2011 Record: (7-6, 4-4 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Kirk Ferentz (99-66 at Iowa, 108-87 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Insight Bowl (lost to Oklahoma 31-14)
Four Year Coaching Trend: 8.75 wins and 4.25 losses overall; 4.75 wins and 3.25 losses in conference
Revenge: 9/8 vs Iowa St, 9/29 vs Minnesota, 10/13 at Michigan St, 10/20 vs Penn St, 11/23 vs Nebraska
Swing Games: 10/27 at Northwestern, 11/10 vs Purdue
Stats to Cheer: held opponents to 73.68% conversion rate in the red zone (2nd in B1G, 14th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: allowed opponents to convert on 45.89% of third downs (10th in B1G, 99th in Nation)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 6; Defense: 5; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB James Morris (109 tackles), LB Christian Kirksey (110 tackles), S Tanner Miller (76 tackles, 3 INT), CB Micah Hyde (72 tackles, 3 INT)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB James Vandenberg (25 TD, 7 INT), WR Keenan Davis (50 rec, 4 TD), C James Ferentz, OT Brandon Scherff
CFBZ: The running back position has been a revolving door at Iowa over the last couple of years and in 2011 it resulted in the Hawkeyes ranking dead last in the conference in rushing. Is it going to be running back by committee or did anyone distance themselves during spring practice?
Black Heart Gold Pants: It's definitely going to be running back by committee. No one stood stood out at spring practice, although the two main running backs that saw action (De'Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock) were a little bit better than expected, which was nice. It figures to be a rotation of them and the two incoming freshmen running backs, Greg Garmon (although he's dealing with some legal issues and it's still TBD how that will affect his Iowa career) and Barkley Hill. I would guess all three guys will get looks during practice and over the first few games. My guess is that it settles into a more consistent rotation of 2-3 guys by the time Big Ten games roll around at the end of September. I hope Iowa can finish better than dead last in the conference in rushing this year, but... I'm not gonna hold my breath on that front, either.
CFBZ: In our Exit Survey from the 2011 season, you talked about the inconsistencies of QB James Vandenberg in his first season as a starter. What does he need to improve on in 2012?
Black Heart Gold Pants: He had really nightmarish (and kind of bizarre) home and away splits last year: he was good at home (61% completion, 1800 yards passing, 17 TD, 3 INT) and pretty bad on the road (57% completion, 1000 yards passing, 6 TD, 3 INT). He needs to figure out how to play better away from the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium this year -- Iowa has some tricky road games (@ Michigan State, @ Michigan, @ Northwestern). From a nuts and bolts perspective, the one thing he really needs to improve is his blitz recognition and his ability to successfully check into a different play. He struggled with the blitz for much of last season and it killed several Iowa drives. He's now a fifth-year senior with 15 games of starting experience under his belt, so he really ought to be better in that department. Finally, he's going to have to learn to live without Marvin McNutt, who was a wonderful safety blanket a year ago. Marvin's gone, so Vandenberg is going to need to find some new faces in the passing lanes.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2012 season?
Black Heart Gold Pants: I hesitate to say this but the biggest reason for optimism is probably the schedule. Iowa plays their first five games at home or at a neutral site (and the season opener against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field will be played in front of a crowd that will likely be 75% Iowa fans) and doesn't have a true road game until an Oct. 13 date with Michigan State in East Lansing. The non-conference slate contains only one BCS opponent (Iowa State) and the Big Ten slate avoids Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Illinois for the second year running. The road games against Michigan State and Michigan will be difficult (and the road game against Northwestern, a persistent thorn in Iowa's side, will also be tricky), but for the most part this is a schedule that sets up really well to give Iowa a shot at a good record -- and even, potentially, a shot at the Legends division title heading into the final two weeks of the season.
The other reasons to be optimistic are kind of double-edged swords. This team should have a lot of young talent, which is exciting... but that talent could also be pretty inconsistent and/or need time to grow and develop. Iowa's also breaking in new offensive and defensive coordinators, which will make them harder to scheme against (there's been a sense for several years that teams could often effectively predict what Iowa was going to do before they actually did it)... but Iowa's own players also have to learn those new offensive and defensive schemes. There will be some growing pains there.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Black Heart Gold Pants: My gut feeling on the record is about 8-4. I think they'll lose the two road games in Michigan, drop a home game against either Penn State or Nebraska, and then lose one of the games against teams that have given them some trouble in recent years (Iowa State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana). That said, I also have a hunch that they're going to score one big-ish upset this year when they play a game where everything comes together for them -- maybe at home against Nebraska? As for what would make a successful season... anything less than 6-6 would be disappointing. 6-6 would be disappointing, but a bit understandable given the staff turnover in the off-season. 7-5 would also be a little disappointing (it would be Iowa's third-straight 7-5 regular season), but not hugely surprising or upsetting given the staff turnover. 8-4 would be a pretty decent season and anything beyond that would probably be very satisfying.
Record aside, though, I just want to see how the new offensive and defensive schemes change things up (and how quickly players get used to them) and how some of the freshmen and sophomores who will be playing develop. The defensive line in particular figures to be a giant work in progress all season -- I want to see signs of hope for the future there.
After having their two best years since 2004, the Hawkeyes have made two straight trips to the Insight Bowl that included a .500 conference record. Ross mentioned the schedule this year and it does look to be very favorable. Phil Steele ranks Iowa as having the easiest schedule in the Big Ten this year. It's also back loaded with two of their toughest three games coming at the very end of the season. Iowa has a chance to build up some momentum if they can get past some teams they've had issues with in the recent past (Iowa State, Minnesota, Northwestern).
Offensively, James Vandenberg is back for his second year as a starter. He had a very impressive 25:7 TD to INT ratio last season. As Ross mentioned he was a lot better at home. What also should be noted is that he was a lot better against unranked opponents then he was against ranked opponents (20:4 TD to INT against unranked and 5:4 TD to INT against ranked) and he had a 15-2 TD to INT ratio against FBS teams that had losing records. That's kind of what is expected of an inexperienced QB but the splits are interesting nonetheless. This year Vandenberg needs to show improvement if Iowa wants to get to the next level and Iowa must find a running back, or running game, to help provide balance.
One interesting, and perhaps unsettling, trend for Iowa is that since 2008 they have allowed more points each year (13.0 in 2008, 15.4 in 2009, 17.0 in 2010 and 23.8 in 2011). That being said, allowing 23.8 points per game should still be enough to keep you in every game and give the offense a good chance to win. A concern for Iowa is the amount of players they lose on defense. They keep four of their six leading tacklers but seven of eleven were seniors. They also lose virtually all of their sacks from last year (16.5 of 21 sacks belonged to seniors last season). That's a concern because they were just four sacks from the bottom of the conference in that metric. Why it might not be a huge concern is that Iowa has never really (at least recently) been known as a huge sack team. What they have been known as is an opportunistic defense (32 turnovers gained in 2008 and 30 in 2009). What made the Iowa teams special in 2008 and 2009 was that the defense could make a game changing play.
Ultimately, the 2012 season for Iowa will come down to winning the games they are supposed to win and which young players can step up. Iowa has a chance to be really good this season and could surprise some folks but with their lack of experience I think the expectation should be 8-4 with a chance to go either way.
2012 Prediction: 8-4
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas