The 2006 season was a disappointing one for the Iowa Hawkeyes. They started out the season ranked #16. Some people ranked them as high as #2 in their preseason polls. With a soft out of conference schedule and a home schedule that featured Ohio State and Wisconsin and no Penn State on the schedule it looked like the Hawkeyes were poised for a run at the Big Ten title and a BCS bowl. After a 4-0 start they climbed as high as #13 in the AP poll, but then the wheels came off. Injuries hit Drew Tate and the offensive line and it was a different team. A high profile home game against #1 Ohio State in week five ended in a 38-17 disaster. From then on Iowa would only win one conference game the rest of the season against Purdue while losing games to traditional conference doormats like Northwestern and Indiana.
They did manage to win six games and qualify for Alamo Bowl where they faced off against Texas. Iowa jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and held a 21-20 lead late in the third quarter, but they couldn't hold on and eventually lost the game 26-24.
Kirk Ferentz will be coaching in his ninth year at Iowa where he has a record of 55-43. Iowa has won the last five consecutive games against Penn State and the last four meetings in Happy Valley. Last time the two teams met Iowa won by a score of 6-4 in what is known as the worst game every played in Beaver Stadium.
With weapons like Drew Tate and Albert Young you would think a team like Iowa would have had a pretty good offense last year. You would be correct. They were ranked #27 in the country averaging 383 yards per game with 143 on the ground and 240 through the air. But the Hawkeyes had trouble scoring points only averaging 23.8 points per game, their worst total since 2000. So what gives? The Hawkeyes ranked #111 in the NCAA with a -11 turnover margin and the wide receivers had a tendency to drop passes at inopportune times.
For the first time since 2003 somebody other than Drew Tate will be the leader at quarterback. Sophomore Jake Christensen figures to be the leading candidate. He played in five games last year starting one. His stat line went 23-of-35 for 285 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT. He's not as mobile as Tate, and with several new offensive linemen breaking in this year that could be a liability. Redshirt freshman Arvell Nelson is a more mobile quarterback and had a fantastic spring. If the offensive line falters Ferentz may insert Nelson to see what he can do.
Albert Young had a sensational season as a sophomore in 2005 rushing for 1334 yards. Injuries to the offensive line and an ineffective passing game allowed the defense to stack the box with eight defenders and Young struggled in 2006. Young also missed two games due to injury and only rushed for 779 yards on the year. Damian Sims carried a considerable amount of the load getting 664 yards himself. Overall it was a disappointing running game for Iowa in 2006. This year both guys return for their senior year, so provided they stay healthy the running back situation should be a strength for Iowa.
The passing game really struggled at times for Iowa in 2006. They had to replace their top two receivers from 2005. The new receivers had trouble getting open and they dropped some passes when they did. This year Andy Brodell and Dominique Douglas both return. They were #1 and #2 on the team in receiving yards with 724 and 654 respectively. Brodell looks like the deep threat averaging over 18 yards per catch while Douglas was more of a possession receiver averaging 13.3 yards per catch. Watch for a few freshmen to make an impact too. Ferentz recruited a few burners a few years ago including James Cleveland.
A huge loss will be tight end Scott Chandler who was awarded Second Team Big Ten Honors last year. Brandon Meyers and Tony Moeaki should be ok, but there will most likely be a drop off from Chandler.
Kirk Ferentz used to be an offensive line coach in the NFL, so Iowa has always had really strong offensive lines. This year losses are heavy as they have to replace three guys from last year including All Big Ten offensive tackle Marshal Yanda. An interesting note: Jake Christensen is a left handed quarterback, so right tackle is the critical position to protect his back side. It's also one of the positions the Hawkeyes have to fill. The good news is that due to the injuries last year a lot of the underclassmen got significant playing time. If they can stay healthy I expect Iowa will have a good offensive line like they usually do.
If I had to sum up the Iowa Hawkeye defense from last year it would be "meh". At times they showed flashes of brilliance, like the dramatic goal line stand to preserve a double overtime win at Syracuse. Other times they looked like they were playing with ten guys on the field like when they gave up 443 yards to Northwestern, the worst offense in the league.
