Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Buy or Sell: 2020 Iowa Hawkeye Football

July 17, 2020

In the coming weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson are running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in and want to recap:

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy
Penn State Nittany Lions Buy Buy
Rutgers Scarlet Knights Buy Buy
Illinois Fighting Illini Sell Sell

In 2019, the Hawkeyes enjoyed their sixth double-digit-win season under head coach Kirk Ferentz. With a senior quarterback in Nate Stanley, one of the Big Ten’s premier pass-rushers in AJ Epenesa, and a talented wide receiver corps, Iowa did what Iowa does: ground out wins. Of the 10 last season, four came by a touchdown or less. But with upheaval in the program this offseason and road games against Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State, what becomes of the 2020 Hawkeyes? Are you buying or selling Iowa in 2020?

Brandon Vogel: Sell

Well, this one is interesting. Under normal circumstances, Iowa would’ve been a borderline case for me. Reasons to buy: returning rushing and receiving production above 75% (always a good sign), the longterm stability of the program and the Hawkeyes’ current crest that has seen them win at least eight games in each of the past five seasons. Reasons to sell: virtually zero returning quarterback production, losing 50-ish percent of last year’s tackles and tackles for loss and a schedule that includes Ohio State and Penn State on the road in back-to-back weeks. Of course, Iowa’s offseason has been anything but normal and we’re not talking the COVID-19 pandemic here. What’s the locker room like as former players have called into question their treatment at the hands of current coaches? That’s a question you rarely had to ask of Iowa over the past two decades. The steadiness of their execution and results indicated that the Hawkeyes were a pretty uniform outfit. They always were what they were, and that was a physical team that was going to defend well against just about anyone and not beat itself. The vast majority of the time, Iowa puts the onus to win squarely on the opponent. But now everyone must ask if that uniformity didn’t come with a cost and, I guess most relevant for 2020, is the bill now due? It’s the extra layer of uncertainty in combination with the on-field questions Iowa already had to answer that make me a seller for the season ahead. The Hawkeyes won’t fall off a cliff, but some sort of drop seems more likely than business as usual.

Derek Peterson: Sell

Iowa was a sell long before Kirk Ferentz’s program was called into question by former players. When the Hawkeyes had two NFL first-round tight ends depart the program after the 2019 season, the offense shifted in look. More wideouts, less 12 personnel. Iowa has one of the better wideout groups in the conference heading into 2020, at least at the top with Ihmir Smith-Marsette (722 yards, 16 yards a catch) and Tyrone Tracy (589 yards and 3 scores as a freshman). That should help a new quarterback. And even though I’ve never been a Nate Stanley guy (sub-60% passer, not a big-gamer), having to replace him is going to be a challenge. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spencer Petras, the heir apparent, hasn’t gotten the reps everyone would have liked him to get. While he’s been in the offense three years already, his first start will come with a somewhat-remade offensive line and a run game that has been a disaster of late. Iowa was 73rd in line yards in 2019, 90th in yards per carry and 92nd in stuff rate. The offense was one-dimensional in a way we haven’t seen Iowa be one-dimensional in a while. Does Petras simply pick up where Stanley left off and Iowa continues to be a throwing team? Or does the shift back to what Ferentz teams have been begin and Iowa relies more on its ground game? If that’s the route, is the ground game successful? I don’t know the answer. The offense seems like it could find itself in something of an identity crisis. Now add to that the fact the defense is replacing key players at every level: AJ Epenesa on the line (along with two of the other top-three tacklers at DL), Kristian Welch at linebacker (the team’s leading tackler last year), Michael Ojemudia at corner and Geno Stone at safety. Lots of talent walked out the door. And this was a 10-win team last year that was outgained in five of 13 games. For years, though, Ferentz’ Iowa program has been inevitable; it has looked the same, sounded the same, and produced the same results. At least seven wins every year since 2013. How keen will players be to keep that status quo, though, as we’ve now been told it was built in an aggressively questionable fashion? Are changes coming if more former players keep speaking out? What has this all done to the locker room? The Big Ten West is better, and all signs point to Iowa taking a step back. How big? Who’s to say. But even a slight dip might be enough to drop from the top three in the division.

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