This is my favorite kind of football season to cover, at least so far.
It’s the kind in which you have no real clue what’s going to happen before it starts, at least regarding Iowa. You can’t confidently say this season will be grand or a grind for the Hawkeyes. If my crystal ball were any muddier it would be a presidential campaign.
Iowa’s schedule is soft by Big Ten standards. The nonconference slate has two Mid-American Conference teams and one from the Missouri Valley. Ohio State and Wisconsin are again off Iowa’s conference calendar.
But then a little coach’s voice in the back of my head chirps “Don’t assume Northern Illinois is a win. Don’t assume Iowa State in Kinnick is a win. Iowa has two wins in its last seven trips to Northwestern. Don’t assume Indiana on the road and Purdue at home are sure wins. Don’t assume, period.”
In 2007, Iowa opened with a game against Northern Illinois in Chicago and didn’t have either Ohio State or Michigan on its schedule. The Hawkeyes beat NIU, but lost to Iowa State, Indiana, Purdue and Western Michigan, and went a dreary 6-6.
This isn’t 2007. James Vandenberg is the Iowa quarterback. He’s the most-likely candidate to give Michigan’s Denard Robinson any kind of challenge for first-team All-Big Ten.
Who will help Vandenberg in a Greg Davis-choreographed offense that, for all we know, might be the most pass-happy in Hawkeye history?
It starts with the offensive line, obviously, and that unit could be stellar. It certainly should be solid. The receiving corps? That could be a cast of thousands, or at least seven or eight. Incumbents Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley aren’t the only wide receivers Iowa will lean upon.
Can C.J. Fiedorowicz go from 16 catches last season to, say, 40 or 45 this year? Sure. Will his fellow tight ends, Ray Hamilton, Zach Derby and Jake Duzey, make their marks? Why not?
At the depleted running back spot, it’s hard to see Damon Bullock as a 15- to 20-carry guy, though he could bring a lot the offense overall. Can freshman Greg Garmon be the horse? Will this team have such a thing as a horse at running back? Will it absolutely need one?
Defensively, there is one real, large, and critical question. Can the line evolve quickly and become adequate? Will it be able to contain opposing ground games, let alone put any real heat on quarterbacks? How will it hold up against the dual-threat QBs that seem to be showing up everywhere?
Iowa’s defense was ordinary last year, allowing over 310 points for the first time in 11 years. There’s your 7-6 record.
But if this year’s D-line shows a tangible growth curve between Saturday and the idle week after Game 5, big possibilities suddenly open up. Granted, that’s a whopper of an “if.”
So, I don’t see 10-2 or 6-6. So I’ll meekly go with 8-4 and a berth in the Gator Bowl. Which guarantees the Hawkeyes will wind up in either the Rose Bowl or Meineke Car Care Bowl.
I do think Iowa will make clear steps forward this season. And I will climb out on one limb by predicting Vandenberg breaks Chuck Hartlieb’s 24-year-old Iowa season-record for passing yards (3,738).
The only Big Ten prediction that seems safe is picking Wisconsin to again represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten’s championship game. Ohio State, which I can see being 9-1 when it goes to Madison on Nov. 17, is ineligible to play in the league’s title tilt because of NCAA sanctions. So is Penn State, not that it matters.
The pick here is for Nebraska to go 6-2 in the Legends, and own whatever tiebreaker it needs to proceed to Indianapolis. Then, it will defeat Wisconsin for the second time this season and go to the Rose Bowl.
And the national-champion will come from the SEC. Because I wanted to end this with at least one thing sure to come true.