IOWA CITY, Iowa – Win or lose, something will be waiting for the 2016 Iowa football team after the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
We’ve seen it before, the most recent time being the 2010 season.
The something to which I’m referring is high expectations. They will return next season with a vengeance after a six-year absence.
We’ll hear and read for eight months that Iowa is the favorite to win the Big Ten West Division, a force to be reckoned with under veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz, assuming he returns for his 18th season.
The 2016 Hawkeyes won’t have the luxury of sneaking up anybody like the current team has this season. But it will have proven firepower to lead the way and a head coach who is now being called a legend again.
I bring up the expectations now in hopes of cheering you up in the wake of the Iowa men’s basketball team’s devastating 83-82 loss to Iowa State on Thursday in Ames. The Cyclones responded to a critical situation by closing the game with a 9-0 scoring run.
They did what the 12-1 Iowa football team has done throughout the season, which is seize the moment on a game-by-game basis.
Iowa is having a historical season with a roster in which more than half of the starters will return next season. Ferentz would be the last person to promote Iowa for next season under any circumstance, but especially with the Rose Bowl still to be played in three weeks.
So I figured I’d do it.
Iowa has 14 starters – six on offense and eight on defense – returning next season from a team that is preparing to face Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
The number on defense would drop to seven if 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King decides to enter the NFL Draft a year early. But King’s mother told ESPN that her son is leaning to returning for his senior season.
There is also a chance that defensive end Drew Ott will be granted a medical redshirt for next season.
But it’s more than just the number of returning starters that makes Iowa look so impressive on paper for next season.
The quality of Iowa’s returning starters also stands out, from second-team all-Big Ten quarterback C.J. Beathard to vastly improved middle linebacker Josey Jewell to King’s dominance as a cornerback and return specialist, Iowa appears loaded for next season.
Should Ott be allowed to return, that would give Iowa four players on the defensive line with extensive starting experience. Ott made second-team all-Big as a junior in 2014 and was performing at a star level when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Illinois on Oct. 10 at Kinnick Stadium.
Redshirt freshman Parker Hesse, who just two years ago was playing quarterback in high school, has started the last seven games at defensive end and more than held his own.
Jordan Lomax will be a significant loss at free safety, as will Cole Fisher at weak-side linebacker. But there are enough returning starters to help ease the transition for the new starters.
Special teams will be a concern because they always are when you have to replace both kickers. Marshall Koehn has had some weird misses on point-after kicks this season, but he also has made 15-of-19 field-goal attempts, including the 57-yard game-winner against Pittsburgh.
Senior Dillon Kidd has gone from being a weakness at punter last season to a strength this season. He and Koehn both will be sorely missed, but not enough to impact the perception of Iowa for next season.
Beathard’s presence alone makes Iowa look attractive for next season. He has inspired the team with his playmaking ability at crunch time and with his desire to win. Beathard is 13-1 as Iowa’s starting quarterback and a second-team all-Big Ten selection.
More greatness will be expected from Beathard next season, as he plays behind three returning starters on the offensive line and with three running backs with starting experience. Big-play tight end George Kittle also returns next season, along with sure-handed receiver Matt VandeBerg.
It won’t be easy replacing all-America guard Jordan Walsh or all-Big center Austin Blythe. But there should be enough proven talent to help nurture the new starters, one of whom is likely to be James Daniels.
Developing a new starter at fullback will be another priority for next season. Macon Plewa and Adam Cox are both seniors and will be missed for what they do on and off the field.
Iowa has a knack for producing fullbacks, though, so look for more toughness and dependability to come from that position next season.
Another reason to like Iowa is the circumstances in the West Division, where none of the other six teams are close to being elite.
Wisconsin has slipped back to the pack to a degree, while Nebraska has gone from being elite to being very good to pretty good and now average over the past two decades.
Northwestern is always a threat and will be coming off at least a 10-win season in 2016. But the Wildcats aren’t elite on paper.
The other three teams in the West Division – Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue – look on paper to be average, or in Purdue’s case, way below average for next season.
But even with all that mediocrity, Iowa’s schedule won’t be a hindrance next season. Back-to-back games in November at Penn State and at home against Michigan should do wonders for Iowa’s perception next season.
The only concern with all this optimism is that Iowa has a history of playing better under Ferentz when nobody from the outside is looking or expects much. Iowa seemed to have all the pieces in 2010, but still stumbled to an 8-5 record.
But maybe New Kirk is better at handling expectations than old Kirk. We’ll have an answer by this time next year.