TAMPA, Fla. -- Next season showed up this week. It smiled for the cameras and assumed the mantle of leadership. OK, maybe it just said hello, at least for now.
After today's Outback Bowl against No. 14 LSU (9-3), the Hawkeyes (8-4) begin the 2014 journey. It will arrive with less doubt than this season, which was, after all, in the wake of 2012's 4-8, Kirk Ferentz's worst season at Iowa since 2000. If nothing else, you can say 2013 showed that a) there can be a Ferentz 3.0 and b) Ferentz is mightily engaged in pushing his program as far as it will go and c) Iowa can still be a "sexy" -- reaching into Ferentz-isms -- football team.
Iowa is the Pittsburgh Steelers of college football, as far as longevity goes across the board for all major decision-makers within the program. Iowa has had three athletics directors since 1970. Iowa has had two head coaches since Hayden Fry was hired in 1979. Iowa has had four defensive and offensive coordinators since 1979.
"It's fitting that I grew up in Pittsburgh," Ferentz said. "It's a little bit like the Steelers. They [Iowa] don't change things when there is a bump in the road. The address problems instead of panic. I appreciate that."
The 4-8 desolation has been traversed. What does the GPS say for Iowa football now?
Ferentz directed Sunday's practice in a downpour at Jesuit High School. Face dripping with rain, a slight smile, Ferentz seems ready to ride into 2014, his 16th at Iowa.
And, seriously, a lot of you are smiling about the possibilities for the 2014 Hawkeyes. Some of the Hawkeyes are smiling right along with you.
"I'm about to be a senior now and have to be a leader," said Quinton Alston, who'll take over for James Morris at middle linebacker next season. "I've been looking forward to this opportunity."
Big names and big players will return for Iowa, including offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, who would've had a shot at the first round of the NFL draft but decided to stick at Iowa. Quarterback Jake Rudock, all of Iowa's running backs and top statistical wide receiver also return, including Kevonte Martin-Manley, who led the Big Ten in punt returns in his first season in that role.
"We won't get five recruits who can do what Scherff does," Ferentz said.
When you look at Iowa's 2014 defense, linebacker is the obvious need. The Hawkeyes enjoyed the services of seniors Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey this season. They combined for 21.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and six interceptions (Morris had a team-high four).
Alston, a 6-1, 232-pounder from Sicklerville, N.J., home of former Hawkeyes Leroy Smith and Shonn Greene, will replace Morris in the middle. Defensive coaches have referred to him as a "starter." Travis Perry will take over for Kirksey on the strong side and Reggie Spearman appears to be the front runner at weakside linebacker.
Alston and Perry have been in the same shoes, behind highly productive and amazingly durable players their entire careers. Spearman has roared in as a true freshman (17 -years-old no less) and put himself in position to start in '14.
"I've seen him grow in leaps and bounds since his first day here," Alston said. "I have confidence in him. It's like having a little brother out there, but I love. He plays with a lot of energy every day."
Iowa loses corner B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller. Corner Desmond King returns after earning several freshman all-America honors this season. Jordan Lomax and Sean Draper will compete at the other corner. John Lowdermilk will be in his second season as a starter at safety. Which safety, free or strong (he was strong this season)?
"Honestly, I have no idea what's going to happen," said Lowdermilk, who'll likely be opposite Nico Law at safety. "I don't care [which safety spot], I just like playing. It doesn't matter to me."
Iowa's defensive line returns everyone except senior defensive end Dominic Alvis. The roll call includes tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis, universally heralded by teammates for their play this season. Ends Drew Ott and Mike Hardy return. Darian Cooper, the No. 3 tackle, returns.
"I think they're going to have good defensive leadership from guys like Johnny Lowdermilk, Quinton Alston, Travis Perry, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Carl Davis, Drew Ott," Morris said. "All those guys got a little bit of experience. It'll be interesting to see how that develops."
Iowa running back has one game to go, but everyone should be in for '14. How that breaks down remains one of the bigger questions. Mark Weisman is on the peak of 1,000 yards this season, but his production dipped after the carries-injury equation caught up to him. Damon Bullock remains Iowa's best receiving weapon out of the backfield, and the curtain continues to rise on Jordan Canzeri's skills. He was a definite boost in November, going from 13 rushing yards a game to 83 in the final four games.
Martin-Manley, who leads Iowa with 39 catches for 389 yards and four TDs, will lead a group of receivers that will be plentiful. Tevaun Smith (24 catches, 310 yards) and Damond Powell (12 for 291) showed big-play ability. Four true freshman also will be in the mix. Ray Hamilton and Jake Duzey (16, 212) will be the main targets at tight end, but don't discount George Kittle, who caught five passes but averaged 21.6 yards a catch.
Scherff returns to the offensive line along with center Austin Blythe. Guards Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal split playing time at one guard spot. They're likely starters, with Donnal perhaps moving out to tackle. The right tackle position should see some significant competition.
Iowa has pieces and they seem to be in place for something interesting in 2014, a schedule that includes road games against bowl teams at Pittsburgh, Maryland and Minnesota. What should be Iowa's potentially toughest games -- Iowa State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- are be at Kinnick Stadium.Iowa football is back on its feet. It has a chance for significant steps in '14.