(Previous entries in this series include Jamie’s take on Northwestern and Chris Mackinder’s take on Wisconsin)

Iowa has always been a successful under-the-radar program in the Big Ten. But after the past few years, even the folks in Iowa City think things are getting a bit stale. After an 11-win, Orange Bowl-winning season in 2009, the Hawkeyes won eight games in 2010 and seven in 2011, going 4-4 in the Big Ten both seasons. After the 2009 season, the program seemed to be back among the nation’s elite, but a string of off-the-field issues, the Iowa-running-back-hating God and some underperforming has knocked the Hawkeyes down a tier in the Big Ten. After a decent, but disappointing 2011, the coaching staff has undergone a facelift. Former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis takes over the Iowa offense, while former defensive backs coach Phil Parker takes the reins of the defense, replacing the legendary Norm Parker, who retired. There also was some shuffling that resulted in five new positions coaches.

With Michigan and Ohio State seemingly resurging, Michigan State finding consistency, Nebraska’s addition and Wisconsin coming off back-to-back Rose Bowls, the future success of Iowa football in the new two-division league seems questionable. Having lost a load of contributors from last season, Iowa will be facing an uphill climb to improve on the 2011 season. The schedule sets up nice, but the talent isn’t quite what it has been. Iowa always has the chance to pull of a big win, but also fall flat on its face (cough, Minnesota twice, cough). When Iowa pulls off big seasons, it usually has every break go its way. Not accounting for that, here are the props to stat and track.

 

James Vandenberg passing yards: Over/Under 3,000

Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg quietly put up some very impressive numbers as a junior last season, throwing for 3,022 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 58.7 completion percentage. The next step in his development will be taking over in big games, especially on the road. At Penn State, Vandenberg went 17-for-34 with two interceptions and no touchdowns. Against Michigan State, he went 22-for-47 with two touchdowns and one interception. In the regular season finale at Nebraska, he went 16-for-35 with no touchdown and an interception. In Vandenberg’s defense, those three opponents had some of the top defensive units in the conference. But if Iowa wants to pull off an upset or two, he’s going to have to take it to another level in the biggest games. The Iowa native grew up dreaming of being the Hawkeyes quarterback, and with a full season under his belt, he should be better with blitz pickups and check-downs.

As for his targets, Marvin McNutt graduated and most of Iowa’s receiving records are gone with him. McNutt was one of the best receivers in the conference last year, finishing with 82 catches, 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns, so that’s a lot to replace. Senior Keenan Davis will be the new No. 1. He had a breakout junior year, with 50 catches for 713 yards and four touchdowns, but a lot of that was a result of McNutt drawing most of the attention in the passing game. Davis will be going up against the top cornerbacks now. Davis’ best game was a 10-catch, 129-yard, one-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh in the third game of the season. Once the Big Ten schedule came around, Davis had some struggles. He had one conference game with more than five catches, grabbing seven balls against Purdue, but for just 63 yards. He had only one touchdown catch in Big Ten play.

Some other targets include sophomore receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Martin-Manley had 30 catches for 323 yards and three touchdowns last season, but grabbed just one pass in four of the last five games. The 6-foot-7 Fiedorowicz came to Iowa City with a lot of hype out of high school and finally lived up to the billing toward the end of the season. Twelve of his 16 catches came in the final four games, when he also had 105 yards and three receiving touchdowns. While Vandenberg will have some talented targets, we have yet to see how they’ll play without the safety net McNutt taking the eyes of the defense. Iowa’s running game could struggle (more on that later), meaning Vandenberg will have to throw more. That should help him surpass last season’s yardage.

Iowa team rushing yards: Over/Under 2,000

As mentioned above, there most certainly is an Iowa-running-back-hating God out there. Whether it’s through injury or off-the-field problems, the Hawkeyes have had so much trouble finding a consistent running game the past few years. Adam Robinson, Brandon Wegher and Marcus Coker all took turns as starters over recent years and should be on this season’s roster, but all left for various reasons. Add in Mika’il McCall, and that’s more than 4,000 yards lost. Last season, Iowa finished dead last in the Big Ten with 137.7 yards per game (1,790 total) and 3.9 yards per carry. This was more a result of lack depth in the backfield, as Coker finished second in rushing among individual players with 1,384 yards for an average of 4.9 yards, along with 15 touchdowns. The running game has always been important for the Iowa offense. In 2011, the Hawkeyes went 1-4 when they failed to rush for 100 yards, after going 0-3 in 2010.

