two-deep.
Outlook: The point spread for this game likely will be the lowest among the FBS-FCS match-ups in Week 1. That’s not the be-all, end-all but Vegas usually has a solid handle on things. It has all the makings of a competitive game. The Red Birds will score points. Iowa would benefit from an offense that runs the ball well and controls the clock, resting its defense on what’s expected to be a hot day and keeping Roberson and company on the sideline.
Prediction: IOWA 34, Illinois State 21
Sept. 12 at Iowa State
Summary: The game that has become the thorn in the side of Iowa and its fans. The team’s 15-year winning streak in the series that stretched through most of the ’80s and ’90s is a distant memory. The Cyclones have captured three of the last four meetings, including last year’s 20-17 upset at Kinnick Stadium. The teams have split the last 10 with each of them winning twice on the other’s home field. These games always carry relevance from a bragging rights standpoint but there’s a lot riding on this contest beyond that. We touched on Ferentz’s status in the opening. While his job security doesn’t receive as much publicity, Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads needs to win at a higher clip after leading his team to just five combined victories in the last two campaigns.
Outlook: It represents Beathard’s first "real" start on the road. Last year at Purdue doesn’t count as the home crowd showed up as empty seats. Iowa’s new signal caller must operate in an environment expected to be even loader now that Jack Trice’s south end zone has been enclosed. Cyclone quarterback Sam Richardson has battled injuries the last two seasons but engineered an impressive game-winning drive at Iowa a year ago. His dual-threat ability and dangerous receiver targets like Quenton Bundrage and Allen Lazard will pressure the Hawkeye defense. As is the case in the opener, Iowa needs to score points and would benefit from ball control on offense.
Prediction: Iowa State 27, IOWA 24
Sept. 19 vs. Pittsburgh
Summary: It will be the fourth meeting between these two teams since ’08, making the Panthers Iowa’s most common Power 5 conference opponent outside of Iowa State during that stretch. The Hawkeyes have won two of the three contents but all have been close and entertaining. Pitt took a 21-20 home decision in ’08 in what would be Jake Christensen’s last start before being replaced by Ricky Stanzi. Iowa overcame a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit to take a 31-27 barnburner in ’11 at Kinnick. Last year in Pittsburgh, Beathard relieved an injured Jake Rudock and rallied the Hawkeyes to a 24-20 win after they trailed by 10 at the intermission. This September, these teams will tussle under the lights in Iowa City in would could be another thriller between two evenly matched opponents.
Outlook: Iowa won last year despite allowing the Panthers two offensive stars to enjoy big days. Bruising running back James Conner (29-155-1 against Iowa) and receiver Tyler Boyd (10-153) are back to challenge the Iowa defense. The Hawkeyes played much better on that side of the ball in the second half last season. They’ll see their fourth different Pitt coach in as many meetings as former Michigan State assistant Pat Narduzzi replaces Paul Chryst, who left for the head coaching position at Wisconsin. It will be a match-up of similar styles with the team executing the best and making the fewest mistakes likely to emerge victorious.
Prediction: IOWA 20, Pittsburgh 17
Sept. 26 vs. North Texas
Summary: Quick. From what conference do the Mean Green hail. No Googling. Give up? It’s Conference USA. North Texas finished 4-8 last season, including 2-6 in league. Iowa City native and Iowa graduate Dan McCarney enters his fifth season in Denton and his return to Kinnick will be the top story line here. McCarney resurrected a dead Iowa State program in the ’90s and spent 11 years as a Hawkeyes assistant under Hayden Fry. His father, Pat McCarney, was the former police chief of Iowa City. Dan played high school ball at Iowa City High and then collegiately at Iowa. McCarney helped the Cyclones end its 15-year drought against Iowa with a win against Fry in ’98 and they would win the next four in the series after that, capped by a thrilling 36-31 triumph in ’02 against Iowa, its lone regular-season setback that year.
Outlook: Folks in the Lone Star State felt McCarney had rebuilt another program after a ’13 run that saw North Texas win nine games, including just the third bowl game in school history. The high was short-lived and now the veteran coach is trying to prove two years ago wasn’t a fluke. The Mean Green returns just one starter on the offensive line, not a good recipe for facing a Power 5 school in a hostile environment. Operating behind that front likely will be Iowa City High graduate Andrew McNulty, who must overcome major jitters returning to his hometown.
