College football starts this month! We're so happy about this that we're willing to overlook the fact that the season opens with Minnesota against UNLV—the football equivalent of choosing a Coal Chamber song for your wedding's first dance.
That said, it's nearly impossible to just be happy about the return of football and have your feelings and opinions end there; while everyone's records are reset to 0-0, there are still expectations to be met (or not), still standards of success and hierarchies of power that last from year to year. A 6-6 year for Michigan's a lot different than one for Northwestern, after all, and everyone knows it.
So as we sprint headlong into the 2013 season, where do the power rankings shake out, and where do we find the Iowa Hawkeyes?
1. Iowa Hawkeyes. Nobody, not even Ohio State, is as primed for a Big Ten title run as the Iowa Hawkeyes are. The offensive line returns mostly intact and the running back situation is as deep as it's been since AIRBHG reared its head. The defensive line has the highest level of talent and depth of any unit on the entire team—crucial to Iowa's best programs under Ferentz—while the linebacking corps has the kind of experience coaches dream of. With an enticing mix of talent and experience around the rest of the team and returners at every special teams position, Iowa has the type of personnel that wily veteran coach Kirk Ferentz loves to turn into winners. Ohio State's losses are substantially heavier, and the Ohio St. Buckeyes look to be vulnerable, even in Columbus. And hey, even if the Hawkeyes stumble once, that's fine; 7-1 has won the Legends Division outright in both of the Big Ten's first two years of divisional play. And really, isn't coming from out of nowhere to earn a BCS bowl bid just about as "Kirk Ferentz" as it gets?
2. Iowa Hawkeyes. We're not going to put Iowa ahead of Ohio State—that team's frickin' loaded—but Iowa's probably earning a trip to Indianapolis out of the perennially vulnerable Legends Division. There are subpar rush defenses all over the place in the division, and Iowa is poised to turn that aspect of the offense from a liability to a strength in 2013. If Mark Weisman logs 25 carries a game, he'll make a run at 1,500 yards and All-Big Ten status; he may not need to, though, with backups Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri rapidly improving and ready to provide a change of pace. The games won't be pretty, but we've seen Kirk Ferentz win ugly before and we'll probably see it again in 2013.
3. Iowa Hawkeyes. The good thing about nightmares is they don't last long, and when they're over the real world's here to take over. In the real world, Iowa is an upper-echelon Big Ten program under Kirk Ferentz, and that reality will take hold in 2013. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is much more acclimated to the program, and the personnel's more acclimated to him, so the days of averaging under 20 points a game are over. Combine that with a typically stout defense bringing back most of its top players, and those close losses (2-5 in one-possession games last season) should be moving hard to the other side of the ledger.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes. It may be too much to ask Iowa to win the Legends Division this soon after a 2-6 performance in 2012; there are simply no easy wins in the division, and nobody's going to come out of it looking good. But Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern all have to come to Kinnick Stadium in 2013, and the Hawkeyes are bound to ruin a season or two en route to a Gator Bowl appearance and a significantly cooler seat for Kirk Ferentz. And hey, if the rest of the conference cooperates enough, this might even be an Outback Bowl appearance. Not too shabby.
5. Iowa Hawkeyes. The glory days are pretty much over, but if you need someone to win 8 games a year, Kirk Ferentz is your guy—and he'll prove it again this year. The loss of CB Micah Hyde to the Packers stings, and the lack of a clear-cut QB will hamper the offense. The WR corps is in the opening stage of an overhaul too, but there's some experience returning and Iowa can scheme around the youth by going TE-heavy. And that's basically it for true question marks on the Iowa roster; everywhere else, Ferentz knows more or less who he's plugging in, and when Ferentz is comfortable with his personnel he can get to a bowl with ease. Look for that to happen again.
