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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Iowa

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. The defense was awash last year with "senior leadership," at both ends, both corners and two of the three linebacker spots, and generally played like a veteran group is supposed to: the Hawkeyes were 18th nationally in points allowed, and even removing the meager three points allowed bottom-dwellers Northern Illinois and Syracuse in the first two games only allowed a respectable 22.4 per game to Big Ten offenses, including holding Illinois to six (thank you, illegal formation) and somehow winning an overtime game against Michigan State despite a 5-for-15 passing day by Jake Christensen (see below). I watched all of the upset over Illinois, and in that game, at least, the Hawks were disciplined, aggressive and completely intolerant of the Illini option.

The least you should know about Iowa...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 6-6 (4-4 Big Ten, T-4th)
2003-07: 39-23 (23-17 Big Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 38 • 11 • 40 • 28 • 53
Returning Starters, Roughly
13 (8 Offense, 5 Defense)
Best Player
Mitch King is extremely productive for an interior lineman, with a linebacker-like 114 tackles in two years and 26.5 tackles for loss. King has started almost every game the last three years, was the Hawkeyes’ only first-team all-Big Ten pick by the coaches in ‘07 and is the key to a much younger supporting cast holding up in any serious way against the run.
Cultural Studies Department
For a bit of nonsense with The Last of the Mohicans in 1826. For no apparent reason, a judge and a newspaper editor who changed his paper’s name to the "Burlington Hawkeye" successfully lobbied to apply the nickname to Iowa in the 1840s. From the book and newspaper (which still exists) were spawned a Marvel comics character, an affable yet iconically cynical movie/TV doctor, an ethanol company, a software company, a line of all-terrain vehicle and a NASA spacecraft, among other things. So who says James Fenimore Cooper isn’t relevant?
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* According to Rivals.

Of course, the same group allowed 38 to Indiana, 31 to Purdue and 28 to Western Michigan in ugly losses, and it gets significantly younger -- five of the six vacant positions are expected to be filled by sophomores, with another sophomore (Brett Greenwood) returning at free safety and a pair of young ‘uns, Lance Tillison and Tyler Sash, supposedly pushing senior Harold Dalton at strong safety. The new guys have done nothing, but the vibes are not all bad, talent wise. Both new ends (Adrian Clayborn and converted tight end Christian Ballard) and corner Jordan Bernstine were all four star prospects. The linebackers should definitely miss active and impressively-named Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpalm and Clayborn and Ballard are only likely to hold the line for Bryan Mattison and Kenny Iwebema, but Bernstine was Rivals’ No. 3 incoming corner last year, which should be a clear upgrade by the end of the year over outgoing, three-year target Adam Shada.

What’s the Same. One thing you can say about Jake Christensen: the kid knows how to throw a ball a ball out of bounds. He was only intercepted six times, fewest in the Big Ten, against a relatively impressive 17 touchdowns. When one can achieve a nearly 3:1 TD:INT ratio and still finish last among regular starters in the conference in pass efficiency, he’s reaching entirely new levels of every-down frustration. Christensen only completed 53 percent of his passes, last in the Big Ten, for about 6.1 per attempt, also last.

No Jake is an island.
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To be fair, he didn’t have a lot of choices -- not only were his best receivers, Andy Brodell and tight end Tony Moeaki, injured most of the year, and the leftovers mediocre at best, but Christensen was lumbering for his life on a near-constant basis. Last we checked, Iowa’s offensive line was the pride of the team, but it hit rock-bottom last year by allowing a league-worst 46 sacks, mostly in some pretty ugly clusters: Iowa State had four, Wisconsin had four, Indiana (!) had eight, Penn State had five, Purdue had five, Northwestern had six, Western Michigan had four and even lame duck Minnesota managed three. Hawkeye partisans may recognize their team’s record in those games: 2-6. And when the sack totals are that high, the actual number of "pressure" situations, when most turnovers and other bad decisions go down, is much higher. On the rare occasions they protected Christensen, he didn’t always play well -- certainly not against Michigan State, or against Illinois, when the offense scored only ten -- but he didn’t make terrible mistakes that cost the game. Even if most sacks are really the quarterback's fault, the buck for the lowest-gaining, lowest-scoring offense in the conference has to stop up front.

