Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Iowa. We will continue with the B1G West all week. Game-by-game breakdowns of the B1G East teams emerged last week.
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Iowa’s season opener ended up setting the tone for all of 2021.
The Hawkeyes passed 3 Indiana passes and returned 2 for touchdowns. The snowball was just beginning to roll down the mountain.
Despite only gaining 173 yards against Iowa State, the Hawkeyes earned another CyHawk victory by scoring 20 points on 4 turnovers. Fumble recoveries inside the 10-yard line turned the momentum against Kent State and Colorado State. Iowa went 5-0 with a ridiculous 7 takeout in Maryland.
And by finishing plus-3 on the turnover margin in a top-5 showdown with Penn State, the Hawks rallied for a 23-20 victory that put them at No. 2 in the AP poll for the first times since the heyday of Hayden Fry and Chuck Long.
But it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. Purdue and Wisconsin exposed Iowa’s water gun offense in consecutive weeks, and the Hawks’ CFP aspirations faded with 1.7 yards per carry and a cloud of dust.
Thing is, that defense was still good enough to save the rest of the season. Despite ranking 12th in the B1G in completion percentage, Iowa prevailed and won the Big Ten West.
But the title game against Michigan was a farcical mismatch. The Wolverines barely sweated in the 42-3 wipeout.
On paper, Iowa looks set to return to Indianapolis. Ohio State is the only Big Ten team to return a higher percentage of last season’s production.
Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes have an Achilles heel that prevents this outcome from being inevitable. It’s more like an Achilles leg. Or in this case, Achilles arm.
Stop by if you’ve heard this one before…
The defense and special teams will keep Iowa in contention for the Western title until the end of the season.
The Hawkeyes finished 16th nationally in total defense last season and 13th in scoring defense. It is reasonable to believe that they can move up the ranks in both categories.
It’s a veteran front-to-back defense.
No player is more important than Jack Campbell, the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year. At the very least, the all-American second team is Iowa’s best linebacker since Chad Greenway. He might be the best since Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett.
Big Ten defensive back of the year Riley Moss is right around the corner. The same goes for Jermari Harris, the former No.3 corner who started for Moss when he missed 3 games last season. However, corner Matt Hankins, safety Jack Koerner and nickel Dane Belton leave big gaps behind.
Up front, second-team B1G defensive end Kyle VanValkenburg’s 9.5 TFLs are gone, but 7 of the top 8 linemen are back. This includes Lukas Van Ness and Joe Evans, who each had 7 sacks last season.
And with the return of punter Tory Taylor, Kirk Ferentz’s side will frequently place their voracious defense in an ideal position on the pitch to induce pressure.
How will the Hawks navigate the East?
If teams were weighed simply by roster rather than schedule, Iowa would be the favorite to repeat its division title. Alas, that’s not how it works.
The Hawks have pulled the end of the stick in some ways, matching with both Ohio State and Michigan in East crossover games. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are both in the preseason top 10, and neither looks likely to slip from that perch until November.
The good news is that Iowa hosts Michigan on October 1st. But Kinnick Stadium alone won’t be enough to close the 39-point gap the Wolverines exposed last December.
Iowa needs to be better offensively to have a chance.
Brian Ferentz’s attack will…
Make or break what Iowa can do this season.
Kirk Ferentz’s solution to getting the most out of Iowa’s passing game didn’t go over well across Hawkeye State.
Son Brian, who seemed closer to the problem than the solution, saw the role of quarterbacks coach added to his duties as offensive coordinator this offseason.
Last year Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla were the worst of both worlds – not explosive and mostly inaccurate. Iowa was 114th nationally in yards per attempt and 113th in completion percentage. The Hawkeyes finished 97th in passing plays of at least 20 yards.
The loss of 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Goodson in the NFL Draft underscores the need for Iowa to shake things up.
Between tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Keagan Johnson, Nico Ragaini and Arland Bruce IV, Petras (or Padilla) will have solid targets to work with. But there will also be two fewer targets than expected, as Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones jumped on Purdue’s friendlier attack through the transfer portal.
Week 1: vs. South Dakota State (W)
Give Kirk Ferentz credit, I guess. When it comes to planning FCS opponents, he doesn’t dodge the best. Iowa barely beat Northern Iowa in 2009 and lost to North Dakota State in 2016. This year, South Dakota State is No. 2 in the preseason poll. FCS. It will take a big fourth quarter play from Moss or Campbell to save the day.
