In a Big Ten West Division that has the look of being up for grabs for a handful of teams in 2019, the Iowa Hawkeyes may have some of the best pieces in place to make a run to the Big Ten Championship Game for a second time in program history.
Iowa couldn’t find a way across the finish line in the division last season with a tough three-game losing streak late and this year's crossover Big Ten schedule that includes back-to-back games at Michigan and at home against Penn State does the Hawkeyes no favors. But if they can find a way to weather that storm, can they make up for it with a handful of key division games on the road against Northwestern, Nebraska, and Wisconsin?
Here are a few reasons why Iowa fans should be optimistic about what the Hawkeyes could potentially do in 2019.
1. The return of Nate Stanley
Getting Stanley back at quarterback will provide the Hawkeyes with some stability on offense. This is especially key when Iowa is losing its top three receivers, including two tight ends leaving early for the NFL. Stanley could still improve his completion percentage (59.3 in 2018) a bit with another year to work on his skills. There may be a few games where Stanley and his receivers show they still need to get in sync, but Iowa will have a steady hand guiding the offense with Stanley back in Iowa City.
2. Iowa’s running duo will lead the charge
It seems Iowa will always be fueled by what it does with its running game. The 2019 season should be no exception with a blossoming running back duo of Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young. The two sophomores split the carries in 2018 with Sargent rushing for 746 yards and nine touchdowns and Young going for 637 yards and five scores. And with Iowa’s offensive line looking to return some good experience next fall, the Hawkeyes' running game should once again be a consistent strength and focus in 2019.
3. The rise of A.J. Epenesa
Epenesa was the player to watch in the Iowa defense in 2018. As a sophomore, he saw his role in the defense continue to grow as he showed just what kind of impact he could have at the line of scrimmage. Epenesa led the Hawkeyes with 16.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks. Opposing offensive lines will have to address the havoc Epenesa brings to the table this fall, which could open up opportunities for teammates, but slowing down the stud defensive lineman will be quite a tall order for even the best offensive linemen Epenesa will face this upcoming season. Another year like 2018 and Epenesa could be one of the top defensive linemen considering an early jump to the NFL a year from now.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.