2015 Record: 12-2 (8-0 B1G)
2015 Final S&P+ Ranking: 47
2016 Projected S&P+ Ranking: 38
Returning Starters: 5 Offense, 8 Defense
How about that Christian McCaffrey?
In case you forgot -- if you happen to be near a Hawkeye fan, they'll be more than happy to remind you -- the Hawkeyes were 12-0 last season before LJ Scott and Michigan State brought their playoff aspirations to a screeching halt with a game-winning 22-play drive in the Big Ten Championship. Iowa was rewarded for their efforts with a trip to the Rose Bowl, where thousands of Hawkeye fans watched in near silence as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey delivered a record-breaking performance in a 45-16 blowout that was effectively over after the first play from scrimmage.
Now, I must give credit where credit is due. Iowa's undefeated regular season was no small task, even with legitimate questions about their weak schedule. The Rose Bowl made it clear that the Hawkeyes are nowhere near the top tier of college football, but they are at the very least the cream of the crop in the Big Ten West for the moment. Kirk Ferentz turned in one of the best career-saving seasons ever after a certain sect of Hawkeye fans were calling for his ouster in the offseason. Now they're talking about a contract extension to ensure he retires at Iowa. Kudos to you, Kirk.
Although the Hawkeyes have a solid group of returning starters from last season, I doubt we're in for another #SpecialSeason. But don't expect them to go 4-8 and miss a bowl game. This is still a good team, and I don't see a game on their schedule that isn't winnable for the Hawkeyes -- unfortunately.
Starters depart but experience reigns on offense
Not be confused with the much more likable 'Sunshine' from the classic Disney film Remember the Titans, senior quarterback CJ Beathard is back under center (with a haircut, I believe) for the Hawkeyes after serving as a breath of fresh air on offense last season. Beathard was accurate, efficient, and took care of the ball, with 223 completions, 362 attempts, 2,809 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. He was also adept at escaping the pocket and keeping plays alive with his legs until getting banged up late in the season slowed that aspect of his game.
Leading rusher Jordan Canzeri graduated, but running backs LeShun Daniels, a senior, and Akrum Wadley, a junior, return from last year's committee of tailbacks. The two combined for 1,174 rushing yards on 228 carries with 15 touchdowns a season ago, and both had standout games over the course of the season. Daniels and Wadley will run behind a typically stout offensive line that features five experienced starters, despite the graduation losses of center Austin Blythe and right guard Jordan Walsh.
Wide receiver Tevaun Smith and tight end Henry Krieger-Coble depart, but the Hawkeyes have senior wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and senior tight end Henry Kittle ready to step in. VandeBerg was the team's leading receiver and Beathard's go-to target for most of last season. Kittle was a lethal red zone weapon, with six touchdowns on the year. Sophomore Jay Scheel, a highly touted in-state recruit, will also be one to watch at wideout. The Hawkeyes are excited about his athleticism and versatility.
Desmond King is back. Drew Ott is not.
Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King returning for his senior season represents a huge boost for the Hawkeyes on defense. But Iowa will be without defensive end Drew Ott, who missed the latter half of the season a year ago due to injury, after the NCAA denied his petition for a sixth year.
King will lead a defense rated as 32nd in college football last season according to S&P+. The Hawkeyes return an experienced group of defensive backs that ranked 13th in the nation last year in passing efficiency on defense but ranked 60th in passing yards allowed with 219.6 yards per game. Senior Greg Mabin will start at the cornerback spot opposite King and will receive most of the attention from opposing passers, as King was able to nab a school record-tying nine interceptions when the ball came his way. Replacing graduating senior Jordan Lomax at strong safety will be a challenge for the secondary.
With Ott out at midseason last year, the load at defensive end fell to senior Nate Meier and freshman Parker Hesse. Meier led the team with seven sacks but is now gone, with Hesse and fellow sophomore Matt Nelson leading the pass rush on the edge. Both starting tackles -- senior Jaleel Johnson and junior Nathan Bazata -- return after having combined for 87 tackles, seven sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss a season ago. The defensive line should make for another strong defensive front seven when coupled with the Hawkeyes' experienced linebacker corps.
Junior Josey Jewell is the stud at linebacker after having a breakout season last year at middle linebacker, leading the team in tackles with 126, plus three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Outside linebacker Cole Fisher, the team's second leading tackler, is gone, but junior Ben Niemann returns after being a solid contributor last season.
Can the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes?
Yes. The Gophers went toe to toe with the Hawkeyes under the lights at Kinnick Stadium last season and came up short, in large part due to a depleted defensive front that couldn't stop the run, keep Beathard in the pocket, or convince the officiating crew to call a much-needed holding penalty. The Hawkeyes' last visit to TCF Bank Stadium was a 51-14 drubbing in 2014 that no doubt kept Kirk Ferentz up at night for weeks with nightmares of former Gophers tight end Maxx Williams scoring more touchdowns.
The talent gap between these two teams is not far. The last two battles for the Floyd of Rosedale have been evidence of that. I expect that we'll see a hard fought battle whenever Iowa and Minnesota take the field the next few years, with home field advantage often being the difference. The Gophers haven't won at Kinnick Stadium since 1999, and the Hawkeyes are 1-3 at TCF Bank Stadium. This will also be a huge game for both teams in terms of contending in the Big Ten West. If Minnesota loses on the road to Penn State the week before, expect a motivated Gopher squad to take the field against Iowa to avoid an 0-2 start to conference play.
I like the Gophers' chances in this one, but Iowa has a good squad and they're not going to part with Floyd without one heck of a fight.
For more on the Iowa Hawkeyes, check out a more in-depth preview from SB Nation's Bill Connelly.