Week 2: vs. Iowa State (W)
If Matt Campbell couldn’t beat the Hawkeyes last year, I don’t know if that will ever happen. The Cyclones have lost a ton of talent. Make it 7 consecutive CyHawks for Iowa.
Week 3: vs Nevada (W)
The Wolf Pack has a freshman head coach and only 2 starters returning on offense. It will be ugly. But Hawks fans will be intrigued by their first look at third QB Joe Labas.
Week 4: at Rutgers (W)
In 2004, Iowa beat Penn State 6-4. A repeat of that generational performance is unlikely to happen again, but these seem like the right fighters to potentially recreate the magic.
Both teams are challenged offensively. Iowa has a massive defensive advantage, but the Scarlet Knights are the only Big Ten team potentially better than the Hawkeyes on special teams.
Regardless of the final score, it will feel like Iowa won a baseball game.
Week 5: vs. Michigan (L)
Iowa will close some, but not all, of that 39-point gap we witnessed in December. But the Wolverines will have the rare offense capable of putting 30 or more against the Hawkeyes this season.
Week 6: in Illinois (W)
This game looks incredibly dangerous. The Fighting Illini are in a prime spot to play spoilers, wedged between Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule. Illinois coach and former Hawkeyes player Bret Bielema missed last year’s game with COVID, but the Illini still held firm in Iowa City. Winning the turnover battle gives Iowa a narrow victory.
Week 7: Goodbye
Week 8: at Ohio State (L)
Unfortunately, Ohio State is also coming out of an open week. So while Phil Parker’s defense will frustrate the powerful Buckeyes offense like few others, look to Ohio State’s defense to deliver their signature performance of the season. Brian Ferentz won’t have enough wrinkles.
Week 9: against Northwestern (W)
This is never a guarantee. Pat Fitzgerald is 9-7 head-to-head against Kirk Ferentz. But Northwestern’s offense is so bad that a path to victory seems impossible for the Wildcats.
Week 10: at Purdue (L)
Former Hawks Tyrone Tracy and Charlie Jones are reprising David Bell’s former role as Purdue wide receivers who haunt the Hawkeyes.
Week 11: vs. Wisconsin (W)
In an elite defensive battle, Iowa has the edge. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz managed to avoid turning it against the Hawkeyes last season, but it’s hard to see that story repeat itself.
Week 12: Minnesota (L)
The Golden Gophers gained more yards against the Hawks last season than any team except Purdue and Michigan. This time, they eliminated the mistakes that cost them Iowa City. Floyd of Rosedale is heading north for the first time in 8 years.
Week 13: vs Nebraska (W)
Tired: Black Friday kicks off the Christmas shopping season.
Wired: Black Friday kicks off another disappointing offseason in Nebraska.
2022 projection: 8-4 (5-4), 4th in B1G West
The Big Ten West is constantly on the verge of madness. And in what will likely be the division’s penultimate season, the crystal ball predicts the wildest outcome of all: a 4-way tie for first place.
Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota will all finish 5-4 in the B1G, with Nebraska remaining at 4-5 after dropping the season finale to the Hawkeyes.
Based on Big Ten Tie Breaker Procedurethe division champion is then determined by the team with the best record in the group of tied teams.
- Wisconsin (2-1): W vs. Purdue, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Iowa
- Purdue (2-1): W vs. Iowa, W vs. Minnesota, L vs. Wisconsin
- Minnesota (1-2): W vs. Iowa, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Wisconsin
- Iowa (1-2): W vs. Wisconsin, L vs. Purdue, L vs. Minnesota
Once you’ve done all of that, it’s the head-to-head showdown between Wisconsin and Purdue. The Badgers have the advantage there, and that comes with an appearance in the Big Ten Championship game.
While it’s a frustrating result for Iowa fans, it could beat the alternative – a week of national media talking about how Iowa isn’t good enough to compete with the state of Ohio in the Big Ten Championship Game followed by the Buckeyes proving it on the field.
Iowa is likely to be B1G’s best defense this season, but there’s not much reason to believe the offense will suddenly start to bear its weight.