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Iowa Football: 2018 Hawkeyes Preview and Prediction

Nate Stanley, Iowa Football

Nate Stanley, Iowa Football

Following the departure of the heart and soul of its defense and 1,100-yard rusher, Iowa will look and play differently this fall. Kirk Ferentz' offense is in good hands at the quarterback position but the Hawkeyes' typically reliable running game and rock-solid offensive line are unknowns entering the season. The defense not only must replace all three starting linebackers but also the nation's interceptions leader. Iowa will miss most of the top team from the Big Ten East in crossover play, which should help the Hawkeyes' attempts to keep pace with division favorite Wisconsin.

Previewing Iowa Football's Offense for 2018

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In leading Iowa to an 8-5 record, junior quarterback Nate Stanley performed much like his up-and-down team did last season. He was spectacular at times, including during victories over Iowa State and Ohio State when he threw five touchdowns in both games, but also bad at times, including in the 38-14 loss to Wisconsin when he completed 8-of-24 passes for just 41 yards. But the season ended on a high note as Iowa crushed Nebraska 56-14 in the regular-season finale in Lincoln before defeating Boston College 27-20 in the Pinstripe Bowl.  It was Iowa's first bowl win since 2010.

Stanley has the luxury of throwing to one of the nation's top tight ends in junior Noah Fant, who scored 11 TDs last season (a record for an Iowa tight end) on just 30 catches. The 6'5", 241-pound Fant is a matchup nightmare with his speed and size, especially in the red zone.

Stanley won't have the luxury of handing off to star running back Akrum Wadley, who was a senior last season. Sophomores Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin will be expected to carry the load this season after rushing for 193 and 184 yards, respectively, as reserves last season.

The offensive line was hit hard by graduation and by the loss of center James Daniels, who skipped his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. But three players return with starting experience, including both tackles.

Senior Nick Easley also returns after leading the team with 51 catches last season. Easley works well in the slot and is more of a possession receiver, while sophomores Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith will be counted on to stretch defenses.

Previewing Iowa Football's Defense for 2018

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has the daunting task of replacing two unanimous first-team All-America selections in linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson. Jewell used up his eligibility as a senior last season, while Jackson decided to skip his senior season to enter the draft after rising from obscurity to stardom.

All three of Iowa's starting linebackers have to be replaced, and none of the replacements has much experience beyond playing on special teams.

The situation in the secondary isn't as worrisome. Junior safety Amani Hooker, who showed hints of stardom last season, is the leader of the back end.

The strength will be at defensive end, where the top four players return from last season, including sophomore A.J. Epenesa, a former five-star recruit.

Previewing Iowa Football's Specialists for 2018

Miguel Recinos returns after a junior season in which he made 11-of-13 field goal attempts. Recinos was so impressive that he kept Keith Duncan (hero of the 2016 Michigan win) on the bench. The situation at punter isn't nearly as stable with Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde both trying to establish themselves as a reliable option. Rastetter only averaged 37.8 yards on 55 punts last season and was listed behind Gersonde during spring practice.

Final Analysis

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

There is a lot to like but also a lot to question about this Iowa team. Stanley and Fant both have star potential, the defensive ends might be the best in the Big Ten as a group and the kicking game is solid. On the other hand, the top two running backs have to be replaced, along with all three starting linebackers and an All-America cornerback.

One of Iowa's biggest strengths might be its schedule, which doesn't include games against Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State - three of the Big 4 from the Big Ten East.

National Ranking: 35

Big Ten West Prediction: 2