The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off July 25, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day starting today, with one from each division, and leading off with the defending Big Ten West champ …
1. Is there another Nate Meier or Drew Ott in the house?
First, the good news: The Hawkeyes appear air-tight defensively, on paper, in all the right places. The have established stars at cornerback in 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King and Greg Mabin), and will get a lot out of safety Miles Taylor, linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann and defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata.
The only sticking point, really, is on the perimeter, where Nate Meier (seven sacks) and Drew Ott (five sacks) swung the biggest sticks at end. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker finds himself with a lot of large bodies and all kinds of potential, but not much mileage.
Injuries forced sophomore Parker Hesse into nine starts last year with three tackles for loss and two sacks. The X-factor up front might be another sophomore, Matt Nelson, a local 6-foot-8 giant from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who showed all kind of upside last fall with 14 tackles.
The mantra’s the same as ever: Limit long drives, force mistakes and turnovers, get off the field and get the ball back to the big lugs on the offensive line to chew up yards and clock.
The Hawkeyes wound up plus-11 in takeaway/giveaway ratio last fall and opened up a whopping plus-14 over their first 12 games — all victories. In 2014, Iowa was minus-6 overall, a number emblematic of an up-and-down 7-6 campaign. When the Hawks ballhawk, they’re a beast to beat.
2. What is the ceiling for C.J. Beathard, anyway?
Depends on who’s on the receiving end of the equation, ultimately. Big George Kittle fits the frame (6-foot-4, 246 pounds) and game (14.5 yards per catch, six touchdowns last year) of stud Kirk Ferentz tight ends. Wideout Matt VandeBerg (65 catches) was a revelation last fall, but the senior-to-be needs a bookend partner badly, because the opposition is going to stack the box unless Beathard can prove that to be a fool’s errand.
On the plus side, a healthy Beathard (six rushing touchdowns) just might be Iowa’s best pass-run dual threat at quarterback since Brad Banks danced his way to the Heisman Trophy party 14 years ago. Beathard can boogie. But can he boogie smart and not expose himself to unnecessary shots?
3. Great league schedule? Or greatest dang league schedule of all time?
Right? On paper, the Hawkeyes figure to be favorites — and heavy favorites in most cases — for all but two dates: at Penn State on Nov. 5 and a visit from Michigan a week later.
And heck, even those matchups appear well within shouting distance. Big Blue hasn’t won at Kinnick since 2005 and has dropped four of the last five head-to-head meetings with Kirk Ferentz. From 2000-2010, Ferentz, a Pennyslvania native, won eight of nine against the Nittany Lions.
No Buckeyes on the schedule, and no Spartans either. Depending on how much juice Matt Campbell can pump into Iowa State’s battery in his first year, North Dakota State (Sept. 17) might be the most dangerous test of the opening month. And the key Big Ten West showdowns? Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska all come to Kinnick. None of those are gimmies — nor is a trip to Minnesota on Oct. 8 — but the stars sure as heck seem to be lining up awfully nicely.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler