(for details on all this nonsense, go here.)
So. After three years of stout defenses, Big Ten co-championships, and #8 finishes, the college football world is finally waking up to Iowa and, not incidentally, Kirk Ferentz. Many prognosticators are pegging The Fighting Tate-ers as the favorite in the Big Ten race this year. Noted windbag Dennis Dodd temporarily had the Hawkeyes at #2, though recently he dropped them to #5. Athlon has them #3; so does Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com. Everyone has them in the top ten. Many are expecting big things.
But not me. mgoblog believes that Iowa is significantly overrated going into the year because of:
- An outlying turnover margin. Iowa was +12 in the conference last year in only eight games, largely because their defense forced a whopping 26 turnovers. That's outside the realm of good. That's inconceivable without scads of luck. Don't believe me? Iowa fumbled 17 times this year and lost 5. Their opponents fumbled 22 times... and lost 15! mgoblog believes (and would like to prove but doesn't have the data available) that turnovers gained are very loosely correlated year-to-year, that they are largely random. Two things get you turnovers: a heavy pass rush and blind stinking luck. Iowa had a lot of both last year. This year? The luck is stochastic and the pass rush, well...
- The wholesale, devastating loss of the league's best position group. Defensive linemen Matt Roth, Derreck Robinson, Jonathan Babineaux, and Tyler Lubke are all gone. mgoblog usually isn't big on pointing to departures and saying "you'll be awful," instead preferring to look at what remains, but Babineaux and Roth combined for 40 tackles for loss and 19 sacks. Holy. Crap. None of the backups saw significant playing time, a rarity for a defensive line in recent years. Was it because the starters were so good or because the backups were so bad? Probably some of both. The best Iowa can reasonably hope for this year is a defensive line that is functional and occasionally in the backfield, which is a huge dropoff from last year.
- A poor running game. Iowa was last! Last! This is not going to turn itself around immediately. The running backs that appear to be the most talented are coming off of ACL tears and will not be fully recovered this year. And there are serious indications that last year's offensive line was not up to snuff... 40 sacks against Tate, and the running numbers are beyond the realm where they can be blamed entirely on ACLtearapalooza. Iowa will rebound against the poorer defenses in the conference but will not be able to run against Purdue, Ohio State, or Michigan. At all. Tough to win when you're slinging it every down, even if the guy slinging it is Tate.
- One damn play. Let's take a thought exercise. Move Prescott Burgess' hand over two inches on the last play of the Rose Bowl. Place an LSU defensive back within ten yards of Iowa receiver Warren Holloway on the last play of the Citrus bowl. Result: Michigan beats Texas. LSU beats Iowa. Is Iowa anywhere near the top ten of polls nationwide? No. While both plays are important, I believe that the national media ascribes a series of close wins to some sort of inherent ability of that team to win close games instead of dumb luck. Iowa got a lot of dumb luck last year that propelled their significantly flawed team to an excellent finish. Michigan was probably even luckier. The difference? See the previous three items.
So. This is what I think: Iowa will disappoint a bit this year. Not Motor City Bowl disappoint, but maybe Outback Bowl disappoint. Yes, I realize that I am betting against Kirk Ferentz and Drew Tate. Yes, I think that there is a good chance that this is going to make me look stupid. But I think what I think, and this is what I think. I think.
Unit By Unit
Junior Drew Tate defines "moxie." Last year against Michigan he had his helmet ripped clean off by the onrushing Pierre Woods. His reaction? Sit in the pocket and rifle a pass downfield. The play had been blown dead already, but the message was sent. Tate's the kind of guy to heinously waste critical time at the end of the Citrus Bowl and then find and nail an unbelievably wide open wide receiver to win the game. mgoblog generally scoffs at clutchness, mental toughness, etc... but Drew Tate makes that very difficult. It's hard to deny that the man is a lot more than the apparent sum of his parts.
What Tate did as a first year starter with zero running game and a shaky offensive line--first team All Big Ten, 62.1% completion rate, 2841 yards, 21 touchdowns against 14 interceptions--was very, very impressive. In person he's a combination of Drew Brees and Brett Favre, scrambling around, buying time to pass, finding receivers open after the play has broken into teeny little bits that make no sense at all.
