Iowa Football

Right now, no reason Iowa Hawkeyes shouldn't be Big Ten contenders

Iowa is in the Top 25s, but may be undervalued

The Iowa end zone on the field before the 2015 Big Ten football championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on 12.5.15. (The Gazette)
The Iowa end zone on the field before the 2015 Big Ten football championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. on 12.5.15. (The Gazette)

Right now, there is a muffled buzz for Iowa Hawkeyes football.

On one hand, the Hawkeyes are in almost everyone’s preseason Top 25. That’s recognition. That’s respect.

On the other hand, they’re in nobody’s preseason Top 10. That’s the same old closed society, the Alabamas and Clemsons, Ohio States and Oklahomas.

On one hand, a preseason poll of Big Ten media had Iowa running a close second to Nebraska as the pick to win the Big Ten West, with as many first-place votes as the Huskers. On the other, the Nevada over/under number for Hawkeye victories this year is a pedestrian 7.5.

Take the muffler off the buzz and don’t buy the 7.5 jive. I’m not stating Iowa should be favored to tame the West, but it’s time it makes one of its periodic leaps above the Outback Bowl layer of college football’s atmosphere.

A season good enough to get Iowa in contention for the West title all the way to the season’s final week isn’t too much to ask. That’s said with eyes wide open, knowing the Hawkeyes have five ranked teams on their schedule and play four of them on the road.

Iowa can afford to lose to Iowa State at Ames and Michigan in Ann Arbor and still win the West. We keep hearing how that division is charting upward. The fact four of its members are in the coaches’ Top 25 (with Nebraska 26th) supports it.

Yet, has Nebraska adequately rehabbed the defense that ranked 12th in the conference last season in points and yards allowed per game? Wisconsin has been known to run the ball all the way to Pasadena, and has a world-class running back and all-league offensive line types, as usual. Does it have enough of everything else, including at quarterback?

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Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota could all be good, maybe even more. But none enter the season with an aura of potential greatness.

Now, how would you like to enter every season with this:

A senior quarterback (Nate Stanley) with two full seasons of starting experience, 52 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions, and a 17-9 record that includes two bowl wins.

 Two offensive tackles (Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs) who both could be making their NFL regular-season debuts a year from next week.

 A defensive end (A.J. Epenesa) who was the Big Ten’s leader in quarterback sacks last season, is Everybody’s Preseason All-American, and arguably is a generational player at his school.

 A defense with ample talent spread across it, including in a secondary in which a league Defensive Back of the Year candidate seems to emerge every year.

There are question marks. There always are. But is there one that nags?

Iowa’s coaches might say yes, because they’re coaches. Improvement is vital in the running game, at wide receiver, at punter. Defensive line depth must be developed. A place-kicker has to step up.

That’s a lot of musts, but all are within reach.

For all the understandable commotion about Epenesa, Iowa needs this to be Season of Stanley. Why can’t he have the best year an Iowa QB has enjoyed since C.J. Beathard in 2015, the year the Hawkeyes went to Indianapolis for the conference championship game?

If you are to go to Ames, Ann Arbor, Evanston, Madison and Lincoln and pull out a few wins, what better chance will you have than with a senior who has thrown at least five TD passes in a game three times, once against Ohio State?

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Yes, the Hawkeyes have suffered several close road losses in Stanley’s time as a starter. If he’s a better fourth-quarter performer away from Kinnick Stadium this year, though, that December thing in Indy can become a reality.

Again, this is not saying Iowa should win the West. Some teams — like Wisconsin last year and Iowa in 2017 — get more injuries or more-important injuries than others. Sometimes another team simply clicks like West-champ Northwestern did a year ago.

But 7.5 wins? You’ve got to do better than that this year, Hawkeyes.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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