All four starters return on a defensive line that allowed 3.6 yards per carry last year. Iwebema and Mattison make a fantastic set of bookends on the line. Mattison recorded 6.5 sacks last year while Iwebema had three sacks after missing five games due to injury. King and Kroul make a good set of defensive ends though they are pretty small with each of them weighing under 275 lbs. The starting four are pretty good, but there doesn't appear to be much depth behind them. Freshman Adrian Clayborn is getting good reviews and will probably see considerable playing time. They lost one DT to transfer and another was moved to the offensive line. Even though the Hawkeyes gave up an average of 163 yards per game on the ground in their last eight games of 2006, everyone seems to think this group will be pretty good after they had a good spring.
At linebacker the Hawkeyes will have to replace Edmond Miles who had 100 tackles last year. Mike Klinkenborg returns at OLB. He recorded 129 tackles and won Second Team All Big Ten honors. Mike Humpal will most likely move to the middle to replace Miles. The outside linebacker spot vacated by Humpal will be a competition between sophomore A.J. Edds and redshirt freshman Jeremiha Hunter. Edds probably has the advantage since he saw some playing time last year. Overall this should be a pretty good group of linebackers giving Iowa a solid front seven on defense.
Last year Iowa had to replace both cornerbacks. This year Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey both return and Iowa has to replace both safeties. Bradley Fletcher will move to strong safety from cornerback where he started four games last year filling in for an injured Shada. Marcus Wilson will start at free safety where he started a game last year as a redshirt freshman. This group could be a strength or a liability for Iowa. They had some problems last year, but that's because the front seven had trouble pressuring the quarterback. If the front seven can harass opposing quarterbacks this group of defensive backs could have a very good season.
Last year the Iowa special teams were uncharacteristically average. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the conference or worse in net punting (#5), punt returns (#6), and kickoff returns (#10). This year they have to break in a new punter and place kicker. Ryan Donahue will most likely be the new punter and supposedly he's pretty good. I can't really point to a reason why they should improve, but based on Ferentz's track record I would be surprised if their special teams didn't improve this year.
The Hawkeyes have a ridiculously easy home schedule this year that features Syracuse, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Western Michigan. The toughest road games are Wisconsin and Penn State which both occur in the first half of the season. If Iowa is fortunate enough to win the conference championship this year it will come with a giant asterisk since the Hawkeyes miss out on playing both Michigan and Ohio State. However if you believe in voodoo dolls and other superstition this could be a curse for Iowa. In recent history teams that miss out on playing Ohio State and Michigan usually fail to live up to preseason expectations.
Call it a good year if...
The offensive line comes together quickly. Jake Christensen looks like the second coming of Drew Tate (junior year version). Albert Young manages to stay healthy and returns to his 2005 form. The wide receivers get open and catch the ball. The defensive front seven stay healthy. The new safeties step in and don't miss a beat. If, and this is a big IF, Iowa can manage to pull out wins at Wisconsin and Penn State, they could cruise on to an undefeated season.
Put Ferentz on the hotseat if...
The offensive line never becomes a cohesive unit. Christensen struggles forcing Ferentz to play freshman Arvell Nelson. Albert Young struggles like he did in 2006. The wide receivers drop balls like they did last year. The defensive front seven suffer injuries forcing them to dip into the backups. The new safeties miss tackles and blow coverages. Early season losses to Wisconsin and Penn State lead to an upset or two down the road. Worst case scenario I think Iowa could finish 8-4 with a trip to the Outback Bowl.
Iowa should jump out to a 3-0 start. The week four game at Wisconsin and week six at Penn State look like losses. Brett Bielema served three years on the Iowa staff before coming to Wisconsin so you have to think that gives him an edge. Iowa fans may point out that Iowa has won four straight at Happy Valley, but three of those games came during Penn State's horrible 2000-2004 stretch. This is a different Penn State team now. After Penn State I would be surprised if this team lost another game. I think Iowa will finish 10-2. This may be good enough to get them a bid to the Capital One Bowl if the Big Ten can get two teams in the BCS. But if Iowa finds themselves in any kind of tie situation with another Big Ten team they are going to lose out and go to the lesser bowl due to the fact their schedule doesn't have Ohio State or Michigan and their toughest out of conference game is Syracuse at home.