Prediction: IOWA 38, North Texas 13
Oct. 3 at Wisconsin
Summary: The series between boarder rivals went on hold in ’11-’12 when the conference put them in separate divisions. They’re in the West together again and the Heartland Trophy game is back to being regular event. That hasn’t been a good thing for Iowa, which has dropped the last three meetings, including a tough, 26-24 decision a year ago in Kinnick as the Badgers went on to win the division. The Hawkeyes head north this fall in an attempt to turn things around. They are 3-1 in their last four trips to Camp Randall. Gone is electric Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns last year.
Outlook: They don’t rebuild at running back in Madison, they reload. And the Badgers feature another good one in true junior Corey Clement, who rolled up 949 yards and nine scores last fall. Wisconsin must replace three starters on its offensive line. The two coming back, left tackle Tyler Marz and Center Dan Voltz, are good ones, however. Chryst returns with what will be a fourth-year starter in Joel Stave at quarterback. The hope for Iowa here is that the Badgers face turbulence in rebuilding their offensive line and it slows the running game. Their group of receivers is underwhelming. Wisconsin returns most of the pieces of a defense that looked good until facing Ohio State in the conference title game.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 20
Oct. 10 vs. Illinois
Summary: After going five seasons not playing each other, these border rivals renewed their series last fall with Iowa winning 30-14 in Champaign. The Hawkeyes have captured six of the last seven meetings dating back to ’03. The Illini reached a bowl game last season, Tim Beckman’s third at the school. It also ended up being his last when he was unceremoniously dismissed last week following an investigation into player abuse. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit takes over as interim head coach. Hawkeye fans might remember him as the head coach at Western Michigan, which won in Kinnick in the ’07 finale, preventing Iowa from going to a bowl.
Outlook: The Illini was showing slow progress under Beckman, winning 2, 4 and then 6 games in his three seasons. That said, it didn’t appear the program was poised to take off with him at the helm and it probably won’t without him. Wes Lunt is a strong-armed quarterback who’s career has been marked by inconsistency. He’s provided with two dangerous receivers in Justin Hardee and Geronimo Allison along with a productive running back in Josh Ferguson. The Illini still is a work in progress on defense and in the trenches, not areas at which you want to have questions in this conference.
Prediction: Iowa 31, Illinois 10
Oct. 17 at Northwestern
Summary: The Wildcats were roaring in 2012. They finished 10-3 with wins at Michigan State and against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. They weren’t able to build on that campaign despite returning key players. They posted back to back 5-7 seasons. Northwestern comes into ’15 with very little hype. It’s coming off an uneven year when it won at Penn State and Notre Dame but lost at home to Illinois. Pat Fitzgerald and his staff have raised the recruiting bar in Evanston and they have to hope that begins paying off this fall.
Outlook: Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, whom Iowa pursued vigorously in recruiting, takes over the quarterback reigns for the Wildcats. He boasts a strong pedigree and arm. Thorson could pressure the Hawkeye defense with his dual-threat ability (reportedly runs a 4.51 40) creating uneasy flashbacks of Dan Persa and Brett Basanez. Fitzgerald also beat Iowa and others for running back Justin Jackson, who started as a freshman last season. He’s a playmaker. The return of receiver Christian Jones, who missed last season with a knee injury, to team with tight end Dan Vitale provides Northwestern with guys to keep the defense from loading up to stop Jackson. Similarly to Iowa, offensive line and linebacker rank as the biggest question marks for the Wildcats.
Prediction: Northwestern 27, IOWA 20
Oct. 31 vs. Maryland
Summary: The Terrapins reside in a hotbed of high school football talent. That’s why their consistent struggles are frustrating to fans and alumni. The jury still is out on whether or not fifth-year head coach Randy Edsall can provide the desired results. Maryland finished 7-6 and split its eight conference games in its first trip through the Big Ten. On the surface, that might appear respectable. But the defense was atrocious. It allowed at least 37 points in six of its setbacks. Edsall has recruited well and kept talent on that side of the ball home but it’s time for it to start paying dividends.
Outlook: Maryland loses six of seven starters from its defensive front seven. And as we mentioned above, that might be a positive in terms of addition by subtraction. Also gone are receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to the NFL. The Terps do return three of four starting offensive linemen to go with heralded newcomer Damian Prince. Junior Perry Hills takes over at quarterback for C.J. Brown, who shredded Iowa on the read option a year ago. Luckily for the Hawkeyes, that attack will look different with Brown’s departure. As mentioned, this Maryland roster features plenty of talent but it’s hard to say how it all will come together by the time it hits Iowa City.
