Sat Mar 20 05:55pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Hawkeyes.
If I wasn't sort of obligated by the format, I'd want no part of guessing what's going to happen with Iowa. Already the Hawkeyes have emerged from moribund obscurity prior to Kirk Ferentz's arrival to unlikely Big Ten power, quickly sunk back into the mire amid an ugly string of player arrests and mini-scandal, and emerged again just as suddenly as a conference contender and BCS winner in the span of the last decade -- all, seemingly, by the skin of their teeth. The last two years are a case study in living and dying on the margins: In 2008, Iowa had the best running back in the nation and the best defense in the conference, but lost four games decided by three points or less and had to settle for a nice consolation prize in the Outback Bowl. In 2009, a less impressive team on paper turned those most of close games, winning four by three points or less and landing the school's highest AP poll finish since 1960.
In other words, you always know pretty much what you're going to get from a Ferentz-coached team for the first 58 minutes or so: Conservative offense, solid defense, not a whole lot of points and probably a slender margin in one direction or the other. That, in a nutshell, describes fully half of the Hawkeyes' games over the last two years. It's how they're going to close in the last two minutes that you don't know, and that can make all the difference in an historic, banner year and just another nice trip south for the holidays.
What's Changed. Usually, no facet of a lineup that finishes next-to-last in its conference in rushing, pass efficiency, total and scoring offense comes in for much praise, but Iowa's success in the win column in the wake of a series of killer injuries made its '09 offensive line one of the most decorated in the country, box score be damned. Two members of the front, tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Dace Richardson, were first-team All-Big Ten picks by league coaches despite both missing time with injury; tight end Tony Moeaki joined them there, with center Rafael Eubanks coming in for second-team honors by both the coaches and media and tackle Kyle Calloway earning a second-team nod from the media. Good news for the Hawkeyes' recent reputation for producing nasty offensive lines; bad news for their prospects of actually doing so again this year: All five have subsequently shuffled off, with Bulaga taking an early flier on the draft as a likely top-15 pick. Another senior with a wealth of playing time, Dan Doering, also left the building.
The injury shuffle did leave the Hawkeyes with two regular starters amid the attrition, guard Julian Vandervelde and journeyman Riley Reiff, whose official Web bio still lists him as a defensive end despite 11 starts last year at three different positions on the O-line as a redshirt freshman. At best, the new crop up front will come out even with a deeper, more talented set of backs running behind them (see below), but those same backs would also be prudent to brace themselves for a season of pain.
What's the Same. The defensive line, on the other hand, will be a potential nightmare, which would be the case even if impressively dreadlock'd end Adrian Clayborn wasn't accompanied again by all three of last year's starting linemates from a defense that held five different opponents to their lowest point totals of the season. Clayborn was statistically dominant as a junior (11.5 sacks, 20 total tackles for loss) and occasionally took over big games to the extent that even casual observers had to take notice; see his season-defining punt block/touchdown return in the win at Penn State, 12-tackle/3-TFL effort at Ohio State and MVP performance in the Orange Bowl clampdown on Georgia Tech, which confirmed his place at the top of every All-America list this fall. Lining up fellow seniors Karl Klug and Christian Ballard inside and junior Broderick Binns at the other end is gravy.
The concern in the front seven is obviously linebacker, where departed tackle machines A.J. Edds and Pat "You're Only Making Me" Angerer* seemed to make every routine play; Angerer clocked in with over 100 tackles and an All-Big Ten nod each of the last two seasons. Two reasons their departures may not matter: a) Still-prowling senior-to-be Jeremiha Hunter has come in behind Angerer with 80-plus total tackles each of the last two seasons; and b) Coordinator Norm Parker's blitz-averse scheme typically hinges on the ability of the front four to hold its ground and keep the linebackers free of pesky second-level blockers; the identities of the 'backers have never kept them from making the majority of plays. The numbers against the run dipped last year thanks mainly to relatively big games on the ground by Iowa State, Arizona and Michigan in losing efforts (the Hawkeyes finished 34th nationally in rushing defense after back-to-back top-25 efforts in 2007-08), but the more experienced line could drag those numbers back into the top-20, if not higher.
Americanzi: Love him or leave him. Judging from his numbers, enigmatic two-year starter and patriotic rhetorician Ricky Stanzi is the picture of mediocrity -- his 15 interceptions last year tied for most in the Big Ten despite his absence for all or most of three games, and his overall pass efficiency rating was solidly middle-of-the-pack for the second year in a row. Judging from his record, Stanzi is indispensable -- he's won 16 of his last 18 starts dating back to October 2008, including five fourth-quarter comebacks, back-to-back wins over both Penn State and Wisconsin and back-to-back bowl wins. Note, too, that one of those losses was the Hawkeyes' 17-10 flop last November against Northwestern, where Stanzi was knocked out for good in the second quarter with a 10-0 lead; he missed the rest of that game and the entirety of the loss at Ohio State the following week, Iowa's only losses of the season. When Stanzi starts and finishes, the Hawkeyes have won 14 straight.