Obviously, this group cannot possibly be worse. Five starters return, technically, plus two part-time starters, but concluding from highly scientific examination of the school’s own spring depth chart and the two-deep in Athlon, the only secure position on the line is that of senior right guard Seth Olsen; sophomore Brian Bulaga seems likely at one tackle or the other. The other positions are all apparently in the air. As they say: in this context, when you have eight linemen, you really have none.

Not to Jinx Them or Anything... As far as I can tell, no Hawkeye was arrested in the month of June, a tremendous achievement given the team’s well-chronicled, 1.000 per-month average in arrests since April 2007. In the fifteen months hence, 16 different Hawkeyes (nearly one in five of available scholarship players) were hit with charges of varying seriousness. Disregarding three boys-will-be-boys arrests for underage drinking, we have: Ryan Bain (disorderly conduct*); straight hustlin’ ballas Domonique Douglas (credit card fraud, public intoxication) and Anthony Bowman (credit card fraud), Dana Brown (domestic assault); James Cleveland (illegal prescription drugs), Ben Evans (drunken driving); Cedric Everson (second-degree sexual abuse); Bradley Fletcher (drunken driving); Clint Huntrods (public intoxication); Arvell Nelson (marijuana, drug tax stamp violation (? -- see here)); Abe Satterfield (second and third-degree sexual abuse); and Lance Tillison (drunken driving). That looks like the final tally -- for now. The incident involving Everson and Satterfield started making the rounds along with a mildly incriminating hip hop video in October, but they were just arrested in late May, so the "Days Without a New Legal Embarrassment" calendar is not that far along.

The overall thinning of the roster goes well beyond legal attrition, though: of the 67 players Iowa signed from 2005-07, twenty-one weren’t listed on the spring roster -- almost one in three -- and only five of that number were part of the team’s mini-spree. The 2005 class, in particular, is notorious in its nearly crime-free disappointment. That year’s haul, off the unlikely back-to-back-to-back co-conference championship seasons from 2002-05, was the eleventh-best in the country according to Rivals, the only nationally competitive class Iowa has signed in decades. Very little has gone right since, on or off the field. Entering year four, a little less than half of the ‘05 recruits (11 of 23) remain on the roster; only about half of those are on the official two-deep, and only three are listed as starters (four if you count guard Dan Doering, who the school lists as either/or to start against ‘06 signee Julian Vandervelde). If you were wondering what happened here after 2004, "four out of twenty-four" is a pretty good shorthand.

Your next starting tailback, if it comes to that.
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Overly Optimistic Increasingly Desperate Post-Spring Chatter. Even if he was still a walk-on, even if he was still pigmentally-challenged, Iowa’s running back situation wouldn’t seem to be in such dire straits if the starter at the end of the spring wasn’t actually named "Paki O’Meara." Yes, he sounds like a particularly racist St. Patrick’s Day mascot, but it’s not a joke: at least until a couple moderately-touted freshmen get to campus, there’s nowhere else to turn. Presumptive favorite Jevon Pugh left the team in April to go back to Florida; sometimes-mentioned candidate Shonn Greene has not returned to the team from a year in academic purgatory and would-be JUCO messiah Nate Guillory "had no idea what he was doing" in his first practices, according to Kirk Ferentz, especially when it comes to blocking. So, uh, Paki it is.

Even Iowans who survived the great running back massacre of 2004 can’t feign optimism about this. The presumably objective "Hawkmania" section of the Quad City Times made no attempt to sugarcoat the cold, hard truth in April:

It looks as if the starter for now might be Paki O’Meara.

