Kirk Ferentz has been the man in Iowa City for nearly two decades, but as of recently it seems Iowa Hawkeye fans have begun to grow a little restless with their team’s average performances year in and year out.
However, in this article we’ll try and step away from all the negativity surrounding this Hawkeye team and give you some reasons for optimism.
“You’ll never find a rainbow if you’re looking down” — Charles Chaplin
1. Another Favorable Schedule
For yet another season the Hawkeyes have, what looks on paper, a very favorable schedule, with the toughest games coming against Wisconsin on the road, Minnesota at home, and Nebraska on the road. Also, for a second straight year the Hawkeyes are able to avoid playing the two powerhouses of the Big Ten conference — Ohio State and Michigan State — which by itself is a cause for optimism.
The Hawkeyes open up their college football season against a surprise FCS team from 2014, the Illinois State Redbirds. In 2014 the Redbirds were able to win 13 games en route to playing for the FCS national championship. Although they came up short against a historically dominant North Dakota State team, the Redbirds were able to display their talent while being led by former Indiana quarterback Tre Roberson. At the end of the day I feel the Hawkeyes will be able to come away with a victory, but I do think the Redbirds will surprise many and put up a good fight.
Next, the Hawkeyes begin a stretch of three “winnable” games against Iowa State on the road, Pittsburgh at home, and North Texas at home. Although Pittsburgh is easily the best of these three opponents, nonetheless each game appears to be very much in reach for the Hawkeyes.
The “toughest” game on paper for the Hawkeyes in 2015 is undoubtedly on the road against Wisconsin, as it will be the Hawkeye’s Big Ten opener and will take place in front of a raucous Camp Randall Stadium crowd of up to 80,000 strong. Not the ideal setting to break in a new quarterback or an inexperienced offense in general. To come away with the victory, the Hawkeyes will have to play lights out, meaning no turnovers, no blown coverages, and they’ll have to find a way to slow down Wisconsin’s dangerous rushing attack. All three are possible, but as a combination highly unlikely, so let’s chalk this game up as a loss for the sake of realism.
After the Big Ten opener, things start looking a lot easier for the Hawkeyes. In a span of six games they’ll face off against Illinois at home, Northwestern on the road, Maryland at home, Indiana on the road, Minnesota at home, and Purdue at home. The outlier here is obviously the Golden Gophers, as they beat the Hawkeyes rather handily last season by a final score of 51-14. However, the other five games are certainly winnable if the Hawkeyes are able to play up to their abilities. With that said, Maryland and Illinois will be no pushovers, as they have steadily improved as of late.
Coming out of this six-game stretch I think it’s reasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to take at least three if not four of these contests, which would not only put them in a bowl game for the 13th time in the last 15 seasons, but also would give them an outside shot at playing in the Big Ten Championship Game as the champions of the West Division.
The Hawkeyes will wrap up their season on the road against Nebraska in what has been an evenly fought battle over the past four seasons. However, this time around (barring key injuries) it looks like the Huskers will be the heavy favorites entering the game, and rightfully so.
A 10-win season seems a bit unrealistic despite the favorable schedule — the opponent isn’t everything. However, an eight-win season seems fairly reasonable for this team. That’d be a refreshing change from going 7-5 each year.
2. C.J. Beathard is an Upgrade at Quarterback
The Hawkeyes’ offense last season was both lethargic and extremely inconsistent. Whether that was due to the fact that the “Checkdown King” Jake Rudock was lining up under center or whether a true fullback was being used as the starting tailback, the point is that the Hawkeyes lacked an ability to generate dynamic, game-changing plays, which ended up hurting them in more than a few games.
This season however, things have changed. Rudock transferred to Michigan, thus relinquishing the starting quarterback gig to junior C.J. Beathard. In Beathard’s limited appearances last season he showed the coaching staff that he had a lot more to offer the offense compared to Rudock. It’s just a shame they couldn’t realize that before he decided to transfer and finish his collegiate career at another school.
With Beathard under center, the Hawkeyes’ offense immediately gains three aspects that it didn’t have last season. The first is a willingness to take chances downfield. As I mentioned earlier the 2014 Hawkeyes failed to generate enough key, big plays, which ended up being the deciding factor in a lot of close games. In Beathard’s limited action he showed me that he wasn’t afraid to take his fair amount of shots downfield, something Rudock rarely took part in. In fairness, I just don’t think Rudock had the arm strength to put the ball downfield with consistency.
That leads to the next aspect that Beathard should bring to Iowa’s offense. In Beathard the Hawkeyes now have a quarterback who is capable of making every throw asked of him. When Rudock held the starting job watching him try to throw 20 or more yards downfield would be absolutely brutal at times. Simply put, he was very limited as a passer.
The last aspect of Beathard’s game that will have a positive effect on the Hawkeyes’ offense is his ability to use his legs to not only extend plays, but also pick up yards. A legitimate dual-threat quarterback is something the Hawkeye’s offense hasn't featured since Brad Banks was the starter in Iowa City back in 2002. And with the way the Hawkeyes’ two new offensive tackles have looked up front so far, Beathard may need to his legs quite a bit.
This isn’t to declare that Beathard is the be-all, end-all quarterback. In fact I think he’s barely a top-10 signal-caller in the Big Ten. Nevertheless, he still represents a major upgrade at the position.
3. Fresh, Dynamic Depth at Running Back
As I mentioned earlier, the last few seasons Iowa has had a true fullback lining up as its starting running back. Even though Mark Weisman was a blessing for the Hawkeyes during his tenure when it came to short-yardage situations, managing a big workload, and simply adding much-needed depth to the backfield; he just wasn’t an ideal fit for what offensive coordinator Greg Davis wanted to do. And in the end, Weisman’s limitations handcuffed the offense as a whole.
Entering 2015 Iowa has a trio of running backs — junior LeShun Daniels, senior Jordan Canzeri and sophomore Akrum Wadley — that possess much more athleticism and playmaking ability than Weisman ever did. Of the three, Canzeri looks to be the most promising in my opinion due to the fact that he’s much more explosive than Daniels and is a more reliable ball carrier than Wadley. In addition we’ve seen what Canzeri can do in game action against multiple teams, while the same can’t be said about Daniels or Wadley.
In the end, whoever the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff ends up going with as the primary ball carrier he definitely will represent a different type of running back than what the offense has recently relied on. And in this instance, this change may end up being a very, very good thing.
— Written by Rob Donaldson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An NFL Draft analyst and writer for drafbreakdown.com, Donaldson also recently founded his own site, OnTheClockFB.com, and also pays careful attention to his beloved Iowa Hawkeyes and Pittsburgh Steelers. Follow him on Twitter @RobDonaldsonOTC.