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2011 Season Preview: Proven Programs And The Iowa Hawkeyes

In 2010, a senior-laden Iowa squad played as well as almost anybody in the country for two months before fading dramatically. Now, yesterday's backups become today's starters; can the new Hawkeyes avoid both a fade and a tailspin?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In college football, you win by winning; the best predictor for future success is past success -- not just last year, but in the last four to five years. As a projection factor, recent history dwarfs everything else, from recruiting rankings, to returning starters, to turnover margin, to anything else you look at when you're trying to figure out if a given team is going to be good next year.

For no team is that more evident than the Iowa Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz's squad returns only nine starters from a team that faded dramatically in November last year and finished a disappointing 8-5, 4-4 in conference. They must replace a starting quarterback, an all-conference offensive lineman, three-quarters of a highly-touted defensive line, two stellar safeties, and three of their top four linebackers. And yet, the projections in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 (college portion available now, with package information coming later today!) give Iowa a 50-percent chance of going 6-2 or better in the Big Ten Legends division and a 60-percent chance of going 9-3 or better overall. They are projected to finish in a three-way tie with Michigan and Nebraska atop the Legends Division.

So they lose a ton of talent, and they are supposed to do better? Eh?

There are two primary reasons why Iowa has such favorable projections:

1. The Big Ten is not exactly chock-full of elite teams this year, especially the eight on Iowa's schedule. Their conference home games come against Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State, and they have extremely winnable road games against Purdue and Minnesota. Win those six, and voila ... 6-2. That they are projected to fall from 21st overall to 29th doesn't matter.

2. The Hawkeyes have the most enviable trait in college football: a track record. They are a proven program. They have finished 12th, ninth and 21st in the F/+ ratings in the last three seasons. They have four Top 21 finishes in the last six years, and even with 2007's mediocre squad (6-6, 68th overall) weighing them down, their recent performance gives them the benefit of the doubt. As we continue to count down toward better and better recent programs in this preview series, you will see this becomes more of a theme. For example, Ohio State loses their coach, quarterback, and approximately 38 other guys to a half-season's suspension? No matter. They're still projected 15th. The best way to be good in the present is to have been good in the past.

It clearly doesn't always work this way, however. Just ask Texas. And in Iowa's case, there have been, for quite a while, questions regarding the layer of talent hiding beneath the star power of Adrian Clayborn, Ricky Stanzi, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Christian Ballard, Julian Vandervelde, etc. The stars are gone in 2011; for better or worse, Iowa will sink or swim with yesterday's backups. And if the talent is lacking, the Hawkeyes will come nowhere near 9-3.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 21
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Eastern Illinois
37-7 W 27.8 - 18.2 W
11-Sep Iowa State 38-7 W 34.5 - 21.2 W
18-Sep at Arizona 27-34 L 27.1 - 21.6 W
25-Sep Ball State 45-0 W 46.4 - (-5.6) W
2-Oct Penn State 24-3 W 30.4 - 18.0 W
16-Oct at Michigan 38-28 W 30.8 - 28.7 W
23-Oct Wisconsin 30-31 L 37.7 - 23.1 W
30-Oct Michigan State 37-6 W 36.3 - 5.6 W
6-Nov at Indiana 18-13 W 22.7 - 28.6 L
13-Nov at Northwestern 17-21 L 20.5 - 30.1 L
20-Nov Ohio State 17-20 L 37.6 - 22.3 W
27-Nov at Minnesota 24-27 L 14.0 - 30.3 L
28-Dec vs Missouri 27-24 W 41.0 - 28.6 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.2 48 17.0 7
Adj. Points Per Game 31.3 31 20.8 16

Despite two losses, through the first two months of the season Iowa had played like one of the best teams in the country. Entering November, they ranked third overall in S&P+ thanks to the fact that a) they played well in both losses, and b) they played really, really well in most of their wins. Then November happened.

