The Hawkeyes’ 2016 season was somewhat defined by a three-game winning streak in November. After starting the season 5-4 with home losses to North Dakota State, Northwestern and Wisconsin and getting drubbed at Penn State, Iowa knocked off Michigan, shut out Illinois and dominated Nebraska to earn an Outback Bowl matchup against Florida (a 30-3 loss). Fourteen starters are back from that team and Iowa enters 2017 having compiled a winning record in four straight seasons.
The Hawkeyes are happiest on the ground and don’t expect that to change much under new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. It probably wouldn’t change much anyway, but that’s particularly true this year with four starters returning on the offensive line and leading rusher Akrum Wadley back for his senior season. That could give an unproven passing game some time to grow. Nathan Stanley seemed to have the lead in the quarterback race, but the Hawkeyes must also replace their leading receiver and top tight end from 2016. Teams that can force Iowa to throw could be in a pretty good spot, but that’s easier said than done. This Iowa offense is well-equipped to do what it wants to do, and that’s punish defenses on the ground.
There are some high-profile players missing from this 2017 unit (Desmond King, Jaleel Johnson), but Iowa returns eight starters overall. That includes three-of-four on the defensive line and the four leading tacklers from last season. That’s plenty of experience to work with and Iowa was the best in the Big Ten at limiting explosive plays. If that continues — and the run game doesn’t falter — there’s no reason to expect anything different from the Hawkeyes this year. To beat Iowa, you have to beat Iowa. The Hawkeyes rarely beat themselves.
The first two weeks could be interesting. Wyoming is in for the opener and week two brings a trip to Ames to face an improving Iowa State program. The Hawkeyes draw Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State from the East. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have to go to Iowa City, which helps a little, but Iowa must face key division rivals Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road.
If we knew a little more about the Hawkeyes’ passing game, that might be enough to have Iowa trending up. The schedule, however, might bring that back down to even. FLAT is probably the safe pick here, but this group is perfectly capable of playing “Iowa football.” Sometimes that’s good enough to get to 11 or 12 wins as happened in 2009 and 2015. Most of the time, however, it’s been closer to 8-5. This season feels more like the latter given the schedule.