Prediction: IOWA 31, Maryland 24
Nov. 7 at Indiana
Summary: Much like Edsall, Kevin Wilson’s time to reach expectations for the Hoosier program is now. And similar to what’s happened in College Park, Indiana has done well to keep some of its top talent home. That has to turn into victories now or a change could be on the horizon. Things would be a lot easier if super back Tevin Coleman hadn’t left for the NFL and star wide receiver Shane Wynn had not graduated. In continuing to compare the Hoosiers with Maryland, they must make progress on defense. They allowed 34 or more points in seven different games in ’14.
Outlook: Indiana should give the Hawkeyes and others fits with its offense even without Coleman and Wynn. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld returns after suffering a season-ending injury in Iowa City last fall. JUCO transfer Camion Patrick and freshman Leon Thornton provide him with weapons on the outside. UAB transfer Jordan Howard replaces Coleman as an exciting, dynamic back. The offense line features returnees Jason Spriggs and Dan Feeney. The Hawkeyes will need to score points in this one but it’s hard to imagine that being a problem against an Indiana defense without noticeable upgrades.
Prediction: IOWA 34, Indiana 27
Nov. 14 vs. Minnesota
Summary: Jerry Kill is doing what he does, rebuild programs with a blueprint that calls for efficient, physical play. Minnesota might be the most physical team in a division that includes Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa. That’s saying something. The Golden Gophers aren’t flush with playmakers on either side of the ball, so they need to grind it out and limit mistakes. Like Indiana, they lost a productive back in David Cobb. They also said goodbye to the league’s top tight end, Maxx Williams. Minnesota should be salty on both sides of the line or scrimmage again and that’s what it’ll hang its hat on.
Outlook: Mitch Leidner gives Kill an experienced signal caller who makes up for his lack of a standout skill set with gritty, heady play. He’s a big kid who can absorb hits on the read option which then opens up the passing game. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are arguably the best cornerback tandem in the conference. Punter Peter Mortell is a weapon on a team that does very well on special teams. The Gophers embarrassed Iowa a year ago, physically man handling the visitors in a 51-14 laugher. It’s tough to imagine things being that one-sided again, especially in Kinnick.
Prediction: Minnesota 17, IOWA 13
Nov. 21 vs. Purdue
Summary: Darrell Hazell is another conference coach attempting to revive a downtrodden program. The Boilermakers carry zero momentum into ’15 after his first two seasons resulted in combined records of 4-20 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten. Hazell’s struggles aren’t a mystery. He was left with a talent deficit by previous coach Danny Hope. Unfortunately, it’s going to take more time to replenish the roster and the last few recruiting classes lag behind the conference competition.
Outlook: If you’re inclined to call this one of the lay-ups on Iowa’s schedule, don’t. The Boilermakers lugged a five-game losing streak into Iowa City in ’12 before stunning the home team, 27-24. The teams were tied 10-10 at halftime of last year’s game before the Hawkeyes escaped West Lafayette with a 24-10 win. Despite losing its final six games of ’14, Purdue scored 31 against Michigan State’s vaunted defense and lost a tough, 39-38 decision at Minnesota. There was progress. Austin Appleby begins the year behind center but if freshman David Blough overtakes him by this game, he’s the type of dual threat quarterback that causes Iowa issues.
Prediction: IOWA 24, Purdue 10
Nov. 27 at Nebraska
Summary: The Huskers still are chasing past glories, which played a role in firing ornery Bo Pelini after last season. Mike Riley comes to Lincoln with respect in the coaching fraternity and a label as a nice guy. His success at Oregon State, sandwiched around a disastrous NFL turn in San Diego, is remarkably average. Riley enjoys more resources at his fingertips than he ever did in Corvallis and maybe that’s the recipe for greater success. He won’t receive much of a honeymoon, if any, from the Big Red faithful, who were hoping for a bigger name in the coaching search. While Pelini’s personality left much to be desired, he did recruit pretty well and left a talented, experienced roster behind.
Outlook: No loss hurt Iowa more than last year’s Heroes Game setback. It gave new meaning to the term Black Friday. The Hawkeyes relinquished a 24-7 lead in losing 37-34 in overtime. They couldn’t stop the run, pass or electric punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El, who accumulated 134 yards on three returns, including an 80-yarder for a touchdown. Nebraska lost explosive players in running back Ameer Abdullah and receiver Kenny Bell along with offensive linemen Jake Cotton, Mark Pelini and Mike Moudy. Dominating defensive end Randy Gregory departed early for the NFL. Still, the Huskers return both offensive tackles, starting quarterback Tommy Armstrong and eight defensive starters. They will be formidable.
Prediction: Nebraska 20, IOWA 10
Rob’s Record for Iowa in 2015: 7-5 overall, 4-4 Big Ten