An Iowa football smorgasbord with predictions, most indispensable players, most under-rated players and more
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The much-anticipated 2018 season opener for the Iowa football team is finally less than a week away.
Iowa will face Northern Illinois this coming Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in what will be Kirk Ferentz's 20th season opener as the Iowa head coach. Ferentz will match Hayden Fry in coaching longevity this season, and will surpass Fry's as Iowa's all-time winningest football coach with his next victory.
Iowa returns 13 starters from a team that finished 8-5 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten last season. Last season ended on a high note as Iowa pounded Nebraska 56-14 in the regular-season finale before defeating Boston College 27-20 in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl.
It was Iowa's first bowl win since 2010 and it gave the program some much-needed momentum heading into the offseason.
The offseason is about over, though, so here is a smorgasbord of information to help you get ready, including my predictions for the Big Ten conference standings, my list of Iowa's 10 most indispensable players and Kirk Ferentz's five most important wins, his five most impressive wins and his five most disappointing losses as the Iowa head coach.
It's important to remember that the most indispensable doesn't necessarily mean the best players. The picks were based more on the role and the circumstances at certain positions.
So here we go:
Predicted order of finish
Big Ten West Division
1. Wisconsin, 10-2, 7-2; 2. Iowa, 8-4, 6-3; 3. Northwestern, 7-5, 5-4; 4. Purdue, 7-5, 4-5; 5. Nebraska, 6-6, 4-5; 6. Minnesota, 5-7, 3-6; 7. lllinois, 3-9, 2-7.
Big Ten East
1. Michigan, 11-1, 8-1; 2. Ohio State, 10-2, 7-2; 3. Penn State, 10-2, 7-2; 4. Michigan State 8-4, 6-3; 5. Indiana, 6-6, 4-5; 6. Maryland, 4-8, 3-6; 7. Rutgers, 3-9, 2-7.
Offensive Player of the Year: Trace McSorley, quarterback, Penn State
Defensive Player of the Year: Devin Bush, linebacker, Michigan
Newcomer of the Year: Shea Patterson, quarterback, Michigan
Coach of the Year: Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
Iowa’s 10 most important/indispensable players
1. Nate Stanley, quarterback: Football is often called the ultimate team sport, but few teams have success without being led by a productive quarterback. Stanley had much to do with Iowa winning eight games last season, but also with losing five games.
The Wisconsin native threw 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions last season, but in Iowa’s five losses, Stanley only threw four touchdown passes and three interceptions.
That is a startling disparity that clearly shows how impactful Stanley is to Iowa’s successes and failures.
2. Amani Jones, linebacker: The junior from Chicago has the daunting task of replacing one of the greatest linebackers in school history in Josey Jewell.
Jewell was a tackling machine at middle linebacker who never took plays off, was rarely out of position and was highly respected by his teammates.
It would be naive to think that Jones could pick up where Jewell left off, but Jones can’t be a weakness, either.
Iowa’s ability to stop the run is influenced largely by how well the middle linebacker plays because much of his responsibility is to make tackles from all over the field.
Iowa has to replace all three starting linebackers from last season, and that puts even more pressure on Jones to perform well.
3. Ryan Gersonde or Colten Rastetter, punter: Some of you might think this is too high for a punter, but Iowa has history of playing in close games under Ferentz with field position often helping to determine the outcome.
Big-play running back Akrum Wadley also has moved on, so until proven otherwise, Iowa doesn’t have a dynamic playmaker with the ability to shift field position on his own.
It’ll be up to the punter to help shift field position, but that rarely happened las season as Rastetter averaged just 37.8 yards on 55 punts.
Gersonde was slowed by a back injury last season, but he showed flashes as a true freshman, averaging 42.5 yards on 13 punts. He averaged 52.6 yards on five punts against Northwestern.
4. Keegan Render, center: He is the veteran leader for an offensive line that looks dramatically different than at this time a year ago when Sean Welsh, James Daniels, Ike Boettger and Boone Myers were expected to be four of Iowa’s five starters.
Welsh and Daniels were key performers throughout the season, but Boettger and Myers had their senior seasons cut short by injuries.
