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Let’s pretend Iowa won’t go 8-5 this time. Will things be better or worse?

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A physical defense and plenty of fullback and tight end action? Kirk Ferentz’s 20th year should be ... familiar.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Iowa
Kirk Ferentz and Noah Fant (87)
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It was maybe the most apt afternoon in the nearly 20-year Ferentz era. On November 4, 2017, nearing the home stretch of a season that boasted plenty of surprising results, Iowa destroyed No. 3 Ohio State in the most Iowa possible way.

The Hawkeyes picked off J.T. Barrett four times (he threw only five interceptions in OSU’s other 13 games), running backs combined for 35 carries and 239 yards, and Hawkeye tight ends and fullbacks combined for 10 catches, 126 yards, and five touchdowns. Iowa receivers touched the ball six times, but Iowa destroyed a top-five team.

Iowa then got blown out by Wisconsin and lost to Purdue for the second time in a decade. The Hawkeyes finished 8-5, just as they did in 2016.

If the Ferentz era has taught us anything, it’s that the universe balances itself out, sometimes with force. Iowa has won either seven or eight games six times in the last eight years, with a positive outlier (12-2 in 2015) and a negative one (4-8 in 2012). Iowa is going to do what Iowa does, deploying fullbacks and multiple tight ends, working in plenty of current and former walk-ons, and playing sturdy, controlled Iowa Football™. It’s going to result in about eight wins, and every now and then, the breaks are going to skew particularly happy or sad.

Hey guess what: S&P+ projects the Hawkeyes to win seven to eight games this fall, and after averaging a ranking of 37.5 over the last decade, they’re projected 36th. Constants are important.

In a lot of ways, Iowa is the ideal of a lot of the things I advocate for in college football. I spend a lot of time talking about how schools need to be more patient and less willing to cut a good coach loose, starting a likely fruitless quest for a great one. I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of an administration trying to give a good coach what he needs instead of starting over. I rail against the lack of a long-term vision at most programs, and Iowa has the most long-term vision of all.

Iowa’s relentless stability means we know what’s most likely to happen this fall: the same thing that usually happens. But it’s no fun to write a preview with that viewpoint. So let’s look for tea leaves to read. If this isn’t the typical 8-5 Iowa season, what’s more likely: something better or something worse?

I’m leaning former.

  • The passing game is in excellent shape. The Hawkeyes ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+ and return quarterback Nate Stanley, two of his top three wideouts, every tight end (this being Iowa, that’s important!), and both offensive tackles.
  • The defensive line runs four-deep at end and returns three of four tackles.

The outlook’s gotten a little worse recently. The secondary lost stud safety Brandon Snyder to a late transfer, costing Iowa an important player in replacing first-round cornerback Josh Jackson. The Hawkeyes will also have at least four players suspended for their opener against NIU, giving that game more upset potential than it would otherwise have.

The running game was strangely bad last season and now must replace two previously solid running backs, and after fielding one of the league’s sturdiest linebacking corps in 2017, the Hawkeyes have three starters to replace. (It’s hard to worry about Iowa linebackers, but that’s a lot of turnover.)

In all likelihood, the plusses and minuses will cancel out and give us a familiar quality. But there’s more to be excited about than worried about, I think.

Offense

2017 Iowa offensive radar

Despite the 1,000-yard rusher (Akrum Wadley), the requisite all-conference lineman (Sean Welsh), the run-heavy tendencies (61st in run rate on standard downs, 32nd on passing downs), and the typical collection of tight ends and fullbacks, Iowa’s offense wasn’t exactly Iowa’s offense last year.

The Hawkeye ranked only 105th in rushing success rate and 92nd in yards per play on first down. Part of that was due to good run defenses — they were 62nd in the opponent-adjusted Rushing S&P+, and that 92nd YPP ranking was a middle-of-the-pack eighth in the Big Ten — but they faced a lot of second-and-longs and put pressure on a sophomore quarterback to make up ground.

