Thursday, August 18, 2005
So it should come as no surprise that most previews of the coming Big 10 football season pick Ohio State to win it and Michigan to finish second. Both are good teams. But anyone who has closely followed the Big 10 in recent years knows that the Iowa Hawkeyes under Captain Kirk Ferentz play championship level football, and the team enters 2005 in a very strong position to challenge for the title, much stronger in fact that in 2002 and 2004, when the Hawkeyes came away with a share. This is a well coached program with a great system in place.
The Iowa Hawkeyes have finished the last three seasons ranked #8 in the country, including bowl victories in the last two seasons over LSU and Florida. The team entered each of these seasons with major graduation losses, and an inexperienced quarterback. In 2003, the team had to replace 4/5 of its offensive line, and all its experienced receivers to graduation or injury. In 2004, the team again had to replace its offensive line, and through a freakish streak of injuries, lost its top four running backs to injury and finished the year ranked 116th in rushing, and with an eight game winning streak that including lobsided wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin.
In picking Iowa to finish third in the Big 10 this year, the media are focusing on the loss of its defensive front four to graduation, including all-American defensive end Matt Roth. Aside from that loss, however, the Hawkeyes appear to be very strong. Junior quarterback Drew Tate was last year's hero, and gives Ferentz an experienced quarterback to start the season for the first time in five years. His two favorite receiving targets, Ed Hinkel and Clint Solomon, are top returning receivers in the conference. The offensive line, a Ferentz trade mark, struggled last year with injuries and inexperience, but returns this season experienced and deep. While it may not achieve the dominance of the 2002 OL (which sent 4 members to the NFL including Robert Gallery). The Hawkeye running game, while still a question mark to some degree, will begin the season with healthy bodies and should be effective.
While the sportswriters question the Iowa defense, it is likely to be a strength once again. Competition to replace the defensive front four is intense, and a talented unit is likely to emerge with experience. There is no such competition at the linebacker position, where Iowa returns Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge, among the best tandems in college football. The secondary returns experience as well, with four year starter Antwan Allen and three year starter Jovon Johnson at the corners. Johnson enters the season needing only 4 interceptions to tie the Iowa career record of 18, set by legend Nile Kinnick.
Trouble for the Hawkeyes could come from their schedule. In the last several years, Iowa has established a dominating home field advantage, winning 18 straight at Kinnick Stadium. Home games this year include Michigan and Minnesota, plus patsies Indiana and Illinois. Iowa must face Ohio State, Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin on the road. (Penn State and Michigan State have rotated off the schedule.) Non-conference rival Iowa State is also a road game.
The Ohio State game on September 24th appears to be the key to the Hawkeye season, as it appears early and potentially before Iowa's defensive line has gelled. OSU, however, has not had a particularly dominant running game under Jim Tressel, so it is unclear who will have the advantage in that particular matchup. Michigan is also a big game, but the Wolverines must come to Kinnick, and Ferentz has shown the clear ability to match up well against Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, with Iowa winning two of the last three. Michigan is expected to have a potent offense this year, but it will be interesting to see whether quarterback Chad Henne can adjust to the game without Braylon Edwards, the best receiver in football last year.
The official prediction: Iowa will at least share a piece of the Big Ten title, probably with a 7-1 conference record and a loss at Columbus. Purdue, which does not play Ohio State or Michigan, could be up there as well. I will also predict that Penn State and Michgan State will both come up with some surprising victories that impact the title.
If Iowa can escape Ohio State with a victory on September 24, I predict they will go undefeated and face USC in the Rose Bowl, where they will lose.
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