September: Iowa 34.0 Adj. PPG, Opponents 15.1 (+18.9)
October: Iowa 33.8, Opponents 18.9 (+14.9)
November: Opponents 27.8, Iowa 23.7 (-4.1)

This was the second consecutive season in which Iowa suffered a losing record in November, but at least in 2009, only the offense fell apart (November 2009: Iowa 19.9 Adj. PPG, Opponents 12.9). In 2010, an incredibly efficient offense fell pretty far below average, and a defense with a ton of pro talent underachieved as well. They rebounded with a nice offensive performance in the Insight Bowl versus Missouri, but November was the adversary.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 34 35 32
RUSHING 54 51 60 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 23 33 23 59
Standard Downs 24 30 21 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 96 87 94 83
Redzone 40 50 41
Q1 Rk 30 1st Down Rk 24
Q2 Rk 26 2nd Down Rk 61
Q3 Rk 53 3rd Down Rk 33
Q4 Rk 81

If you watched the Insight Bowl, you know Marcus Coker's name (622 yards, 5.5 per carry, -1.3 Adj. POE, 3 TD). The then-freshman rushed for 219 yards against a solid Missouri defense, and with help from a Micah Hyde pick six, he led the Hawkeyes to a nice rebound victory. You cannot escape Coker's name in an Iowa preview, and with good reason, but here's the thing: Iowa throws so much more than you think they do. At least, they did last year, when they had one of the nation's most trustworthy quarterbacks in Ricky Stanzi (3,004 yards, 8.7 per pass, 64% compilation, 25 TD, 6 INT). This was by no means an aggressive, air-it-out attack, but Iowa was unafraid to throw the ball.

How will that change with James Vandenberg in charge? The junior from Keokuk started two games for an injured Stanzi in 2009 and has, to date, compiled an uninspiring passing line: 47-for-95 (49%), 515 yards (5.4 per pass), 3 TD, 5 INT. However, since most of his attempts came as a redshirt freshman, that is probably not a true indicator of his ability. He will have some interesting weapons around him; Marvin McNutt (861 yards, 16.2 per catch, 66% catch rate, 8 TD) has been one of the steadiest, more underrated receivers in the country through the years; without Derrell Johnson-Koulianos in uniform, McNutt is now the clear No. 1 option.

McNutt can handle the load despite missing spring practices with a damaged shoulder, but a clear No. 2 would help. Former star recruit Keenan Davis (131 yards, 11.9 per catch, 55% catch rate) has caught just 15 passes in his first two seasons on the depth chart; he has a world of opportunity as he approaches his junior season. Tight end Brad Herman (154 yards, 17.1 per catch, 60% catch rate) has not been severely tested, but he made the most of his opportunities last season. After these three options, however, there is almost no experience whatsoever on the depth chart. Johnson-Koulianos, McNutt, then-senior tight end Allen Reisner, and then-starting running back Adam Robinson combined for 74% of all targets in 2010; that did not leave many opportunities for everybody else. Coker may have been good in the bowl, but the running game overall was only average in 2010; they will probably need the pass to succeed, and outside of McNutt, there are almost nothing but unknowns.

Other tidbits:

  • The Iowa offensive line was not nearly as good in 2010 as we've come to expect. They must replace, basically, one and a half starters in second-team all-conference guard Julian Vandervelde and part-time starting guard Josh Koepel. Vandervelde was outstanding in a "prototypical Iowa lineman" kind of way, but with five returning players have starting experience (combined career starts: 59), including "prototype" left tackle Riley Rieff, there should at least be no regression. And if a newcomer like junior college transfer Dan Helar or one of a pair of four-star freshmen -- Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh -- hits the ground running, then the unit might even improve.
  • Do you enjoy continuity? So does Kirk Ferentz. The man who stands to become the Dean of Big Ten Coaches if Joe Paterno ever retires (just kidding; JoePa is never retiring) is still working with his two original coordinators: Ken O'Keefe on offense, Norm Parker on defense. Parker gets a lot of credit, both for engineering some outstanding defenses and for still coming to work every day, but O'Keefe has done a great job through the years of customizing an offense to fit the talent at hand, be it Brad Banks or Shonn Greene or Ricky Stanzi. If Coker really is ready to become the Real Deal, he will get all the carries he could possibly want.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 16 31 7
RUSHING 18 21 14 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 18 38 7 32
Standard Downs 34 44 25 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 4 12 4 72
Redzone 32 56 24
Q1 Rk 26 1st Down Rk 24
Q2 Rk 12 2nd Down Rk 22
Q3 Rk 17 3rd Down Rk 14
Q4 Rk 47

