10 Preseason Hawkeye Football Questions with HN Staff

August 24, 2017

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – With the Iowa football season set to kick off in nine days, the Hawkeye Nation staff got together and answered questions regarding the 2017 campaign.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. What aspect of Iowa’s team do you feel best about? Why?

Rob Howe: It’s a tough call. I could have said offensive line or linebacker and felt good about those choices. However, for me, it has to be running back. Akrum Wadley is one of the most electric players in college football and James Butler would start for a lot of teams. After them, Toren Young, Toks Akinribade and Ivory Kelly-Martin make it a very deep position.

David Schwartz: The offensive line. Always the offensive line. A “down” season for Iowa’s offensive line is better than most schools’ best season.

Sean Neugent: There are so many strong positional groups for the Hawkeyes heading into 2017: the O-line, tight ends, running backs and linebackers. It is hard for me to pick one, so I’ll say Brian Ferentz. In my mind, he is the biggest game changer and is exactly what the Hawkeyes need: young blood and a guy whose future career hangs in the balance.

Mitch Smith: It’s difficult to pick one particular unit. Iowa’s linebacking corps is among the best in the country, but I’m going to go with the Hawkeye rushing attack. The experience on the offensive line combined with the backfield explosiveness of Akrum Wadley and James Butler is going to be very fun to watch.

Jon Miller: The offensive line is very, very deep. The OL pipeline at Iowa is typically strong, but what Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa staff are putting together right now may be one of the best multi-year runs they have had while at Iowa, and that is saying something. Not just this year, but the next few years. This is going to be the identity of this year’s Iowa football team; power, running, exerting its will. They will have to pass at times, and it remains to be seen if the OL has improved in its pass protection, but the big beef up front will be this team’s strength.

2. What aspect of Iowa’s team concerns you most? Why?

Rob: I hate to beat a dead horse but it’s receiver. I do believe there’s potential there but outside of Matt VandeBerg, it’s unproven. Add in a first-year starter at quarterback, and teams will load the box daring the Hawkeyes to beat them deep.

David: Defensive secondary. Manny Rugamba should be fun to watch, but this unit lost a lot to graduation. I’m not as concerned about the wide receiver position as most because of what I perceive as unique depth at tight end.

Sean: Iowa fans seem to be most worried about the WR group, but not me. I believe this position will surprise and good TE/RB play should further open it up down the field. The position that most concerns me is at QB. Don’t get me wrong; I have faith in both Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers. But, C.J. Beathard did a good job of protecting the ball and the new starter needs to do just that. I doubt Brian Ferentz will put his QB in position to throw too many picks though.

Mitch: Wide receiver. After Matt Vandeberg there just isn’t a definitive go-to threat. The talent seems to be there with the likes of Nick Easley, Devonte Young and Matt Quarells, but there are certainly question marks.

Jon: Wide receiver. Too many players will too little experience, a change to a new offensive ‘system’ with new nomenclature. For some reason, young receivers have struggled to see the field at Iowa, or make an impact. If there was ever a year where young receivers will be needed, it’s this year. This also trickles back to the inexperience at quarterback. Let’s just hope we don’t see a negative feedback loop.

3. They’re all important, but which game on the schedule is most important to Iowa having a successful season? Why?

Rob: I’m tempted to say Iowa State but that game doesn’t really affect the course of the season. I’m going to say Northwestern. It’s on the road against a West Division rival. A win could keep Iowa in the race for the Big Ten title contest.

David: Nebraska, Nov. 24. I think Wisconsin has the edge in the Big Ten West. After that, it’s wide open. What happens the final week of the regular season could have significant influence over where teams finish and where they go during bowl season.

Sean: I think this team gets better throughout the season, but I will say at Northwestern. I would like to see at least one win between NW, Wisconsin and Nebraska and all games are there for the taking. But, I think an early win against a good NW team can make an early statement for this team.

Mitch: Penn State. Iowa opens the Big Ten slate at home against the reigning conference champion. A victory against the Nittany Lions would give the Hawkeyes enormous confidence and momentum and could propel them to a Big Ten West title.

