By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – In all my years of covering the Iowa football team dating back to 1992, it’s hard to think of any other Hawkeye squad that is more polarizing than the current one.
Polarizing in the sense that Iowa is loaded with individual star power with players like junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa, junior offensive tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs and three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley, but also loaded with questions and concerns due mostly to a brutal schedule that starts with Saturday’s season opener against Miami of Ohio at Kinnick Stadium, and to having been average and inconstent in conference play over the last two seasons.
There is tons of hype surrounding some of the up-and-coming players on the team, including receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.
And even some of the players who haven’t played in a game, or have played just sparingly, are riding on the hype train, most notably redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum and sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon.
True freshmen running backs Shadrick Byrd and Tyler Goodson also have fans buzzing, and of course, there is Michigan transfer and Iowa City native Oliver Martin, who already is being described by some as an elite receiver and as a potential game changer despite only having 11 catches so far in college.
But on the flipside, Iowa is coming off a two-year stretch where it finished just 9-9 in Big Ten conference games.
The Hawkeyes also ranked ninth in the Big Ten in rushing last season, averaging just 148.4 yards per game, and they only had six running plays that covered more than 20 yards.
Stanley also completed less than 60 percent of his passes in each of the past two seasons, and now as a senior, he faces one of the most difficult schedules during the Kirk Ferentz era, with road games at Iowa State, Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
"It's something that I've tried to improve on," Stanley said of his accuracy, especially on touch passes over the middle.
Northwestern is Iowa’s only road opponent that isn’t ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll. But the Wildcats are also the reigning Big Ten West Division champion and a team with a history of proving the prognosticators wrong under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Iowa is also ranked 19th and 20th in the two preseason polls, so there is a level of respect for this Iowa team, to go along with the concerns.
I’ve had fans tell me they’ll be surprised and disappointed if Iowa wins fewer than 10 games this season, and others who say they’ll be surprised if Iowa wins more than seven games.
I predicted Iowa to finish 8-4 this season with losses against Iowa State, Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska, but don’t feel real optimistic about having picked Iowa to win at Wisconsin, which crushed South Florida 49-0 on Friday in tampa, Fla.
We also held our annual preseason picks show on KCJJ radio this Saturday morning and to say that the callers were divided would be an understatement.
More than half of our callers picked Iowa to lose against Iowa State the third game of the season, while a decent number also picked the Hawkeye to win at least nine games.
“The one thing that's certain right now, we only have 12 opportunities that are guaranteed where we're going to a have chance to compete, and it's important our players understand that,” Kirk Ferentz said to the media on Tuesday. “And the bottom line, that's all you can do is worry about one week at a time. All those cliché`s in football that you hear are true.
“So right now the challenge for us is — was to have a good camp, which I think we've done, now transitioned into game preparation, and hopefully be ready to match up against a Miami of Ohio football team.”
Iowa should have an advantage in overall talent and depth against Miami of Ohio on Saturday, but that doesn’t always translate to a victory.
You could argue that Iowa had better talent against Western Michigan in 2007 and against Central Michigan in 2012, and yet still lost both games at home.
Iowa also had superior talent to Northern Iowa in 2009, but still needed to block two field goals in the closing seconds to secure a 17-16 victory in the season opener.
This will mark the fifth time that Iowa has played Miami of Ohio, and the Hawkeyes won the previous four games, including three by at least 18 points.
The RedHawks only return four starters on offense and five on defense from a team that finished 6-6 overall and 6-2 in conference play last season.
“Like a lot of first games, there's a lot of variables, a lot of unknowns,” said Ferentz, who is entering his 21st season as the Iowa head coach. “You never know what any opponent is going to do in the first game. They've got a lot the new players just like we'll have new players, but both sides are going to experience the same challenge that way.
“They're a good football team, and we're really expecting a tough contest on Saturday night.”
One thing Hawkeye fans can agree on is that Iowa should prevail on Saturday due simply to having better personnel.
“I think our team collectively as a whole has been preparing to the best of our abilities and really focusing on the details and the fundamentals of each position group, really,” said senior offensive guard Levi Paulsen.
Paulsen and his teammates will have to maintain that focus throughout the day on Saturday as this will be the first season opener to start under the lights sat Kinnick Stadium with kickoff scheduled for 6:40 p.m.
Prediction: Iowa 38, Miami of Ohio 14