So what does Iowa have this year? A year ago, it was Coker and no one else. This year, it’s going to have to be a group. Sophomore Jordan Canzeri was the returning leader in rushing yards, with just 114, but suffered a knee injury and will probably miss all of 2012. Sophomore Damon Bullock became the starter in the spring when Canzeri went down. Bullock had 10 rushes for 20 yards in 2011. Sophomore De’Andre Johnson finished spring as the No. 2 back, while incoming freshmen Greg Garmon and Barkley Hill could have a shot at playing time.

On the line, there are going to have to be replacements, as well. Iowa loses three linemen who started all 13 games, including left tackle Riley Reiff, who was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the NFL Draft. The most-experienced returner is senior center James Ferentz, son of head coach Kirk Ferentz and younger brother of new offensive line coach Brian Ferentz. Senior left guard Matt Tobin is the other returning starter. But this is Iowa. The offensive line is going to be pretty good no matter what. As for that backfield, the running game will determine how good of a season the Hawkeyes have this season. I’m going to go with less than 2,000 rushing yards for Iowa.

Iowa defensive sacks: Over/Under 20.5 sacks

A year ago, the defensive line was a question mark entering the season. This year, veterans Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels have departed, so the line is an even bigger question with less experience. Junior defensive end Dominic Alvis is the only returning starter on the line. Among the linebackers, Christian Kirksey and James Morris return as starters. Although the pair each had 110 tackles, only Kirksey had a sack, and he had just one.

The Hawkeyes had 22 sacks a year ago, but 18.5 of them came from seniors who are now gone. Iowa has never been a big sacking team, usually relying on the front four to get enough pressure. But the current inexperience could mean more blitzing. With a new defensive coordinator, things could be different in terms of the Iowa pass rush, but Phil Parker was a promotion, not an outside hire, so it’s hard to know if much will be different.

The historically-stout Iowa defense has been trending in the wrong direction over the past few years, and points allowed have increased every year since 2008. Although it’s by no means a bad defense, there is going to be pressure on an inexperienced offense to score. Iowa wanted to shake things up with a staff overhaul, so things should be less predictable on defense. While there is a lack of experience on the line, there should be enough to reach the over.

Iowa wins: Over/Under 7.5

The idea was that Iowa had become easy to gameplan for. Things needed a shake-up. With new players and new schemes, it will be a new-look Hawkeye team that takes the field in 2012. The schedule sets up for a confidence-building start. Iowa opens the season at Solider Field in Chicago against Northern Illinois, followed by four straight home games against Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Central Michigan and Minnesota. While the Hawkeyes have had recent struggles against Iowa State and Minnesota, it would not be a surprise to see them start the season at 5-0. That’s followed by a difficult road game at Michigan State. The next four games look like this: Penn State, at Northwestern, at Indiana, Purdue. The Hawkeyes could win all of those, they could also lose three of them. Iowa could very well be in contention for the Legends division crown before tough games at Michigan and against Nebraska to finish the result season.

If there’s one thing we know about the recent history of Iowa football, it’s that they can compete with anyone, but also lose to anyone. Given the amount of inexperience on this roster, that should be even more apparent this year. If things go according to plan, they should win the first five games and lose to MSU, U-M and Nebraska, giving them the four swing games in the middle of Big Ten play. The easy start should allow the young players to ease into their new roles, and everyone to adjust to new schemes.

The back seven on defense has four returning starters and should be solid. But if the front four can’t generate pressure, that’s going to change how much Iowa blitzes. Vandenberg is might be the best pro-style quarterback in the Big Ten, but some more targets are going to need to step up. The offensive line has a lot of holes to fill, but should be serviceable. Whether or not it’s good enough to help the young running backs is a different story. Iowa would like to narrow things down to two, maybe three, consistent ball-carriers, but may just need to go with whomever is the hot hand. That plan rarely seems to work with teams. If the Hawkeyes can run the ball, it should give them a chance to have another special season. With an easy schedule that misses Ohio State and Wisconsin, I’ve got Iowa going 8-4, but an early stumble could bring trouble.