Contain your enthusiasm.
The sophomore walk-on from Cedar Rapids Washington, who never has carried the ball in a college game, received this ringing endorsement from Ferentz: "If we have to go with him in the fall, we will.’’

A few seconds later he piled on even more praise: "Obviously, we’re hoping we’ll be able to supplement him with other players in the fall.’’
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To which the somewhat less objective Black Heart, Gold Pants responded, understandably:

Our horror cup overfloweth.
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Jake Christensen supplied by far the most diplomatic assessment of an O’Meara-led backfield:

"Paki is more of a power guy. He's a good leader, a real strong player who is good at pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield."
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I.e., he’s exactly what you’d expect: an undersized, back-up fullback best suited to special teams.

Not helping matters was the offensive line, whose status remained on ‘shuffle’ thanks to shoulder injuries to Olsen and Bulaga and various ailments to fellow starting candidates Dace Richardson, Rob Bruggeman and Rafael Eubanks, all of whom missed the competition.

Iowa on You Tube. Glory days! Fry! Shembechler! It’s a nailbiter in 1985 as No. 1 Iowa trails No. 2 Michigan, 10-9, with seconds to go, called by, well, guess who:

Gotta love Hayden Fry, the Father Abraham of modern college football. That team was the best he ever coached at Iowa -- it was the second of his three Rose Bowl trips -- but alas, the glory of the top spot wouldn’t last.

See Also: The famous University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders in their hey day. ... The campus prepares for the flooding earlier this month, to little effect. ... Tim Dwight in the second leg of the 1999 NCAA 4X400 Relays. ... And Hayden Fry’s own mini-Mike Gundy moment.

Best-Case: Four of the first five games are at home, all of them likely wins: Maine, Florida International, Iowa State and Northwestern. The toss-up in that first month is an intriguing trip to Pittsburgh, a real rubber match for both teams’ prospects. A 5-0 start is not at all out of the question before back-to-back road games at Michigan State and Indiana, where the Hawkeyes should be looking for a split to earn bowl eligibility before the toughest stretch of the year, against Wisconsin, Illinois and Penn State. Two of those (Wisconsin and PSU) are in Iowa City, but all three are probable losses before a chance to finish strong against Purdue and Minnesota. The defense should be fine -- not great in the vein of the Hodge-Greenway-Sanders units, but good enough if the line improves and the skill guys stay healthy to plug away at eight wins and one of the league’s middle tier bowls (Alamo, Champs Sports, Insight).

Men, if you’ve got one more of those inexplicable ten-win seasons in you, now might be the right time to break that out.
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Worst-Case: Ferentz’s teams are just 3-3 against Iowa State since 2002 and seem to consistently play down to the Cyclones; back-to-back disappointments against ISU and Pitt could set a very bad standard entering the Big Ten schedule. If Iowa happens to drop two of three against Northwestern, Michigan State and Indiana, the season becomes a real nightmare on the order of the 2-6 conference finish in 2006; even at 3-5, another losing record will certainly lure Torch ‘n Pitchforks ‘R Us to the lot down the road from the Ferenzt estate.

Non-Binding Forecast: The Lukewarm Seat or Bust. I have to apply here what I usually refer to as the "Purdue Rule," based on the unusually high expectations for the Boilermakers’ Michigan-and-Ohio State-free schedule in 2005: when the best thing you have to say about a team is which other, better teams it doesn’t play, that is not a team worth endorsing. Iowa misses the Wolverines and Buckeyes for the second year in a row; like last year, this anomaly (especially as it relates to rebuilding Michigan) is to be ignored completely. As I say, five games look like toss-ups, and the Pitt-Northwestern-Michigan State-Indiana stretch will define the direction of the season -- assuming they win the three before that, and lose the three after that, a 2-2 split there and another split against Purdue and Minnesota at the end leaves another unsatisfying, 6-6 collection of meh.<p>

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* Ryan Bain's charge was originally listed (inaccurately) as "drunken driving," per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The correct charge was disorderly conduct.