Way-too-early 2016 look: Iowa
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (18th season, 127-87)
2015 record: 12-2 (8-0 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Austin Blythe, OL; Jordan Canzeri, RB; Cole Fisher, LB
Biggest returners: Desmond King, CB; C.J. Beathard; Josey Jewell, LB
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 45 (9th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Three-star defensive end Cedrick Lattimore
2016 strength: Running game
On the surface, it might be easy to look at what Iowa is losing from the run game. Two of the nation’s top offensive linemen (Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh) are gone, as is leading rusher Jordan Canzeri. But Iowa has plenty of talent returning that should prevent this unit from skipping a beat. Back is a healthy LeShun Daniels, Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell. Iowa will still have Sean Welsh, Boone Myers and Cole Croston, which should result in advantages at the line of scrimmage. That doesn’t include the luxury the Hawkeyes have in returning the mobile C.J. Beathard to run the offense. This is still a unit plenty capable of dominating teams with the ground game, which is something that Ferentz has never been shy with.
2016 weakness: Defensive end
This obviously would change if Drew Ott is granted another year of eligibility. But assuming he doesn’t get it, Iowa has some huge holes to fill at the position. Converted linebacker Parker Hesse was solid as a fill-in, though he wasn’t the backfield nuisance Ott was. He’ll have to develop as a pass-rusher to step into a bigger role.
On the other side, Nate Meier was one of the better ends in the country and was a big reason why the Hawkeyes were the last team to allow a rushing score. Replacing a guy that got off blocks like Meier did won’t be easy. Iowa could turn to sophomores-to-be Matt Nelson or Sam Brincks. Nelson was the more highly regarded prospect, though Brincks, a former walk-on, could compete for the spot. The Hawkeyes will return Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata at defensive tackle, but Iowa will need some underclassmen to step up as edge-rushers.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 10-2 (7-2 in B1G)
It’s crazy to think that we could easily go into November having the exact same conversation about Iowa that we did in 2015. The Hawkeyes could be favored in each of their first seven games with their toughest game being a home showdown against Wisconsin. But Iowa will have to travel to Penn State and host Michigan after the bye week. If there’s still a debate about a potentially undefeated team’s résumé, it should end there. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Iowa got to where it was in 2015 by establishing balance, executing down the stretch and dominating the turnover battle. That will have to be the formula again. Keep in mind that Beathard and the Iowa tailbacks were hobbled for most of the season. If they can stay on the field and take a step up, there’s no reason to think that the Hawkeyes can’t make it back to Indianapolis.