Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Iowa football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten West with Iowa. Coming Thursday: Purdue.
The final chapter for the longest-tenured head coach in college football begins later this month. While the Big Ten’s back-and-forth drama and the pandemic have stolen all the headlines lately, Kirk Ferentz’s tumultuous offseason has been shoved to the side.
Ferentz is one of the lucky disgraced B1G coaches who gets a chance at a redemption story after former players spoke out about racial disparities within the Iowa program, involving the once-lauded strength coach Tim Doyle. That’s not to say that we should be discussing this every day. Ferentz apologized and vowed to do better. We have to take him at his word that he will do just that.
But this is an important year for Ferentz — under contract through 2025 — in terms of repairing some of the damage from this situation. He needs to earn back the trust of not only Iowa players and fans, but also Iowa recruits and their parents. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program, and Ferentz needs to publicly and privately show recruits that their experience at Iowa won’t reflect what some former players experienced.
Ferentz will obviously emphasize what he has done really well — win games and get his guys to the NFL. But looking at the big picture and long-term outlook for the Iowa program, that alone won’t be enough, especially when rival coaches will use this to negatively recruit.
For a program that has reached a bowl game in 17 of the last 19 years, fixing the issues inside the locker room and the weight room is of greater importance to ensure this program continues to hum along like few in the Big Ten have.
2019 record: 10-3 (6-3, 3rd in B1G West)
Changing of the guard at QB
Nate Stanley started every game at quarterback for Iowa the last 3 years, and I think fans are ready for a new voice to lead the Hawkeyes offense. Stanley had some good moments, but really, he probably peaked as a sophomore when he tossed 5 TDs apiece against Iowa State and Ohio State, finishing with 26 TDs and 6 INTs. He got gradually worse as his career went along (26-10 TD-INT ratio as a junior, 16-7 as a senior), and he never completed 60 percent of his passes in a season. Iowa often won in spite of him last season, not because of him.
That means there is an opportunity for Spencer Petras, the backup last season, to step in and elevate the Hawkeyes. He has a great group of wide receivers to throw to, including Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. Petras projects to be an above-average QB in the Big Ten, as he went to the same high school as Jared Goff and broke all of his records. He had an offer from Cal and eventually committed to Oregon State, but decommitted as Iowa made a late push just before Signing Day.
Iowa’s offense projects to be one of the best in the Big Ten if Petras performs the way many in the Hawkeyes locker room think he will.
Iowa’s player development
Building off the idea that this is a new era in Iowa football for Ferentz, it’s going to be interesting to see how Iowa’s player development is impacted without Doyle, who was the highest-paid strength coach in the country at the time of his resignation. He has been able to take overlooked high school players and turn them into NFL Draft picks.
Since 2010, Iowa has had 11 players drafted in the top 2 rounds of the NFL Draft, which is a high number considering from 2007-17, Iowa has had 20 4-star recruits and 1 5-star recruit, according to 247Sports.
To put those numbers in context — and this is pretty remarkable — Michigan has also had 11 players drafted in the top 2 rounds of the draft … except Michigan has had 6 5-star and 125 4-star recruits in that time span. So, Michigan has had more than 6 times as many elite recruits as Iowa, yet it has produced the same amount of high-end NFL picks. And sure, that’s just as much of an indictment on Michigan’s player development, especially before Jim Harbaugh arrived (though Michigan is churning out the draft picks lately, just not top 2 rounds). The point is that Iowa does more with less as much as any program in the country.
Though Michigan is the most glaring juxtaposition, take a look at Nebraska and Michigan State below in the chart, which shows the 5-star and 4-star recruits from 2007-17 at these schools, compared with the top-2 round picks from 2010-20.
And that doesn’t take into account players who weren’t drafted early but flourished nonetheless, such as George Kittle, who is considered one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position.
