The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans. But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the past few weeks, Land Of 10 has been offering a “Best-Case Scenario” story for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs.
Today’s piece focuses on Iowa (12-2 last season; 14 returning starters), the reigning Big Ten West champs, but also a program that hasn’t posted back-to-back campaigns of 10-plus wins since 2004. Back then, Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes collected 31 victories from 2002 to 2004 — just a few seasons removed from the coach’s 1-10 debut in 1999.
Here are four factors that will matter for the Hawkeyes in 2016:
1. Iowa’s front seven fully complements the stacked secondary, in terms of getting after the quarterback
Without question, the Hawkeyes enjoyed a solid defensive campaign last season, earning high marks with interceptions (ranked 10th nationally), turnover margin (11th), scoring defense (19th) and total defense (22nd).
But there were also head-scratching results with three crucial categories — passing yards allowed (60th overall), sacks (ranked 63rd; ninth in the Big Ten) and tackles for loss (117th nationally, dead last in conference).
That lack of production suggests a talent or depth imbalance among the linemen, linebackers and secondary. The gulf could be even greater in 2016, with defensive linemen Nate Meier (7 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss) and Drew Ott (5 sacks, 7.5 TFL) moving on from the program and the Hawkeyes being flush with talented stars in the defensive backfield.
In the NFL, a great secondary usually makes a decent defensive linemen look prolific. For potentially dynamic college teams like Iowa, the same rationale must apply here — especially with the Hawkeyes encountering at least six high-quality quarterbacks in conference play this fall (Tommy Armstrong Jr., Wes Lunt, John O’Korn, Chris Laviano, Mitch Leidner, David Blough).
Which school has the conference’s best secondary — Iowa or Michigan?
That’s a tough question to answer right now. Cornerbacks Desmond King (11 career INTs, reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner), Greg Mabin (2 INTs, 8 pass deflections last year) and safeties Miles Taylor and Brandon Snyder will likely be responsible for the effectiveness of the Hawkeyes’ pass rush, providing them more time to attack the quarterback. Whereas the same wouldn’t hold true for Michigan, which is blessed with talent, experience, depth and incoming excellence in the trenches with the arrival of 5-star true freshman Rashan Gary.
In that vein, Iowa’s secondary needs to be the stronger unit. It needs greatness on the back end to accomplish all of its division/conference/national goals.
2. Quarterback C.J. Beathard develops immediate chemistry with his new lot of pass-catchers
C.J. Beathard has a 13-2 career mark as a starter. He tallied 2,809 yards passing last year and accounted for 23 touchdowns, engineering an Iowa offense that averaged 30-plus points per game. When rounding up, the Tennessee native posted six games of at least 63-percent passing in 2015.
Of equal importance, Beathard boasts the highest QB rating (139.5) of the Big Ten’s returning passers, despite never eclipsing the 300-yard mark.
Back to the present: How will things shake out with an overhauled receiving corps in 2016, with only Matt VandeBerg (65 catches, 703 yards, 4 TDs) having had much success in Iowa City before?
Beathard should have the coaching staff’s full confidence in Year 2. We’re also presuming the reconfigured rushing attack will match last season’s production and proficiency.
3. LeShun Daniels Jr. or Akrum Wadley steps up as the alpha dog in the tailback competition
When healthy, Jordan Canzeri (1,192 total yards, 13 TDs) served as Iowa’s workhorse back last season. But for certain absences or split-carry situations, the backup stable of rushers hardly missed a beat.
- When collecting 13 or more carries last year, LeShun Daniels Jr., had a stellar four-game average of 114 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns. The bulldozing back also found the end zone multiple times in three consecutive outings against Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.
- In a three-game spurt last season against all Big Ten opponents, Wadley absurdly averaged 131 rushing yards and two scores. He also enjoyed a four-game streak of at least one touchdown.
Which brings us to this: The Canzeri-Daniels-Wadley triumvirate racked up 411 combined rushes last season, for a per-game average of 29.4 carries. On paper, it seems like Daniels and Wadley, as an interchangeable duo, can hit that quota of per-game touches.
As a comparison, Indiana’s Jordan Howard (1,213 rushing yards) and Devine Redding (1,012 yards) combined for 422 carries last season. They were also the only conference tandem to each rush for 1,000-plus yards.
For 2016, Daniels and Wadley have that potential, as well. But it would take a strong commitment from the Iowa coaches to make this happen with at least 32 combined carries per outing.
4. The sports world will be watching if Iowa gets to ‘Michigan Week’ as an undefeated power
The early candidates for Big Ten Game Of The Year involve either Ohio State (at Oklahoma on Sept. 17, at Michigan State on Nov. 19), Michigan State (at Notre Dame on Sept. 17) or Michigan (at MSU on Oct. 29, at Ohio State on Nov. 26).
However, Iowa could ultimately steal the spotlight from the East superpowers, if it advances through an eminently doable slate for September (toughest opponents: North Dakota State, Rutgers) and October (Northwestern, Wisconsin visit Iowa City) … before reaching November with a perfect record.
At that point, the Hawkeyes would be staring at a TV-friendly road clash with Penn State on Nov. 5 and then a titanic home date with Michigan on Nov. 12.
Iowa and Michigan deserve to be mentioned in the same breath: The programs have favorable schedules in the first two months, setting the stage for dueling 8-0 records in the week leading up to Nov. 12.
If this occurs, the Big Ten could be looking at No. 1 versus No. 2 scenario, which would be wonderfully reminiscent to the 1985 campaign, when the top-ranked Hawkeyes squeaked past No. 2 Michigan that was quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh in a super-intense, low-scoring classic.
And that’s one benefit to Iowa not having Ohio State or Michigan State during the regular season as crossover opponents.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.