IOWA CITY, Iowa – Entering this past Saturday’s spring game, I thought the Iowa football team could finish anywhere from 10-2 to 7-5 during the 2016 regular season.
I left Kinnick Stadium feeling the same way.
Some will take it as an insult or as stupidity to suggest that Iowa could lose five games next season, considering all the experience Iowa has coming back from a team that finished 12-2 and won the Big Ten West Division last season. That includes arguably the conference’s top quarterback and defensive back, and three of the top four running backs from last season.
In no way is it an insult, but more so a reality check.
It could be called a weak and safe prediction, considering how large the gap is between 10-2 and 7-5.
But how could any prediction that gives Iowa a chance to win 10 games in the regular season be considered an insult?
My worse-case scenario of five losses still has Iowa finishing with a winning record.
What happened last season wasn’t a fluke because you don’t win 12 games in a row by accident. It certainly took some luck, and Iowa had plenty on the good side last season. But the Hawkeyes also showed skill, guts and determination during their march to the Rose Bowl.
To expect Iowa to run the table again during the regular season is a bold prediction, but also unreasonable.
“It’s always a fine line, winning and losing, and I think that’s pretty true just about anywhere you are and certainly in Iowa that is the case,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “And every step we take is important, whether it’s the strength and conditioning period prior to spring ball, and then certainly this phase.
“And there are a lot of areas of development going on. That’s always interesting.”
Losing five games under the current circumstances would almost certainly re-ignite the anti-Ferentz flames. But it’s not beyond the scope of possibility, injuries or no injuries, because the line between finishing 10-2 and 7-5 is usually razor thin for Iowa.
Do I think Iowa will lose five games next season?
Probably not if all-Big Ten quarterback C.J. Beathard stays healthy and if the running game stays consistent and strong.
But I also didn’t think Iowa would lose five games in 2010, nor did I see Iowa losing five games in 1997 with Tim Dwight and Tavian Banks leading the offense and with Jared DeVries leading the defense.
In both cases, though, it happened, two unpleasant examples that nothing is a sure thing.
Iowa could have a better team than last season and still not win 12 games. It’s important to remember that Iowa drops Indiana and Maryland from the 2016 schedule and replaces them with Michigan and Penn State.
But even with that scheduling change, there still is more to like than to dislike about Iowa. This past Saturday’s scrimmage helped to reinforce that belief.
Assuming Beathard stays healthy, which is a big assumption given his aggressive playing style, quarterback is a major strength for Iowa. Without Beathard, it’s a mystery.
Sophomore backup Tyler Wiegers did little to inspire confidence in Saturday’s scrimmage, throwing two interceptions, including a pick-six from his own end zone. In fairness, Wiegers also was hurt by some dropped passes.
But even taking that into consideration, he was average at best.
Ferentz was right in describing true freshman quarterback Drew Cook as intriguing because there is a lot to like about Cook, from his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame to his deceptive speed. Cook looked comfortable on the field during Saturday’s scrimmage, as if he belonged.
And it’s reasonable to think that fellow true freshman Ryan Boyle wouldn’t have switched from quarterback to receiver for the final four days of spring practice if the Iowa coaches were uncomfortable with Cook’s progress.
But Iowa still dodged a bullet with Beathard’s shoulder injury, which occurred this past week in practice. It was diagnosed as being just a bruise.
It was hard to judge the offensive line during Saturday’s scrimmage because the ranks were depleted by injuries.
But with Sean Welsh at center or guard, Boone Myers at guard, Ike Boettger at tackle, Cole Croston at tackle and most likely James Daniels at either guard or center, Iowa could have a formidable front five.
All five of the aforementioned offensive linemen have started at least one game, led by the versatile Welsh with 23 career starts.
Combine them with the running back triumvirate of LeShun Daniels, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr., and the pieces are in place for Iowa to have a potent rushing attack.
The 190-pound Wadley looked especially sharp in the scrimmage, his elusiveness showing no negative effects from Wadley gaining a few pounds in the offseason.
The biggest concerns on offense are depth at receiver and at tight end.
Senior receiver Matt VandeBerg and senior tight end George Kittle both have loads of experience, whereas their supporting casts have little.
Boyle showed during Saturday’s scrimmage by making two impressive catches, including a 6-yard touchdown grab in which he leaped high over his defender that he could help right away at receiver.
The Iowa defense also showed its potential on Saturday by stuffing the run on numerous plays and by making it difficult to pass.
All-America cornerback Desmond King picked up where he left off last season by intercepting a pass in Saturday’ scrimmage. Iowa’s secondary should be a strength next season with three starters returning.
Linebacker and defensive tackle also could be strengths, and they will need to be as Iowa moves on without Drew Ott at defensive end.
Both fullbacks have to be replaced, but Iowa has a knack for developing tough-minded players for that position.
The kicking game is a concern because that’s always the case when you have to replace both kicking specialists.
But even with the concerns on special teams, at defensive end and at receiver, the good still outweighs the bad with Iowa, enough that 10 victories during the regular season seems within reach.
But so does five losses under the worst-case scenario.