Jon: Most won’t like this, but Iowa State. When you look at Iowa’s eventual record through the years, in seasons where Iowa beats Iowa State, they win close to two more games than in seasons when they lose to Iowa State. Granted, one of those wins comes from beating ISU, and a loss to Iowa State is not an automatic buzzkill for the season (see 2002), but Kirk Ferentz has had six Iowa teams win nine or more games, and five of those teams beat Iowa State.

4. We hate injuries of any kind, but which Hawkeye can the team least afford to lose? Why?

Rob: I mean no disrespect to Akrum Wadley, Sean Welsh, Matt VandeBerg and several others, but the answer has to be Josey Jewell. I think Kristian Welch has a chance to be a good middle linebacker and Jack Hockaday or Bo Bower could fill in there. But the loss of Jewell from this defense would be devastating.

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David: Matt Nelson. It looks like he might play both inside and outside on the defensive line. A.J. Epenesa is a lot of fun, but Nelson is going to anchor this unit.

Sean: My biggest worry would be any position in the secondary, but cornerback Manny Rugamba stands out the most to me. Too much inexperience behind him, so the up-and-comer would be a massive loss for this defense.

Mitch: Obviously losing Josey Jewell or Akrum Wadley would be devastating, but injuries in the secondary could spell disaster for Iowa. There isn’t a lot of experience behind Josh Jackson, Manny Rugumba and Miles Taylor — an injury there and opposing QB’s may start picking apart the weak link in the Iowa secondary.

Jon: James Daniels. The center position is the most challenging on the offensive line, and Daniels is building a resume that may see him become the best center of the Ferentz era. Gerry Dinardo and others are talking about him having a real shot at winning the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center and he may have an early-NFL choice to make at the end of the year. I think the drop off to whomever his backup would be is enormous.

5. Who will be the team’s breakout player (can’t have started more than a handful of games)? Why?

Rob: Manny Rugamba has a chance to be a star and I think it could happen this season. His performance against Michigan last season was not a fluke. His hips allow him to change direction quickly, he has a nose for the ball, good hands and tackles well. He’s not the biggest guy in the world but neither is Desmond King.

David: RB James Butler. The perfect complement to Akrum Wadley is also the kind of running back Kirk Ferentz loves.

Sean: Look for monster production from TE Noah Fant. I think he is capable of producing All American numbers this year, although is too far off the preseason radar to likely land on any list at the end of the year, thanks to Big Ten standouts Troy Fumagalli of Wisconsin and Mike Gesicki of Penn State. The TE position will be more of a focal point under Brian Ferentz (especially with an inexperienced QB).

Mitch: It’s going to be a breakout year for the Iowa tight ends. A unit so painfully underutilized during the Greg Davis years is primed for a big season. Expect Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson to serve as Nate Stanley’s security blanket, racking up a lot of receptions.

Jon: AJ Epenesa. I have held back on this as long as I can, perhaps as a subconscious protective measure, as I know the family well and didn’t want to see the AJ hype get too big only to see people disappointed. He is likely to break out in a big, big way. Why? He is apparently showing enough in three weeks of fall camp that he is good enough to move veteran defensive ends to the inside of the line, and Phil Parker said this week that this defensive line could be the ‘best we have been up front, as a whole, since I have been the defensive coordinator.’.

6. What would you consider a successful season for Iowa? Explain.

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Rob: I picked 7-5 with losses to preseason Top 10 teams in Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin along with games at Northwestern and Nebraska. While that won’t satisfy a lot of folks in Hawkeye Nation, I think it would be a successful campaign provided it ends with a postseason victory for the first time since ’10.

David: 9-3. I’ve got them down for losses against Wisconsin and Ohio State, and there will be at least one more loss in there somewhere – likely Penn State, but even that is a winnable game for the Hawkeyes.

Sean: This team has a lot of really good pieces, but an untested QB makes things cloudy. Despite this and a tough Big Ten slate, I’m rather optimistic for the 2017 Hawkeyes. My idea of a successful season is for them to compete for the Big Ten West at the end of the year and play well in a bowl game.

Mitch: Many are expecting the Hawkeyes to be in the 6 or 7 win range, so I’ll define success as getting past the 7-win threshold and winning a bowl game. Heck, I’ve sort of forgotten what it’s like to win a bowl game — it would be nice to experience that feeling again. If the Hawks can surpass those expectations they’ll compete for another Big Ten West title and fans should be pretty pleased.