Why is all of this relevant? Well, it’s tempting to look at Iowa and think that because there are only 4 players who were 4-star recruits on the roster, the Hawkeyes are going to slip behind the likes of Illinois (11 4-stars) and Purdue (10 4-stars). Or, because Iowa is just 10th in Team Talent, per 247, it won’t contend in the West. Those would be faulty assumptions because of Iowa’s track record of player development.
It will be interesting to look back in a few years and see if Iowa is still able to produce NFL talent without Doyle at the same rate that it has the last 10 years.
So, Iowa’s next high pick will be …
Since 2012, Iowa has had 4 former 3-star recruits go in the 1st round: Riley Reiff (2012), Brandon Scherff (2015), TJ Hockenson (2019) and Noah Fant (2019). Who’s next?
Alaric Jackson, the No. 57 offensive tackle in the 2016 class, looks like that guy. A 3-star prospect out of Detroit, Jackson is entering his 4th year as a starter and looking for a 3rd straight season on the All-B1G team. He could have gone in the first couple rounds of the draft in 2020, but since he missed 4 games last season, he wanted to come back and up his stock even more. He will probably go in the 1st or 2nd round, depending on how he plays.
The offensive line should be a strength once again as it returns 3 starters and adds Indiana transfer Coy Cronk. The starting line has 108 career starts. Good luck to opposing defenses dealing with running backs Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent.
Week 1: at Purdue (W)
The Boilermakers played Iowa close last season, and I gave them a lot of credit considering they were plagued by injury after injury. Maybe Iowa took Purdue lightly. I can’t imagine that will be the case in the season opener. As long as Iowa can contain Rondale Moore and David Bell, it should be fine. Purdue’s defense is a nice, soft debut for Petras.
Week 2: vs. Northwestern (W)
Iowa didn’t need much offensively against the Wildcats last season, but it will this season since Northwestern added Peyton Ramsey at QB. Northwestern is typically solid on defense, so this will give us an idea of what to expect from Petras this season.
Week 3: vs. Michigan State (W)
It’s a good year to be facing the Spartans, who are rebuilding under first-year coach Mel Tucker. This is probably a good game to take the under.
Week 4: at Minnesota (L)
Iowa ended Minnesota’s unbeaten run in 2019, and I think that plays into the matchup a little bit this season. The Golden Gophers will no doubt be looking for a little revenge. I’ll be watching Iowa’s opener against Purdue to get a feel for how this game might play out. If the Hawkeye secondary struggles against Moore and Bell, Minnesota’s dynamic duo of Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman could pick Iowa apart.
Week 5: at Penn State (L)
This is a very tough 2-game stretch for Iowa, and I suspect it will lose a second straight close game. Iowa’s inexperienced defensive front may struggle a little against Penn State’s high-powered rushing attack.
Week 6: vs. Nebraska (W)
This will be a fun one on Black Friday, and emotions are sure to be running high, even without fans. In case you forgot how last season’s game ended, Keith Duncan kicked a game-winning field goal for Iowa last season, and he was not shy letting Nebraska’s sideline know how he felt about it. While Nebraska will be amped up for this one (and hopefully an improved squad in 2020), Iowa will win a close one again.
Week 7: at Illinois (W)
I’m not quite sure what to make of Illinois this season, but I’m going to go with Iowa based on track record — it has won 11 of its last 12 against the Illini dating back to 2000.
Week 8: vs. Wisconsin (L)
Wisconsin is going to enter this one with a chance to win the B1G West and go to the Big Ten Championship Game, so it will be the more desperate team and therefore get the win. The Hawkeyes have lost 7 of their last 8 games against the Badgers.
2020 projection: 5-3 (3rd in B1G West)
All in all, not a bad season for Iowa. In a normal year, this looks like an 8-win team, which is about where the Hawkeyes are most years. If Petras turns out to be a major upgrade from Stanley, which is possible, then maybe Iowa is looking at 6-2 or 7-1 because it is typically so solid everywhere else on the field. If Petras struggles, I could see Iowa losing against Northwestern or Illinois and finishing 4-4.