6. Iowa Hawkeyes. Hey, it's the top half of the conference, and while that's probably not enough for a Top 25 finish, it is more in line with Iowa's recent standards. The lack of star power hurts Iowa's chances against elite competition, but the weak spots won't be as weak this time around, and that'll be enough to reestablish Iowa as a program that routinely makes bowl games and makes life hell for Big Ten opponents. The Hawkeyes won't win the Legends, but they definitely won't finish last again either.
INTERMISSION: JESUS, CHAD FORGOT HIS DRUMS, HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO SHOOT A MUSIC VIDEO WHEN THE DRUMMER DOESN'T HAVE HIS DRUMS
7. Iowa Hawkeyes. There's a thin line between "meh" and "guh," and last year aside, Kirk Ferentz has proven surprisingly adept at walking that line without endangering the season or his career. He's got a tough task this year, with a moribund offense losing its senior leader at QB but keeping its coordinator, but the Jake Rudock - Cody Sokol - CJ Beathard - Nic Shimonek competition will breed one good starter, and hey, one is all you need. The Beatles said that.
8. Iowa Hawkeyes. A thin QB corps isn't what Kirk Ferentz needs to get his Hawkeyes back to the upper echelon of the Big Ten, so any talk of a surprise season along the lines of what Northwestern pulled in 2012 is somewhere between "premature" and "foolish." Still, the defense will keep Iowa in most games, and as long as the key players in the rushing game stay healthy—please stop laughing, AIRBHG hates laughter—there should be about as many close games for the black and gold as there were in 2012. All in all, it'll be a return to what Iowa's been for most of the last seven seasons: a program just on the right side of bowl eligibility.
9. Iowa Hawkeyes. Mediocrity is the name of the game once again as Iowa simply tries to survive until the new divisional alignment comes and lightens the schedule. "Survive" is relative here, as The offense is sorely lacking in star power, especially in a scheme where it's easy for opposing defenses to take top TE CJ Fiedorowicz out of the Iowa attack plan, and the dearth of playmakers on the defensive front (aside from DT Carl Davis, who will get rewarded with double-teams on practically every snap) won't do the rest of the team any favors. The talent disparity isn't horribly bad and a bowl bid may yet be in play, but coaches don't last long in the Big Ten when they can't escape the bottom third of the conference.
10. Iowa Hawkeyes. Remember when Iowa fans could count on the rivalry trophies keeping a home in Iowa City? Those days are long gone, as
all four trophies reside with Iowa's rivals and [LOL I forgot about Floyd] those four games (@Iowa State, @Minnesota, Wisconsin, @Nebraska) bode poorly in 2013. Kirk Ferentz's lackluster recruiting has become a program-killer, with Iowa trotting out inferior talent at too many positions and no longer able to turn sleeper prospects into All-Big Ten players with any reliability. Don't look for any postseason glory here this year or any time soon.
11. Iowa Hawkeyes. If Kirk Ferentz survives a season this bad, it'll only be because Gary Barta's scared of the buyout, because there's really no excuse for a team that has finished in the Top 10 nationally four times in the last 12 seasons to be in the basement of a weak Big Ten twice in a row. The QB situation will unfold as bad as most predict, and if you thought last year was a problem, wait until someone who's never thrown a pass against NCAA defenses has to take the reins. By the time Mark Weisman runs himself into the ground again, morale will slump among players and fans, and the potential for embarrassment in the last two weeks (Michigan, @Nebraska) will be disturbingly high.
12. Iowa Hawkeyes. Jesus holy hell, even the Illinois Fighting Illini are better than the Hawks. The offense implodes again, the defense wears out without any meaningful pass rush or LB coverage skills, the buzzsaw that is the Legends Division eats Iowa alive, and Kirk Ferentz is excused from his coaching duties before he can even get to the locker room after a season-ending loss at Nebraska, and Iowa enters a spiral of deep debt and low levels of talent that keeps it in the basement for years to come. It won't be the '70s, but it'll feel about as miserable. And the worst part is, Iowa fans will have to come to grips with the fact that that doofus Stewart Mandel was right the entire time.