For the most part, Stanley did. He completed only 56 percent of his passes and took a few too many sacks (Iowa was 76th in Adj. Sack Rate), but he made a lot of huge throws. Considering how many of his passes came when Iowa was on schedule, you would expect a lower completion rate. You’d also probably expect something far worse than his sparkling 26-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio.

Plus, you can get away with a lower completion rate if most of your completions result in successful plays, and that was basically the case when Stanley was throwing to either of two tight ends (Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson) or split end Matt VandeBerg.

Ferentz suggested he was committed to his identity when he promoted his son Brian to offensive coordinator last year. But it might be a little harder than normal to avoid the temptation to throw.

NCAA Football: NCAA Football: Purdue at Iowa
Nate Stanley (4)
The Des Moines Register-USA TODAY Sports

Stanley’s back, as are Fant, Hockenson, and flankers Nick Easley and Ihmire Smith-Marsette. Tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, who combined for 20 of 26 starts out wide, are back as well. Leaning heavily on Stanley’s arm could pay off.

Meanwhile, the run game, already shaky, is starting over. Wadley and backup James Butler are gone after combining to carry 344 times. Fullback Drake Kulick and two all-conference interior linemen (Welsh and honorable-mention all-B1G center James Daniels) have departed as well.

To maintain the run-heavy identity as we assume the Hawkeyes will, they will need some help from youth. Sophomore backs Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin, and Toks Akinribade are all back, but they combined to average 5.1 yards per carry as freshmen, 4.5 if you take out a nice performance against Nebraska’s moribund defense. All three are built like Iowa running backs of lore (5’11 or 6’0, 200 to 220 pounds), but they are mostly unproven, and they’ll be behind a couple of unproven pieces up front.

So maybe the problem solves itself. Iowa runs on first down, gets nowhere, and Stanley gets a couple of passes to try to catch up to the chains. Boom — pass-heavy offense!

Stanley had a 61 percent completion rate and 158 passer rating (with 11 touchdowns to just one pick) when he was allowed to pass on first down, and with this offense, a lot of those passes were in play-action. And not that this means anything in a large-sample sense, but he had a sense for the moment: he was 5-for-8 with three touchdowns on fourth downs, and he was better when down by one possession (144.3 passer rating) than tied (111.5) or ahead by one possession (130.7).

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Iowa
T.J. Hockenson (38) and Noah Fant (87)
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 Iowa defensive radar

For the seventh time in the Ferentz era, Iowa ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 15. But as with the offense, last year’s strengths and weaknesses weren’t quite what we have come to expect. The bend-don’t-break tendencies were still there, but there was more bending than usual up front — Iowa ranked 84th in rushing success rate and 52nd in Rushing S&P+.

The pass defense, though? Stupendous. The Hawkeyes combined big-play prevention (10th in passing IsoPPP, eighth in passes per game of 20-plus yards) with a solid pass rush and opportunism. Of opponents’ incompletions, 46 percent were the result of either an interception or pass break-up. That’s the second highest rate in the country.

Better yet, the pass defense improved as the year progressed. After allowing a 60 percent completion rate and 122 passer rating over the first five games, they improved to 53 percent and 103.4, respectively, over the final eight.

Eight different Iowa defenders — two linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs — had at least four passes defensed, and half of them return. But it does have to be concerning that the two most prolific defenders (corner Josh Jackson, who had 26 passes defensed, and linebacker Josey Jewell, who had 13) are gone. Junior corners Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia are back, as is sophomore Matt Hankins, but Jackson set the bar awfully high.

Losing Brandon Snyder means Iowa will need others to step up. The safety and senior-to-be combined three tackles for loss with seven passes defensed and three forced fumbles in 2016 before injuring his knee, returning for one game (in which he had a pick six and two breakups), and re-injuring it.