That allowed for Tristan Wirfs to gain valuable playing experience as a true freshman last season, but he and fellow starting tackle Alaric Jackson are suspended for this coming Saturday’s season opener against Northern Illinois at Kinnick Stadium.
That will put more pressure on Render to not only play well, but also to be a leader. One game certainly doesn’t make a season, but a loss to Northern Illinois would put Iowa in precarious position with Iowa State and Wisconsin being two of the next three opponents.
5. Ihmir Smith-Marsette, receiver: Iowa should have a chance to stretch defenses with opponents having to focus so much attention on tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
And that’s where the speedy Smith-Marsette has to deliver in order to give the offense a dimension it often sorely misses. He clearly has the speed and quickness to blow by defenders, but it remains to be seen if he has the other intangibles that make a big-play receiver.
6. Miguel Recinos, kicker: Much of what was said about the punter position also applies with the kicker. Iowa plays in a lot of close games in which field goals often make a difference. Recinos was a pleasant surprise last season when he made 11-of-13 field-goal attempts and all 44 of his point-after kicks
7. Matt Nelson, defensive tackle: Iowa is loaded at defensive end, but they can only do so much. Defensive tackle is key in stopping the run because they’re usually the first line of defense and because they take on blockers and create space for the linebackers to make tackles.
Nelson is not your typical defensive tackle at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds. But he has learned how to use his unusual length to make plays in traffic.
8. Matt Hankins, cornerback: The true sophomore from Texas came on strong near the end of last season and showed signs that he could be Iowa’s next great cornerback, but with an emphasis on could.
Josh Jackson showed that anything is possible with how he went from being a reserve cornerback in 2016 to a unanimous first-team All-American last season.
Hankins is not only from the same state as Jackson, but also has many of the same physical attributes, including a lanky frame.
9. Noah Fant, tight end: You could make a strong case for Fant being the best player on the team because he is a big play waiting to happen. The only reason he isn’t ranked higher is because Iowa has so much depth at tight end, including sophomore T.J, Hockenson, who is basically another starter.
10. Parker Hesse, defensive end: He isn’t as dynamic as fellow defensive ends Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa, but his value can’t be understated.
In addition to being a respected leader, Hesse also has shown a knack for making big plays at pivotal times. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time and is effective against both the run and pass.
Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa have more upside, but the defense would have a huge void in terms of leadership and productivity should Hesse be out for an extended period.
Kirk Ferentz's five biggest victories as the Iowa head coach
Editor's note: Big is based on the importance of the win, and on the circumstances, rather than how impressive it was from a performance standpoint.
1. Iowa 30, Louisiana State 25, Jan. 1, 2005
But it was how the game ended that everybody remembers, with Warren Holloway catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Drew Tate as time expired. It was Holloway's only touchdown as a Hawkeye.
2. Iowa 26, Penn State 23, Nov. 4, 2000
What was thought to be a foregone conclusion against Penn State instead became a turning point as Iowa held on to win in overtime, giving Ferentz his first Big Ten road victory.
The Hawkeyes would go on to compile a 39-13 record through the 2004 season.
3. Iowa 31, Purdue 28, Oct. 5, 2002
But who knows what would've happened if the Hawkeyes had lost to Purdue at home just two weeks after having blown a 17-point halftime lead in a loss to Iowa State at home.
4. Iowa 17, Northern Iowa 16, Sept. 5, 2009
Fans were obviously concerned after the game because Iowa isn't supposed to struggle against FCS teams. But Iowa would go on to win its next eight games and finished 11-2 overall, tying the 2002 squad for most wins in a single season.
It was maybe the best example of how it's never as bad as it seems under Kirk Ferentz.
5. Iowa 21, Michigan State 16, Oct. 7, 2000
Iowa was desperete for a win and it finally came on homecoming as the Hawkeyes upset the 25th-ranked Spartans to give Ferentz his first Big Ten victory. The celebration was short-lived, though, as Iowa lost its next three games against Illinois, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Kirk Ferentz's five most impressive wins as the Iowa head coach.
1. Iowa 55, Ohio State, 24, Nov. 4, 2017
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley threw five touchdown passes, while Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett threw four inteerceptions, including a pick-six by Iowa safety Amani Hooker on the first play from scrimmage.