However, Tate, like Favre, sometimes overreaches, tossing passes into coverage or running around too long and taking a sack. Iowa's 40 sacks against last year were partially his responsibility. Tate needs to ratchet back that moxie of his just a little bit and give up on a play here and there. But that's a relatively minor quibble. Tate is damn good.
Now, about that running game...
Rating: 1.Everyone knows that some Hawkeye running back pissed off the God of ACLs last year and his wrath was fierce. Iowa's leading rusher was fifth-string walk-on Sam Brownlee. Five different runners were sidelined for all or part of the season. By the its merciful end Iowa's running backs had acquired a number of broken limbs that a shop class full of blind kids with Down's syndrome couldn't match. As a result, Iowa finished dead last in rushing last year. Yes, behind Texas Tech. Yes, behind Hawaii. That's what last means.
The position will be a free-for-all of epic proportions this year. Brownlee, sophomore Damian Sims, and senior Marques Simmons all return after splitting the bulk of the carries last year. Junior Albert Young and senior Marques Schnoor will return from their torn ACLs by the fall. Three freshmen will also arrive, rearing to go. mgoblog has no idea how it will all shake out--anyone who tells you he does who is not Kirk Ferentz is lying--but if we had to bet, we'd bet on Young with a heavy dose of incoming freshman fullback Kalvin Bailey.
Will anything decent emerge out of this sack of cats? It's unlikely. Brownlee, Simmons, and Sims were very bad last year, and OSU fans tell me the talent elves are all busy turning Ohio State's Troy Smith into a legitimate quarterback. It usually takes two years to fully recover from an ACL tear, so Young and Schnoor probably won't be full speed. None of the three freshmen come in with high accolades. Unless there is a Mike Hart-like serendipity somewhere in the running back corps, Iowa's running game will still be downright bad.
Rating: 4. Iowa returns two of the league's top eight or so wide receivers in Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon, who were both heavily featured as part of the Drew Tate show last year. (If you're curious, mgoblog's top group: Ginn, Holmes, Hinkel, Solomon, Avant, Breaston, Wheelwright, and Ingraham.)
Hinkel--an mgoblog favorite and the latest in a long line of snow-white Iowa receivers--is running neck-and-neck with Michigan's Jason Avant for the best hands in the conference. Hinkel isn't a jet engine like Tim Dwight was but he is a crafty route runner with a knack for selling double moves and finding soft spots in zones. His one-handed touchdown grab against All-American Marlin Jackson sold mgoblog. Hinkel is the kind of guy who ends up the u
nsung hero of championship teams.
Solomon will man the flanker spot. He's more of a big play threat, with an NFL size body and enough speed to put the fear of God into opposing cornerbacks. A former quarterback, Solomon understands route-running well. Tight end Scott Chandler is freaking huge at 6'7" but very stiff and only mildly athletic. Still, he caught 24 passes last year and presents a major matchup problem in the red zone.
There isn't much depth to the unit, but mgoblog recommends you watch out for freshman Troy Stross, who looks to be the designated Inexplicably Kickass White Receiver after Hinkel graduates.
Rating: 3. The statistics indicate that Iowa's offensive line was terrible last year. Drew Tate was sacked 40(!) times and the rushing game was, as noted, very bad. Picking out how much of that was because of the running back disaster and the severe one-dimensionality of Iowa's offense and how much was actually on the line is difficult. Picking out how much of the line's issues were because of injury is more difficult.
Three starters (at least, starters when not injured) return to the interior of the line: center Brian Ferentz and guards David Walker and Mike Elgin. There are question marks at tackle after projected starter Lee Gray was lost for the year to injury. The two new starters have been with Iowa a long time but neither has much experience. Senior Ben Gates, who has started two games in his career, steps in for Gray. Right tackle Mike Jones keeps getting bounced from guard to tackle. There is little depth to speak of. If a starter should go down, Iowa will be forced to play either JUCO recruit Marshall Yanda or true freshmen (though they are highly-touted true freshmen).