Snyder would have been an all-conference talent had he stayed. The good news: so is senior Jake Gervase, who nearly matched Snyder’s disruption numbers while replacing him. Throw in junior Amani Hooker, and it appears Iowa is more than set at safety. That could counter at least some potential CB difficulty. And the pass rush will help: ends Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, and A.J. Epenesa combined for 25.5 TFLs and 16 sacks. They’re all back, as are tackles Matt Nelson, Cedrick Lattimore, and Brady Reiff.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Iowa
Parker Hesse (40) and Cedrick Lattimore (95)
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

So that leaves the other issue: linebacker. It is difficult to imagine Iowa struggling at this position, but Jewell, Bo Bower, and Ben Niemann were absurdly good.

Only Jewell and MIchigan’s Khaleke Hudson combined at least 13 tackles for loss with at least 10 passes defensed. He almost single-handedly beat Penn State. Bower and Niemann added 9.5 more TFLs and eight more PDs. That’s a crazy amount of production.

If nothing else, there are plenty of options: seniors Jack Hockaday and Aaron Mends, juniors Amani Jones and Kristian Welch, sophomores Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade, redshirt freshmen Djimon Colbert and Nate Wieland, and true freshmen Dillon Doyle and Jayden McDonald will pretty much all head into fall camp thinking they have a chance at a spot.

Of course, “rotation” is a theoretical concept at Iowa, where coordinator Phil Parker, like Norm Parker before him, tends to play the smallest number of guys possible — the fourth-leading tackler at LB last year had only 6.5 tackles.

Special Teams

Special teams were a net positive, thanks mostly to Miguel Recinos and a decent return team. Recinos made all of his PATs and eight of 10 field goals and ranked 11th in kickoff efficiency, and returning kick returners Ivory Kelly-Martin and Ihmir Smith-Marsette combined to average 23.4 yards per return. That drove a No. 38 Special Teams S&P+ ranking.

Now imagine where the Hawkeyes could have ranked had they not been 124th in punt efficiency. Colten Rastetter averaged just 37.8 yards per punt, which led to freshman Ryan Gersonde tearing off his redshirt midseason. He averaged a much healthier 42.5 yards but got hurt after just four games, and a less-than-confident Rastetter’s average sank to a ghastly 30.5 over the final three contests.

If Gersonde is healthy, then this is a very good unit.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Northern Illinois 69 9.7 71%
8-Sep Iowa State 46 5.1 62%
15-Sep Northern Iowa NR 24.3 92%
22-Sep Wisconsin 12 -8.1 32%
6-Oct at Minnesota 67 3.9 59%
13-Oct at Indiana 58 2.5 56%
20-Oct Maryland 80 11.4 75%
27-Oct at Penn State 8 -15.5 19%
3-Nov at Purdue 54 1.5 54%
10-Nov Northwestern 38 3.2 57%
17-Nov at Illinois 99 12.3 76%
23-Nov Nebraska 60 7.8 67%
Projected S&P+ Rk 36
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 81 / 19
Projected wins 7.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.2 (37)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 39 / 46
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 6.9
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (67%, 54%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.3 (0.7)

The overall S&P+ projection — 36th with an average win total of 7.2 wins — is pretty boring. But Iowa’s 2018 could end up anything but that. The Hawkeyes have six games projected within a touchdown, with four likely wins and two likely losses. Go 3-3 in those close games, and there you go: seven wins.

There are more than seven on the table, but we’ll probably know most of what we need to know about Iowa’s 2018 by the end of September. The Hawkeyes will begin the year as a 71 percent favorite against a speedy NIU and a 62 percent favorite against Iowa State. Win both of those (which there’s only a 44 percent chance of doing), and you’re probably 3-0 when West favorite Wisconsin comes to town.

The range of outcomes there is wide: Iowa has a 55 percent chance of being 3-1 or 4-0 at the end of the month and a 45 percent chance of being 2-2 or 1-3. So yeah, there is outlier potential, good or bad.

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