It truly was a pinch-me moment, and without question Iowa's most impressibe win under Ferentz.
2. Iowa 34, Michigan 9, Oct. 26, 2002
This is the game when Iowa served notice that it was a force on the national level. It was also one of the few times when Iowa matched, or maybe even had a slight advantage over Michigan, from a talent standpoint.
Brad Banks directed a balanced Iowa offense that featured his pin-point passing and the running of Jermelle Lewis, who rushed for 109 yards while filling in for the injured Fred Russell, who was from Michigan.
3. Iowa 37, Florida 17, Jan. 1, 2004
4. Iowa 33, Ohio State 7, Oct. 16, 2004
Tate and his cohorts dominated Ohio State despite having little success on the groudn where walk-on Sam Brownlee led Iowa in rushing with just 35 yards.
5. Iowa 30, Wisconsin 7, Nov. 20, 2004; The Hawkeyes clinched a share of the Big Ten title by pounding a Wisconsin squad that was ranked ninth in the country and coached by Barry Alvarez.
Iowa forced four turnovers, sacked Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco four times and held the Badgers to just 41 rushing yards.
Kirk Ferentz's five most disappointing losses as the Iowa head coach
1. Central Michigan 32, Iowa 31, Sept. 22, 2012
2. Western Michigan, 28, Iowa 19; Nov. 17, 2007
3. Iowa State 35, Iowa 31, Sept. 14, 2002
Wallace had 190 of his career-high 361 yards passing in the final two quarters for a team that scored 29 points in a row.
4. Stanford 45, Iowa 16; Jan. 1, 2016; Stanford scored on the first play from scrimmage and bolted to a 38-0 lead, quickly turning the 2016 Rose Bowl into an embarrassing mismatch.
Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey shredded Iowa for 368 all-purpose yards, highlighted by a 75-yard touchdown reception on the first play from scrimmage and a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter.
5. Wisconsin 38, Iowa 14, Nov. 11, 2017
Iowa scored both of its touchdowns on pick-sixes by cornerback Josh Jackson.
Iowa’s three most under-rated players
1. Miguel Recinos, kicker: The Mason City native first raised eyebrows by earning the starting position over Keith Duncan heading into last season. Duncan was thought to be the front-runner after handling most of the kicking duties in 2016, which included making the game-winning field goal against Michigan as time expired.
But Recinos quietly went about his business and became the starter. He then solidified his position by making all but two of his 13 field-goal attempts last season and all 44 of his point-after kicks.
However, that still wasn’t enough for Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods to say that Recinos is clearly the starter heading into this season. Woods said last week that the competition still was ongoing.
2. Parker Hesse, defensive end: He is so easy to take for granted simply because he isn’t a former five-star recruit or a physical freak. He’s just a darn good football player.
3. Nick Easley, receiver: The former junior-college transfer from Newton isn’t a blazer or a physical freak, but he still led the team with 51 catches for 530 yards last season. Easley showed the ability to make tough catches in traffic and was an effective blocker.
1. Kirk Ferentz will surpass 150 career wins at Iowa this season, barely.
2. Iowa will have three running backs – Ivory Kelly-Martin, Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent – who rush for at least 400 yards this season
3. Michigan will defeat Ohio State for the first time under Jim Harbaugh, while Urban Meyer will say at his post-game press conference that he doesn’t remember losing the game and asks where the media comes up with these stories.
4. Bret Bielema will turn down a chance to replace D.J. Durkin as the next head coach at Maryland.
5. Bret Bielema will be mentioned as a possible replacement for Lovie Smith at Illinois once the Fighting Illini start to struggle again.
6. Minnesota will win fewer than six games under second-year coach P.J. Fleck, causing some to wonder if Fleck’s promotional catch phrase “Row the Boat” should be changed to abandon ship.
7. Nebraska law makers will push to make Scott Frost’s birthday a national holiday, but their wishes will be denied.
My top three candidates for the 2018 Heisman Trophy
1. Bryce Love, running back, Stanford
2. Will Grier, quarterback, West Virginia
3. Trace McSorley, quarterback, Penn State
Best college player regardless of position: Ed Oliver, defensive lineman, Houston