Jon: If they win eight games with this schedule, it would be a superb season. Seven wins would also exceed my expectation. I would also love to see an offensive line rotation by where some of the backups see some playing time, as Iowa will lose plenty of beef to graduation this year. Winning the bowl game for the first time since 2010 would be a bonus, too.

7. What game is Iowa least likely to win? Why?

Rob: For me, it comes down to Ohio State or at Wisconsin. Iowa matches up better style wise with the Badgers and won there in ’15. Beating the Buckeyes are rare with the last one coming in ’04.

David: Ohio State, because it’s Ohio State.

Sean: Iowa just doesn’t matchup well with this Penn State team. If the game were later in the year, maybe the Hawkeyes stand a chance. The defense is going to need to play inspired similar to last year’s upset of Michigan if the Hawkeyes want to win.

Mitch: It’s a toss-up between Penn State and Ohio State. Iowa has found a way to outperform Penn State (even when the Nittany Lions are the more talented team), so a win over the Buckeyes is probably the least likely.

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Jon: Ohio State. The Buckeyes ‘should’ make the college football playoff this year. There is a reason Iowa has beaten the Buckeyes just four times since 1962; they are typically the most talent laden team in the Big Ten, and this year is no different in that regard.

8. What are the chances Iowa loses at Iowa State? Explain.

Rob: A lot of folks will base their opinions for this year’s outcome based off Iowa’s 42-3 beatdown at Kinnick Stadium. I think that’s a mistake. The Cyclones are going to be improved in Year 2 of Matt Campbell and they’ll be up for this one, the first road start for the new Hawkeye quarterback.

David: Iowa has a 26.8 percent chance of losing this game. If ISU’s offense is clicking the way it was at the end of last season, Iowa’s unchallenged secondary will suffer accordingly.

Sean: History tells us this game can go either way, but I think the Hawkeyes will again dominate versus a bad Iowa State defense. If the Cyclones want to compete, they will need to do so with their offense, which is solid. I do think the Cyclones are making headway into being a competitive program under coach Matt Campbell and have a more talented team than the last few years.

Mitch: History says it’s pretty much a 50-50 chance that Iowa will lose to “that team out west.” That said, I’m pretty confident the Hawkeyes will hold on to the Cy-Hawk trophy.

Jon: I think Iowa State has a puncher’s opportunity, in a Big 12 way. The Cyclones are built to compete in that league, one that features more wide-open offenses. Iowa State has a fantastic group of receivers and QB Jacob Park is a former four-star slinger. He can really throw the ball around. If they are able to score on several big plays, Iowa’s bludgeoning strategy will be hard pressed to convert at a higher rate of execution. It would not surprise me to see Iowa lose this game in Ames. Were it in Kinnick, I would feel much better, as this will be the first road start for whomever Iowa names as its starting quarterback.

9. What will be Iowa’s final regular-season record?

Rob: As mentioned above, I have the Hawkeyes finishing at 7-5 with losses at home to Penn State and Ohio State, and on the road at Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. I could see Iowa winning one or two of the contests I picked it to lose, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see setbacks at Iowa State or Michigan State.

David: 9-3

Sean: 9-3 (6-3), finishing second to Wisconsin

Mitch: 8-4

Jon: 6-6

10. In what bowl game, if any, will Iowa play?

Rob: For disclosure – I’m not very successful picking the Hawkeyes’ bowl destination after the regular season, so doing it before lowers the odds even more. With that, I’ll say the Music City in Nashville against Arkansas.

David: I have no idea, but until the Hawkeyes prove they’re capable of preparing for a bowl game at a Division I level, it’s reasonable to predict they’ll lose whatever bowl game they go to by at least three touchdowns.

Sean: I’m a huge country fan, so I would love for Iowa to go to the Music City Bowl. With little chance of going back to the Outback Bowl this season, the Hawkeyes could go to Nashville whether they go 9-3 or 8-4.

Mitch: Music City Bowl

Jon: The Big Ten has changed it’s bowl affiliations and selection policies so much, it’s difficult to keep track of the possibilities in the lower tiers. But at 6-6, I’ll say the Foster Farms or The Pinstripe.

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