IOWA CITY, Iowa - OK. I've procrastinated long enough. Time for my Iowa football season preseason prediction.
While some media outlets offer their prognostications before the previous campaign ends these days, I drag it out. While it's my way to wait until the last minute in most areas of my life, I'm resting on uncertainty as my excuse for my tardiness here.
I'm torn by this Iowa team. Looking at the various projections from around the country, I have company. The Hawkeyes are being placed anywhere from a contender for the first college football playoff to sixth in the Big Ten's West Division.
Las Vegas set the Hawkeyes over-under win total at 8.5. While some folks take that as the gospel, remember, the line makers put it where they believe they'll get equal action on both sides of the number.
Glass half full sees Iowa welcoming back most of its starters in the trenches, including all-world left tackle Brandon Scherff and physical defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. Starting Quarterback Jake Rudock returns as do most of last year's production at the skill positions.
Glass half empty points to replacing three multiple-year starters at linebacker who currently are in NFL camps, two members of the secondary and the place kicker. Pessimism remains about Greg Davis' ability to produce a threatening attack.
Some folks still fall into the scheduling trap as well. While it's nice to avoid Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State, it's dangerous to assume the Hawkeyes are far superior to the schools on its slate. History under Coach Kirk Ferentz shows us that there will be quite a few close games where a bounce one way or the other decides the outcome.
So, that all leaves us where we usually sit at this time of year with Iowa football, mulling the unknown. But, as I said, I need to get something on record, for what it's worth, which isn't much.
Aug. 30, Northern Iowa
Overview: We all know the story. Iowa blocked two field goal attempts in the closing seconds in 2009 to preserve a win against the Panthers on the way to an 11-2 season and a win in the Orange Bowl. You're going to hear a lot about that contest leading up to this one. The Hawkeye players likely will as well. It really doesn't impact this game. If Iowa plays up to its capabilities, it should beat an FCS team at home, even one as strong as UNI. No doubt, the visitors will be highly motivated. That's dangerous. Doesn't matter. Iowa's strength is in the trenches, where this game will be won.
Prediction: Iowa with comfortable win (I'll predict scores during my weekly game previews)
Sept. 6, Ball State
Overview: For this matchup, you'll hear how the Hawkeyes have lost to MAC teams at home three times since 2007 (Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois). That, and that David Letterman is a Ball State alum. Make no mistake, the Cardinals are capable of winning this game. Still, they're replacing their record-setting quarterback (Keith Wenning), top receiver (Willie Snead) and first-team all-conference linebacker (Jonathan Newsome). Ball State boasts a veteran offensive line and a strong stable of running backs that might aid the transition to a new quarterback (starter yet to be named). The specialists also are proven. The D-Line is green, however. The Cardinals open with a home date with Colgate before traveling to Kinnick Stadium. It's by no means a cake walk for the Hawkeyes, but beating MAC teams at home is a reasonable expectation for a Big Ten school with any designs on a successful season.
Prediction: Iowa wins comfortably.
Sept. 13, Iowa State
Overview: A lay-up here, right guys? Little brother is coming off a three-win season, which included home losses to the Hawkeyes and UNI. Iowa won eight games in '13 and reached the Outback Bowl. Ah, we should all know better. Even last year in Ames, where the visitors jumped out to a big lead, it turned into a nail biter with B.J. Lowery saving the day with an acrobatic interception. Sam Richardson, who was named ISU's starting quarterback earlier this week, completed 22 of 39 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. He had a bum ankle, limiting his ability to do more damage on the ground. The Cyclones also return their offensive line and most of their key skill position players. New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino owns an impressive track record of putting together explosive units. With only five returning starters from a porous defense, Iowa State might have trouble stopping Des Moines Roosevelt. The 'Clones should be better tested than their in-state rival coming into this game after playing FCS national champion North Dakota State in Week 1 followed by a matchup with Kansas State to kick off Big 12 action.
Prediction: Iowa with hard-fought win.
Sept. 20, at Pittsburgh
Overview: Former Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst took over in the Steel City two years ago and was expected to revive a once-proud program. The Panthers are 13-13 in that time. They knocked off Notre Dame but lost to Navy last season. Pitt breaks in a new quarterback in sophomore Chad Voytik, a dual-threat who's further along as a runner than a passer. His transition should be aided by Tyler Boyd, a sophomore receiver who'll rank among the best players at his position in the ACC. Another sophomore, James Conner, weighs in a 230 pounds and is a Mark Weisman type running back. Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim resemble Jordan Canzeri and Damond Bullock as change-of-pace backs. Pitt's O-Line is a big question mark. The defensive front must replace Aaron Donald, who the Rams selected with 13th overall pick in May's NFL Draft. It will be a work in progress but should be helped by a strong linebacker corps. The Panthers enter the Iowa game off of back-to-back road contests at Boston College and Florida International.
Prediction: First road game. Different time zone. Chryst is familiar with Iowa. Don't like setup. Iowa drops close one.
Sept. 27, at Purdue
Overview: The Boilermakers were outscored by 277 points last season, the seventh worst total in the history of the Big Ten. Yikes. Iowa won 38-14 in West Lafayette and the conference decided to send the Hawkeyes back to the morgue that is Ross Stadium to kick off this year's league slate. But, each team plays four road games so one can't complain about having one there. Will Purdue be better this season? Man, if it's not, the school might consider dropping the sport. I kid. To put the Boilermakers ineptitude from '13 in perspective, Sagarin ranked them behind 44 teams…in the FCS. Danny Etling gives them a talented, albeit raw, quarterback to which Iowa offered a scholarship out of high school. He just needs to survive behind a swiss-cheese line. Purdue possesses talent at the skill positions. On defense, a lot of young players will have to advance in a hurry. The unit could be scary bad.
Prediction: Iowa pulls away after a slow start for a relatively easy win.
Oct. 11, Indiana
Overview: Iowa should be grateful that its games against the Indiana schools this year are being played where they are. The Hawkeyes will win in West Lafayette. That task would be a whole lot more difficult in Bloomington. And the Hoosiers aren't likely to roll over and play dead in Kinnick. Indiana's offense could be among the best in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld will operate behind a strong offensive line and running back Tevin Coleman is dynamic. The Hoosiers lost top receivers Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes but Shane Wynn returns after catching 11 TD passes a year ago. For this program to take the next step, the defense will need to improve greatly. The Hoosiers allowed 10 of its 12 opponents last season to score 35 points or more. In the end, coordinator Doug Mallory was replaced by Brian Knorr. This could end up being a wild shootout like the Iowa-Indiana games of the Antwaan Randle El Era.
Prediction: Iowa squeezes past the Hoosiers on Homecoming.
Oct. 18, at Maryland
Overview: The Terrapins enter the Big Ten off of a season decimated by injuries. To that point, it's tough to get a great feel for what they'll be in '14. We'll have a much better idea by the time this game rolls around. Rest assured, it's a talented group. If it's healthy, Iowa will face it's toughest challenge to date in College Park. C.J. Brown flies under the radar but is one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in the conference. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long are the best receiving duo in the league with the former being one of top players at the position nationally. They both missed chunks of last season to injury. Andre Monroe stands out on defense after posting 9.5 sacks last fall as an end in the 3-4. There's a lot of experience on the second and third levels but also some youth being relied upon. The Terrapins season could come down to how well it performs on the offensive line, where they lack depth and will count on freshmen. They have a bye week before facing Iowa.
Prediction: Iowa loses a heartbreaker.
Nov. 1, Northwestern
Overview: The Wildcats '13 resembled Iowa's '12. They were victims of close losses throughout the season, including a overtime setback in Iowa City, and suffered key injuries. Now, they'll try to rebound like the Hawkeyes did a year ago. And they have plenty of talent to make it happen. With Kain Colter gone, Trevor Siemian takes the full-time reigns at quarterback. He can spin the ball and could find a nice rhythm with a talented group of receivers (even without injured Christian Jones) now that the time share is over. Losing dynamic back Venric Mark hurts but Northwestern did without him last year with much of the load being carried by Treyvon Green, who's back for his senior season. The Wildcats' front seven on defense could be really good. Dean Lowry is an excellent end and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo is one of the best players you don't hear about. The hot spots for Northwestern are offensive line and the kicking and punting games. They will determine the season.