Iowa should have a bounce-back year in the run game because of the improved consistency of its interior line but the pass protection will probably be a little shaky, especially if Tate continues to hold onto the ball a long time.
Iowa graduated its entire defensive line. Matt Roth will no longer terrorize opposing backfields. Jonathan Babineaux's last name now befuddles NFL beatwriters instead of, well, me. Stepping into the massive void left by the departed foursome is a collection of whodats. The projected starting line (Ken Ibewema and Bryan Mattison at DE and Matt Kroul and George Eshtahuri at DT) has all of four career tackles between them.
This is what we know about Iowa's new defensive line:
- Ferentz had no faith in them last year, choosing to leave his starters on the field for almost the entire game--rare for a defensive line in this day and age.
- Not one was ranked anything higher than three stars coming out of high school. A couple are walk-ons.
- Projected starting DT Matt Kroul was listed at 256 pounds this spring.
- They're playing for Kirk Ferentz.
The appropriate mental reaction to these things is: "will suck, will suck, will suck... uh. Damn." Ferentz turns whodat walk-ons into NFL draft picks, especially along the offensive and defensive lines. This line is still too young to really excel, though. Kroul is a redshirt freshman. The starting ends are sophomores. Even taking Ferentz/Norm Parker magic into account, it usually takes at least a few years to sink in. This year will be a learning experience for this group. Someone will emerge as a penetrating force, but there won't be much consistency from this group.
Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, and a mannequin would be one of the top five linebacking units in the country. The fact that Iowa gets to use a living, breathing human at the third spot is somewhat unfair. They do, though. His name is Edmond Miles and this is probably the last you'll be hearing about him, because the heavy breathing about Hodge and Greenway will be nonstop.
Greenway, in particular, is a do-everything marvel, equally suited to run support (115 tackles last year), blitzing (three sacks and eight TFLs), and coverage (three interceptions) that The Helmet Haired One (Mel Kiper for the NFL ig'nant) has already anointed an easy top-ten selection in next year's NFL draft. Oh, and that Hodge guy ain't bad either. Hodge eats running backs. That's what you need to know. Miles will slot in just fine.
The question with this unit is: how much of their production was due to the massive attention opposing teams had to give Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux? The team that could afford to single block both men doesn't exist. The dynamic duo probably had fewer blockers to deal with than just about any linebackers in the league. mgoblog doesn't think that will be the case again, as noted above. They'll have to take on and shed more blocks this year, something which they're no doubt capable of, but it can't help but lessen their effectiveness.
Rating: 4. This is a good unit but not a great one. Iowa finished second to PSU in pass efficiency defense (conference only) last year, but they were greatly aided by (say it with me) a heavy pass rush. The two starting corners, Antwan Allen and Jovon Johnson, have been good players but not stars. They have a ton of experience, though--Allen is entering his fourth season as a starter, Johnson his third--and are well above average.
The safeties are somewhat new. Sean Considine graduated and Marcus Paschal was injured in the bowl game and may not return in time to start the year. Fortunately for Iowa, Miguel Merrick has seen extensive time in the secondary and played well. Sophomore Charles Godfrey will man Paschal's spot until he returns.
The secondary doesn't have a big time NFL prospect or a headhunter like Bob Sanders but, like Penn State's, it doesn't have an obvious weak point either.
Rating: 4. Hinkel is also an excellent punt returner, turning the Tim Dwight comparison level up to creepy proportions. Hinkel split time with the departed Walter Belleus--Belleus also returned most kickoffs.
Rating: 4. Kyle Schlicher filled in nicely for Nate Kaeding last year, hitting 21 of 26 field goals. All but one miss was from outside forty. He doesn't have Kaeding's range but is the best returning kicker in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes will break in a new punter this year. He'll probably be okay.
A nonconference game at Iowa State is sandwiched in between two gimmes against Ball State and Northern Iowa. ISU generally plays the Hawkeyes very tough in Ames and may be favored to win the postapocalyptic landscape of the Big Twelve North but isn't in Iowa's class. Tate, Hinkel, and Solomon will be humming. Iowa should win.
