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Big Ten opponent preview: Iowa

The boys are headed over to Iowa City to kick things off next month. Here’s what the Hoosiers can expect

Syndication: HawkCentral
Iowa fullback Monte Pottebaum (38) and Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras (7) get set before a play during Hawkeyes football Kids Day at Kinnick open practice, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Editor’s note: With the season fast approaching, we want to take some time to familiarize ourselves with each of Indiana’s Big Ten opponents this fall. Over the next couple of weeks, that’s exactly what we’ll do thanks to the insights from our SB Nation partners.)

Up first: Iowa.

Iowa — Jonah Parker (Black Heart Gold Pants)

Key departures

  • Daviyon Nixon, DT, All-American cog in the middle of the defense and Euro-step connoisseur
  • Jack Hefflin, DT, starter alongside Nixon
  • Chauncey Golston, DE, 1st Team All-Big Ten edge rusher and run stopper
  • Nick Neimann, LB, 3rd Team All-Big Ten starting LB
  • Brandon Smith, WR, starter on the outside and key redzone and possession target
  • Ihmir Smith-Marsett, WR, leading receiver and one of the top kick returners in the country over last several seasons
  • Alaric Jackson, OT, starting LT and 1st Team All-Big Ten selection
  • Cole Banwart, OG, starting LG and 2nd Team All-Big Ten selection
  • Coy Cronk, OT, part time starting RT
  • Keith Duncan, K, rightful 2019 Groza Award winner and kiss blower extraordinaire

Key Returnees

  • Tyler Linderbaum, C, All-American and future Rimington winner
  • Tyler Goodson, RB, 1st Team All-Big Ten back that can do a little of everything
  • Spencer Petras, QB, 2nd year starter who can’t be worse than he started
  • Sam LaPorta, TE, leader in receptions from last year and next NFL TE from Iowa
  • Tyrone Tracy, WR, versatile receiver who can play over the middle, over the top or in the run game
  • Charlie Jones, WR, ancillary receiver but returning All-Big Ten punt returner
  • Tory Taylor, P, 1st Team All-Big Ten punter as a freshman and future Ray Guy Award winner
  • Zach VanValkenburg, DE, 2nd Team All-Big Ten defensive end
  • The Secondary, all of it, including All-Big Ten safety Jack Koerner and “cash” Dane Belton
  • Jack Campbell, LB, emerging star in the middle of the defense

Potentially impactful freshmen and transfers

  • Keagan Johnson, WR, leading candidate to take over the role vacated by Ihmir Smith-Marsette
  • Mason Richman, OT, converted defensive lineman pushing to start at LT in absence of Alaric Jackson
  • Deontae Craig, DE, edge rusher who turned heads in fall camp and is likely to get reps in passing situations
  • Xavior Williams, DB, a former All-American at the FCS level, Williams comes from UNI and was expected to start at corner for Matt Hankins - then Hankins opted for an extra year in Iowa City and now Williams is an absurd luxury as the fifth DB on the roster

How might this season look for Iowa?

This is your classic Iowa football team. The defense is going to be what you expect out of a Phil Parker defense while the offense is likely to be your stereotypical vision of an Iowa offense. This team should be able to run the ball very effectively, but has questions in the passing game with returning starter Spencer Petras getting off to a rough start in his first year under center. The defense boasts a talented secondary and solid core in the middle, but will have questions on the defensive line, particularly as it relates to stopping the run.

All that likely adds up to your typical Iowa season in the range of 7-5 to 9-3 with some stumbles early (the schedule does them no favors there) before building steam down the stretch. They’ll knock off someone they shouldn’t and likely stub their toe somewhere as well to keep them on the outside looking in, but close behind for the Big Ten West title.

What’s Iowa’s biggest strength?

This is a toss up. As noted, Phil Parker returns all four starters from a secondary that finished 8th in total defense and 6th in scoring defense nationally. That doesn’t include starter Dane Belton at “cash” (a hybrid DB/LB) and two starters at LB. There are questions up front, but the back end of this group is likely to be among the best in the conference.

On the other hand, the offense boasts the best center in the league and one of the top 2-3 backs in Tyler Goodson. If not for questions at tackle, the running game would be viewed as likely to lead this team to a Big Ten West title. But those questions are there.

What’s Iowa’s biggest weakness?

Again, this is a toss up. The defensive line is replacing three starters, but most notably they need to replace an All-American in the middle with the early departure of Daviyon Nixon. Their ability to stop the run game is going to be critical to the team’s success, particularly with an early season road trip to top-10 Iowa State.

On the other side of the ball, it’s hard to sugar coat how bad QB Spencer Petras looked early on. He got better as the season went on, but his completion percentage leaves plenty to be desired and if he can’t find a way to hit on a few deep passes in play-action, the running game’s strength may be rendered moot. This is compounded by the departure of Iowa’s top-2 WRs in Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

How does the Iowa fan base feel about Kirk Ferentz and his staff?

Coming off of the off-field issues in the summer of 2020, the fanbase seems to have rallied around Kirk Ferentz. Former players who came forward were quick to call out the head man as part of the solution, not the problem and the fanbase seems to have bought into that. Going 6-2 (and most fans believe it would have been 8-2 if the last two games hadn’t been cancelled due to COVID-19 outbreaks at Michigan and Missouri) certainly helps to smooth things over.

There are still those that have questions and concerns over offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, but Phil Parker is a living legend at this point (after taking over from a literal living legend in Norm Parker - no relation). The staff added a new offensive line coach in the offseason so the jury is still out there, but new RB coach Ladell Betts is revered among the fanbase from his playing days. And thus far, the departure of former strength coach Chris Doyle has been a major positive for the locker room morale with no noticeable impacts to player performance.

Who is Iowa’s MVP this season and why?

Spencer Petras - If this team is going to be successful, Petras simply has to improve from a season ago. The defense is going to be good, particularly in the back end, and we know the running game has the potential to grind out wins. But if this team is going to be better than 8-4, it’s going to be because Petras was able to settle his happy feet, slow down his mental motor and make throws consistently. If he completes 60%+ of his passes and ups his yards per attempt into the 8+ area, this offense is capable of putting teams away.

Predict Iowa’s record, its best win, and a potential surprise loss

In any given year, you’re pretty safe assuming Iowa ends up between 7-5 and 9-3. The easy money here is to go down the middle and say 8-4, which is probably the most likely outcome, but I actually think they end up at 9-3. Losses in Ames and Madison are highly likely, but I think Iowa finds a way to take down Indiana in week one and come up with another win over Penn State at home later in the year. Given pre-season rankings, I suppose Indiana is the best win, but who knows by year’s end.

On the flip side, I fully expect Iowa to lose a stinker as they are so inclined. Purdue and Northwestern have been thorns in this staff’s side for a while. I think Ferentz has actually circled the Purdue game and may be OK there while the injuries at Northwestern seem to dictate that one may be better than average odds. The real surprise loss could come to Illinois, which hasn’t beaten the Hawkeyes since 2008 and hasn’t won in Iowa City since 1999. But Bert hasn’t been the head coach in any of those meetings and the former Hawkeye not only knows how, but relishes beating his former team.

What else should folks know?

DID I MENTION TORY TAYLOR IS A GOSH DARN WEAPON AT PUNTER?!? Perhaps this belongs back in the strengths category, but this kid does it all. Booming kicks with hang time, Aussie style running punts to buy time, coffin corners - you name it and he can do it. And do it he does. If the offense can’t score points, Ferentz is perfectly happy to punt opponents to death and win that field position battle until a safety wins the game. 6-4 remains the most glorious score in football history.