Heading into the 2017 college football season, there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Iowa Hawkeyes. The program had just seen four of its most productive players in recent memory get drafted onto NFL teams. Some wondered if a program like Iowa could withstand the exodus of that many impact players.
The Hawkeyes responded, and despite a roller-coaster season, finished the campaign with eight wins — including a tough Pinstripe Bowl victory over Boston College.
Heading into the 2018 season, Iowa will once again deal with the loss of some elite players. Linebacker Josey Jewell, cornerback Josh Jackson and running back Akrum Wadley were all among the best players in the country at their respective positions throughout their careers in Iowa City. The absence of those players — both on the field and in the locker room — will undoubtedly hurt, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Iowa football heading into the new season. Here are five of them.
1. Iowa has an identity
Continuity of coaching has led to continuity in system. Iowa football is very much a plug-and-play program — especially on offense. The offensive line has been the lifeblood of Hawkeye football throughout head coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. That will be the case once again in 2018, as the Hawkeyes will return four players up front with significant experience and playing time under their belts. When all else goes wrong, Iowa will still be able to pound the ball behind what should once again be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. That alone will always be enough to keep the Hawkeyes in most games and win more than they lose.
2. Nate Stanley
Continuity at the quarterback position is paramount at any level of football. Iowa has it in the form of Stanley. He won the job outright last spring and developed into one of the most efficient passers in the Big Ten. The sophomore signal-caller had plenty of hiccups, but also showed flashes of brilliance and signs of greatness to come throughout the 2017 season. Look for him to emerge as a much more vocal leader in 2018. You'll also hear his name kicked around in NFL draft conversations.
3. Experienced receivers
Part of Stanley's growth will be the arsenal of experienced pass catchers he'll have at his disposal. Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the best athlete Iowa has at the wide receiver position. He stepped up in some big moments as a freshman and proved he's ready for a full-time starting role. Nick Easley exploded onto the scene after arriving in Iowa City as a relative unknown transfer from Iowa Western Community College. He demonstrated dependable hands and a knack for finding the opening in coverage en route to becoming Iowa's leading receiver in 2017. At tight end, the Hawkeyes might have the best duo at the position in the country. T.J. Hockenson is a complete tight end who displayed good hands and excelled as a blocker. Noah Fant is the prototypical modern tight end. His size and speed make him a matchup nightmare, as he emerged as one of the nation's premier red zone threats this past season.
4. A defensive line full of playmakers
A.J. Epenesa played like an upperclassman as a freshman, earning his way onto the Big Ten's All-Freshman team. As the season progressed, he developed into one of the better defensive ends in the conference. Joining him on the defensive line will be Anthony Nelson (above, right), who logged 7.5 sacks in 2017 and proved to be Iowa's past pass rusher. Rotating between them on the interior of the defensive line will be Matt Nelson, Brady Reiff and Cedric Lattimore — all of whom saw significant snaps and fit exactly what Iowa wants to do defensively. The wild card of the unit will be Iowa Western transfer Daviyon Nixon, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound monster who also received an offer from Alabama last fall. He has no ceiling in terms of potential, and his presence could be the deciding factor that lands Iowa at the top of the Big Ten West standings at the end of the 2018 campaign.
Who you play, where you play and when you play all factor in to how a team performs year in, year out. The 2018 slate shapes up nicely for the Hawkeyes. They dodge Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State from the Big Ten East. They'll make a trip to Penn State to face a Nittany Lion club that will have plenty of question marks. On paper, that will be Iowa's most difficult task. The Hawkeyes will get Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern at home, as well as in-state rival Iowa State. If you had to put odds on each game right now, Iowa would likely be favored in 10 of the 12 matchups.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. He has covered the Big Ten Conference extensively throughout his career. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.