Preseason Top 25: No. 19 Iowa faces tough road while replacing its star quarterback


Iowa had five players taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, the most since 2012. So the Hawkeyes have plenty to replace. But one thing never changes: the consistency of coach Kirk Ferentz.

Entering his 22nd year, Ferentz is the longest tenured head coach at the FBS level. It’s an era that remains highlighted by the early plateau of Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2004. More recently, the program has become associated with strong finishes.

Iowa is coming off a third straight bowl victory, which capped its first 10-win season since 2015. Now the question is if the Hawkeyes can reload quickly enough to do it again. The last time the program won 10 or more games in consecutive seasons was 2003 and 2004.

If the Hawkeyes are going to sustain last season’s success, they must replace one of the most productive quarterbacks in school history and several starters from an elite defense. It’s possible, but it won’t be easy, either, as trips to Ohio State and Penn State loom in back-to-back weeks in mid-October.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 18 in the CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: Won Holiday Bowl 49-24 vs. USC

Iowa’s three losses came by a combined 14 points against ranked conference foes. That misfortune in close games surely left some Hawkeyes fans wondering what could have been with a stacked defense and veteran quarterback. But Iowa took out that frustration with a four-game winning streak to close the season, including a win over Minnesota and an impressive shellacking of USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Key departures

QB Nate Stanley: Stanley leaves Iowa after going 27-12 in 39 straight starts. He’s No. 2 on the school’s all-time passing touchdowns list with 68 and second in career passing yards.

OL Tristan Wirfs: The Big Ten Offensive Lineman of The Year went No. 13 overall in the NFL Draft to the Buccaneers after his junior season. He leaves a big hole to fill at tackle.

DB Michael Ojemudia: The fifth-year senior departs as a third-round NFL draft pick after posting a career-best 52 tackles in 2019 and tying his career-best with three interceptions. He was a member of the team’s leadership group and a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection.

DL A.J. Epenesa: The defensive MVP from Iowa’s Holiday Bowl victory went to the Bills in the second round of the NFL Draft after racking up 11.5 sacks as a junior. He did his best work late with a career-high 14 tackles against Nebraska in the regular-season finale before posting 2.5 sacks and forcing a fumble in the bowl game.

Who’s back?

OL Alaric Jackson: Jackson could have joined Wirfs as an early entrant into the NFL Draft. But after an early-season injury disrupted his junior campaign, he decided to return. Jackson will be the anchor of the Iowa offensive line at one of the tackle slots and is already receiving first-round buzz for the 2021 NFL Draft.

RB Tyler Goodson: A rare southern prospect to choose the Hawkeyes, Goodson emerged from a pack of running backs to shine last season. The Georgia native became the first true freshman to ever lead Iowa in rushing, and he also caught 24 passes.

WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette: The versatile receiver capped his junior campaign with receiving, rushing and kickoff return touchdowns in Iowa’s bowl victory over USC. Now he’s back for a final season after proving to be the team’s best big-play threat last season.

LB Djimon Colbert: The redshirt junior linebacker returns to help anchor a defense losing most of its top playmakers. Colbert finished with 61 tackles last season and should increase his productivity in his third year as a starter.

Fresh faces

OL Coy Cronk: After starting four games at left tackle in what was supposed to be his final season of college football at Indiana, Cronk suffered a season-ending injury and is headed to Iowa as a graduate transfer. The left tackle was on the Outland Trophy Watch List last season. He should help lessen the sting of Wirf’s departure.

P Tory Taylor: Yes, that “P” stands for punter. The Australian freshman is a key addition because, if he’s good, Iowa figures have one of the best special teams units in the country. Senior kicker Keith Duncan is back after hitting 29-of-34 field goals last season. Smith-Marsette and Nico Ragaini are also back after earning All-Conference honors from Phil Steele for their contributions in the return game.

QB Deuce Hogan: The odds of a true freshman starting at quarterback for a program with Iowa’s stability seem slim. But Hogan could factor into the race, and the dual-threat signal-caller has already become a vocal advocate for the program on social media.

Critical games

Week 2 vs. Iowa State — Sept. 12: The Cy-Hawk rivalry is one of the best in college football, and it’s been made even better by the Cyclones’ emergence under coach Matt Campbell. But entering his fifth year, Campbell still hasn’t beaten Iowa. The Hawkeyes have won five straight and have held Iowa State to single-digits in three of the last four. Doing that again would announce to the nation that this Iowa team is legit.

Week 3 vs. Minnesota — Sept. 18: Iowa spoiled Minnesota’s 9-0 start with a 23-19 victory last November. This time, they meet in a Friday night showdown between two teams with Big Ten West title aspirations early on. The Golden Gophers have the benefit of playing FCS Tennessee Tech leading into a game that will be played on short rest. The Hawkeyes will be coming off their rivalry showdown with Iowa State.

Week 5 vs. Michigan State — Oct. 3: This game is more about what’s coming next than it is about playing a home game against a Michigan State team that is regrouping under first-year coach Mel Tucker. The Hawkeyes must take care of business against the Spartans before going on the road to Ohio State and Penn State in the following two weeks. If Iowa slips up here, it can forget about competing for the division crown.

Week 13 vs. Wisconsin — Nov. 28: Iowa has won its regular-finale in five straight seasons as closing strong has become a staple of the program under Ferentz. That streak consists of five wins over Nebraska. This season, the Badgers replace the Cornhuskers in the final slot for a game that could have division title implications. Even if the Hawkeyes are already out of the title picture, they can end with a bang once again and potentially be a spoiler for the Badgers.

2020 outlook

The biggest question for Iowa in 2020 is if whoever takes over at quarterback can help the offense take a step forward while a defense that was one of the best in the country last season figures things out with six new starters. 

The frontrunner for the QB job appears to be Spencer Petras, a redshirt sophomore who beat out Peyton Mansell for the backup job last season and completed 6-of-10 passes. Mansell transferred out, leaving redshirt freshman Alex Padilla as the only other scholarship quarterback from last year’s roster. Padilla and Mansell were both considered three-star pro-style quarterbacks prospects by 247Sports. The wild card in the race is freshman Deuce Hogan, a three-star, dual-threat prospect from Texas.

Recent history suggests the starter out of fall camp is likely to keep the job. In the past five seasons, a backup quarterback has attempted no more than 10 passes for Iowa, and that was Petras last season. But the runway to finding comfort will be short for the new quarterback as Iowa State and Minnesota are waiting in the first few weeks. The good news is that the Hawkeyes return plenty of talent at the skill positions and have a pair of potential All-Conference tackles in Alaric Jackson and Coy Cronk.

If Petras — or whoever wins the quarterback job — proves adequate early, it will take the pressure off a defense that carried a huge load last season. Iowa allowed just 14 points per game, which was fifth-best in the country, and it never allowed more than 24 points. The defense will still be good, but it won’t be as good as it was. If the Hawkeyes are going to string together consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in since Ferentz was in his 40s, it’s on the offense to improve.





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