Prediction: Iowa wins another wild one with the 'Cats.
Nov. 8, at Minnesota
Overview: Jerry Kill continues to renovate the Golden Gophers, something he's good at. They're a tough, hard-nosed program in the mold of Iowa and Michigan State. It's not flashy but it's effective. They knocked off Nebraska and Penn State last season, serving notice that they're not a punching bag anymore. Minnesota should have a strong running game with David Cobb returning as one of the league's top backs. Quarterback Mitch Leidner can damage teams with his legs but will need to improve significantly in the passing game. The receivers are nothing special but it's a solid tight end group led by H-Back Maxx Williams. The offensive line has been addressed throughout Kill's three years and should be better. The D-Line will sorely miss Ra'Shede Hagemen. The good news is the linebackers and secondary have a chance to be much better. This is one of the tougher games to handicap in the preseason. Imagine if the Hawkeyes went to Minneapolis with an unblemished record.
Prediction: If you're wondering, this was the last one I predicted. To me, it's the swing game for Iowa. I'm going with the home team by the slightest of margins. That could change when it's time for my weekly game preview in November.
Nov. 15, at Illinois
Overview: It's good to see the Illini back on the schedule. It just seems right. And, they stink. Luckily for them, Purdue resides in the Big Ten. It was Illinois' only league win a year ago and the lone conference triumph in Coach Tim Beckman's two years in Champaign. There's hope Year 3 brings a jump up the standings, but it might be wishful thinking. Wes Lunt could be a program-changing quarterback but he's largely unproven. Leading rusher Josh Ferguson returns as a dual-threat (779 yards rushing, 50 receptions in '13) and the Illinois line is strong but shallow. The top four receivers from a year ago are gone but there's some talent in a couple of incoming JUCOs. Mason Monheim is an underrated linebacker but the Illini defense is littered with unknowns. The specialists are reliable and they'll need to be.
Prediction: Iowa wins comfortably.
Nov. 22, Wisconsin
Overview: The optimists see the Badgers coming to town as Iowa's first major test on the schedule. It might be undefeated at the time. I'm not on the wagon but the outcome is possible, as are a number of others. Wisconsin took advantage of the Hawkeyes' inability to finish drives last season and won rather easily. The Badgers play host to Nebraska the week before coming to Kinnick. The Huskers travel to Iowa City the Friday after Wisconsin does. Many people believe it's a two-week stretch that will decide the West Division championship. The Badgers once again boast a monster running game with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement operating behind an impressive offensive line. The offense will be good. Like the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin's biggest question resides on defense where linebacker Chris Borland no longer roams. Not a revelation, but if Iowa wants to win its first conference title since '04, this game is enormous.
Prediction: Iowa finds a way to slow Gordon again and slips past the Badgers.
Nov. 28, Nebraska
Overview: After two lackluster efforts in the Heroes Game, Iowa stunned the Huskers in Lincoln last Black Friday. It turned a lopsided series into a rivalry the league hoped for when it matched up the two schools from bordering states in the regular-season finale. It could be advanced further if the Hawkeyes make it two in a row and even it at 2-2. Last year's outcome might give Iowa fans a false sense of security that would be foolish to be engulfed in. Nebraska's roster is filled with talent, much of it green a year ago, especially on defense. End Randy Gregory is one of the top pass rushers in the country and tackles Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins, both of whom had Iowa offers, will be stout. There's a mix of experience and unknowns in the back seven but there's a lot to work with. Offensively, running back Ameer Abdullah rivals Gordon as the best in the Big Ten. He could become the first Husker to finish with three 1,000-yard seasons. Ever. Kenny Bell is a reliable, and sometimes uncoverable, receiver. The line could be really good but at worst will be serviceable. Quarterback is the big unknown. Sophomore Tommy Armstrong is the unproven starter that still has a lot to prove in the passing game. Until then, defenses will load up to stop Abdullah.
Prediction: Revenge is sweet for a very good Huskers team as it escapes Kinnick with a tough, tight win.
So, there you have it. I've got our Hawkeyes at 8-4 overall and 5-3 in conference. In my world, that's a darn good season around here.