Norm Parker believes in what he believes in. His faith in the 4-3 Cover 2 borders on bold. He isn't going to shift his personnel around much whether he's going against a spread or he's going against Wisconsin. His D is going to allow underneath passes and bend quite a bit, but Parker trusts his players to eventually make a play, and that trust typically pays off. Despite what was frankly an underachieving defensive line last year, the Hawkeyes prevented big plays beautifully and attacked on passing downs. It wasn't the most brutal, clinical defense of Parker's tenure in Iowa City, but it still ranked in the S&P+ Top 20, mostly because of effective work on passing downs.

In 2011, things change. At least, the personnel does. We know what Parker is going to run, and we know it's probably going to be pretty good, but new faces will play key roles. Gone are three members of the defensive line to the pros: ends Adrian Clayborn (35.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) and Christian Ballard (33.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and Karl Klug (43.0 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks). Gone are two outstanding safeties: Tyler Sash (59.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 PBU) and Brett Greenwood (45.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 PBU). Gone are three solid tackling-machine linebackers: Jeremiha Hunter (59.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU), Troy Johnson (40.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Jeff Tarpinian (34.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks in eight games). There are certainly still some proven players milling about, but that is a lot to lose without expecting some sort of dropoff.

Parker doesn't like to blitz more than he has to -- in recent years he was able to trust Clayborn and company to raise a ruckus and get to the quarterback while sending only four guys. Unless Broderick Binns (26.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) or someone new to the rotation -- LeBron Daniel (4.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)? Dominic Alvis (2.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks)? A redshirt freshman like Mike Hardy or Louis Trinca-Pasat? -- is ready to step up, he could be forced to blitz more in 2011. Tackle Mike Daniels (28.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks) is a keeper, and rising redshirt freshman tackle Carl Davis might be ready for a star turn, but the pass rush is, to say the least, uncertain, especially considering Iowa didn't get to the quarterback particularly frequently with Clayborn and company in 2010.

Other tidbits:

  • Free safety Micah Hyde (70.0 tackles, 4 INT, 1 FF, 7 PBU) and cornerback Shaun Prater (59.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT, 6 PBU) form one-half of a strong secondary, but who fills the other two roles still seems uncertain. At corner, it could be Greg Castillo (8.0 tackles, 2 PBU), B.J. Lowery (4.5 tackles as a freshman) or Jordan Bernstine (3.0 tackles). At safety, Tanner Miller (5.0 tackles as a freshman), Jack Swanson (3.5 tackles), Tom Donatell (3.5 tackles) or Collin Sleeper.
  • Linebacker is not any more defined. James Morris (46.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU as a freshman) and Tyler Nielsen (32.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) could be very good soon, but yet another newbie will man at least one starting role here, someone like Shane DiBona (9.5 tackles as a redshirt freshman), Christian Kirksey (3.0 tackles as a freshman) or Anthony Hitchens (5.0 tackles as a freshman). In all units, Iowa played a ton of freshmen in miniscule roles last year -- we'll see if that pays off.

Iowa's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Coulda Woulda Shoulda," by Panacea? Coulda beaten Arizona, woulda beaten Wisconsin, and shoulda kept up their September/October pace in November.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 20
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 42
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +13 / +12.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 9 (5, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -6.3

Iowa is likely to take a step backwards in 2011, and even if they don't live up to F.O. projections, they still couldn't be timing an iffy season any better. The schedule at hand probably precludes too far a fall. But with so few returning starters, less-than-spectacular recruits replacing proven stars, and a pretty steep YPP margin, there are decent odds that Iowa will look back on 2011 as a transition year of sorts.

The 2011 season will shine a light on the future of the Iowa program. With sophomores like Marcus Coker and James Morris already having made names for themselves, and with so many other sophomores who played at least minor roles in 2010, the future will be on display. A division title run would make the Hawkeyes potentially heavy division favorites in coming years, but really, simple progress is the key. Avoid a crippling backslide, make a decent bowl (not hard to do with the Big Ten's bowl affiliations) and build for 2012.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.