That rarely seems to have anything to do with Stanzi, personally, even in the dramatic comebacks, which would not have been possible without the defense and special teams keeping each of those games within reach, often (as against Penn State and Indiana last year) by putting crucial points on the board their own selves. If Stanzi isn't going to wow anyone in the big picture, he remains extremely valuable for his refined bailing technique in the fourth quarter, and frankly for avoiding the steep drop-off when he exits the game. Backup James Vandenberg acquitted himself respectably in his first career start, a brutal assignment at Ohio State that the redshirt freshman managed to extend into overtime before throwing a game-killing interception, but the Hawkeyes were shut out after Vandenberg came on for Stanzi against Northwestern and managed just 12 points on one offensive touchdown against lame-duck Minnesota, against whom Vandenberg was 11-of-24 with an interception and no touchdowns. If a BCS return is on the agenda at all, the revamped line has to keep Stanzi upright.
We interrupt this preview to bring you Tyler Sash. Because this preview cannot in good conscience ignore the All-Big Ten safety and noted pinball wizard, Tyler Bleeping Sash:
Sash will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery for the second straight offseason. The scalpel only makes him stronger.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Both of last year's top running backs on the preseason depth chart, Jewel Hampton and Jeff Brinson, were cut down at the start of the season by the mysterious injury plague that seems to inflict Iowa running backs every other year or so, leaving the duty of replacing All-American Shonn Greene to two freshmen, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson. Together, they carried a large load (342 carries between them) to pretty good effect (1,475 yards, 13 touchdowns), but neither flashed much beyond their role as competent stopgaps -- they combined to average just 4.3 per carry and broke all of two runs all year (43 yards by Robinson against Arizona, 32 by Wegher against Georgia Tech) that covered more than 30 yards. They did their jobs.
But if Hampton returns with the stellar expectations that were building steam before his season-ending ACL injury in August, there will be more than a few Iowa fans who suspect he can do it better. As it istands, he may never work his way back into the regular rotation unless Wegher and Robinson start going backwards. It's still a better one with Hampton healthy and battling to be a part of it.
Best-Case. The Hawkeyes don't have the overall talent to realistically dream of an undefeated season, but they did show last year they can beat anyone on the schedule on any given week, and thanks to Clayborn's return have the defense to stay in all of them; Stanzi has repeatedly proven he's more than capable of taking it from there. If the offensive gels into an approximation of last year's veteran group, no other area of the team is clearly bound for a regression. They also get all three of the other serious Big Ten contenders (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin) in Iowa City. Assuming there are no stumbles on tricky road trips to Arizona, Northwestern, Michigan or Minnesota, two wins out of three against the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Badgers could secure another BCS bid at 11-1, or even the long-awaited Rose Bowl berth, if dominoes and tiebreakers fall the right way. I wouldn't be willing to step beyond that into BCS Championship territory, but certainly there's top-10 potential again.
Worst-Case. Statistically, the offense was well below average last year, and loses the glue on the offensive line, a recipe for disaster with key players (especially Stanzi) who have already proven inconsistent and somewhat fragile. The defense is down a trio of steady, longtime playmakers in Angerer, Edds and draft-jumping cornerback Amari Spievey, and don't have any obvious complement to Clayborn if opposing offenses zero in on the All-American, or just avoid him altogether. If the offense takes a step backward behind the rebuilt line and a pedestrian collection of skill guys, even the status quo on defense likely won't be enough to pull out the kind the close wins the Hawkeyes consistently wrenched from defeat last year. Considering there are at least seven teams on the schedule that can roughly match Iowa's talent level, and a couple more '09 bowl teams (see: Iowa State, Northwestern and/or Minnesota) that could conceivably scrap their way to a not-that-shocking upset, 7-5 seems like a pretty generous floor.
Non-Binding Forecast. It's hard not to like an 11-game, Orange Bowl winner that returns much of the core of that success, but the fact is Iowa looks like a classic overachiever -- if not in taking down both Penn State and Wisconsin on the road, then at least in scraping its way out of the close calls against the likes of Northern Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. The offense was subpar, doesn't present much of a case that it will be significantly better, and has presumably used up more than its fourth-quarter chutzpah. There's still plenty to like -- Clayborn, Sash, the defense in general, the home-field advantage in literally all of the biggest games -- but the firepower on offense just isn't there to lift the Hawkeyes past 9-3.