The Big Ten schedule gnomes did Iowa no favors this year, thrusting the Hawkeyes into the Heart of Darkness to play Ohio State in the opener and then, after a breather against Illinois, right back into the fire against Purdue in West Lafayette. Whatever progress the all-new defensive line has made will be tested immediately upon entry to the Big Ten conference schedule. After Purdue is relatively smooth sailing, with Michigan and Minnesota visiting Kinnick and Big Ten wait-till-next-years Indiana, Northwestern, and Wisconsin rounding out the schedule. If Iowa can take the initial punch and remain standing, the Wolverines will be all that stands between Iowa and the Rose Bowl.
Keys to the Season
Find a running back. Anybody. An Iowa that can't run the ball will struggle to move the ball against Ohio State, Purdue, and Michigan. I have no idea who it will be, but it has to be someone, and it has to be fast because of the schedule. If no one's buying Tate's play action fakes, Iowa won't break 20 against the Buckeyes. (Yes, I remember what happened last y
ear. This is a different year.)
Eat. Space. The good news for Iowa as it relates to the defensive line is this: they don't have to have tea-time in the opponent's backfield like Roth and Babineaux did to be effective. Hodge, Greenway, and Miles will clean up small messes the line leaves, but expecting them to pick guards off their facemasks and make tackles is awfully optimistic. If someone can play Gabe Watson--a guy who won't make a ton of plays because he's always double-teamed--the Hawkeye linebackers will ride roughshod over the conference. But even Hodge and Greenway will find it difficult to make an impact if the line can't force opponents to pay attention to it.
Keep It Simple, Except When You Shouldn't. The difference between Drew Tate, All Big Ten, and Drew Tate, All American, is better decision making. It's good now. But if Tate can walk the fine line between being outrageously effective and just being outrageous, he's the kind of player who can wash away the running game troubles and the defensive line questions with two or three dramatic fourth quarter drives and etch himself in to Hawkeye legend next to Nile Kinnick and Chuck Long. mgoblog thinks he'll still be a bit on the loose cannon side, which could result in a bad interception at a crucial time in one of Iowa's marquee games.
Worst Case: Defensive line is very unsound against the run with the mighty midgets in the middle and doesn't generate much pass rush. The rest of the defense is still pretty good but teams with offenses capable of consistently moving the chains score on Iowa. The offense is much like last year's, with Drew Tate running for his life a lot and throwing a lot of unbelievable ropes to barely open wide receivers. Michigan and Purdue exploit the new tackles and win going away, a trip to Columbus provides Buckeye revenge, and Iowa can't stop the Maroney Express, finishing 7-4.
Best Case: Ferentz unearths another Roth, probably because of a pact with the Devil. Tate makes fewer mistakes and goes from really good to unbelievably good, but the run game is still the Hawkeyes' undoing against one of the other three Big Ten contenders. Iowa finishes 10-1 and loads up for another BCS bowl.
mgoblog says... God, I hate doing this. Kirk Ferentz has spun 1-10 straw into perennial postseason #8 gold, but this is the year I think Captain Kirk takes a (temporary) step back. The passing game will be really consistent and good and the running game will improve, but only because it has to after finishing dead last in 2004. There's no Fred Russell in the backfield and the offensive line looks genuinely shaky after Lee Gray was lost for the season. Purdue and Michigan both have the defensive ends to take advantage of the new tackles.
The defense will not be as good as it was a year ago. The defensive line simply can't match the performance of Roth and company and I have doubts that it will be able to keep Greenway and Hodge clean enough to fully exploit their talent. There isn't a guy on the line who looks like a two-gap space consumer who can keep the linebackers clean. They're young, they're undersized, and they'll get devoured by the experienced lines of Michigan, Ohio State, and Purdue. They aren't going to fall apart--they will be at least average--but they will suffer against big, powerful offensive lines.
mgoblog thinks that Iowa matches up very poorly with Michigan and Purdue this year. Games against Minnesota and Ohio State won't be easy, though the Minnesota game is at Kinnick. Iowa drops the first two and one of the second two, finishing 8-3, 5-3 in the Big Ten.