Just prior to the weekend, ESPN.com’s Big Ten blog published the finishing touches on their “Top Big Ten players” series, where they ranked the top 25 players in the league going into this upcoming football season. Their list had Josey Jewell at #22, C.J. Beathard at #14, and Desmond King at #3, only behind OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett (#1) and Michigan State’s monstrous DT Malik McDowell (#2).
While you already have an idea of how the Hawks stack up against some of their opponents for this year thanks to the Coaches Poll (only one of their opponents is in this iteration of the Top 25), they play a handful of the best players the Big Ten has to offer this season. Out of the 22 non-Iowa players on the ESPN Big Ten Blog’s list, 14 of them are set to play the Hawkeyes, barring any injuries or suspensions. Every team the Hawks play in conference play this year has at least one player on this list, except for one (I’m looking at you, Purdue).
Let’s take a look at the players Iowa faces this year, in order of when they’re on the schedule rather than chronological order.
Sept. 24 - at Rutgers Scarlet Knights
#21. Darius Hamilton, DT
Hamilton suffered a knee injury last year which kept him out of 11 of 12 games for the Scarlet Knights, and therefore received a medical waiver to come back for one final season. While it’s hard for players to come back from knee injuries a lot of the time, especially big players (this dude is 285 lbs of sheer terror), Hamilton was a force to be reckoned with in the 2014 season, where he had 45 tackles (11.5 for loss) and six sacks. While Rutgers shouldn’t beat the Hawks, he’ll be a player who can disrupt the flow of the game for Iowa.
Oct. 1 - vs Northwestern Wildcats
#11. Justin Jackson, RB
#5. Anthony Walker, LB
The Wildcats probably aren’t poised to repeat their 10-win success from last year (their non-con is tough and they play OSU, MSU, and the Hawks on the road, yikes), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a relatively successful season behind these two players. Anthony Walker is being dubbed as “The Franchise,” which, uh, isn’t really a great nickname, but he did have 122 tackles and 20.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore (but only four tackles against Iowa). You only figure he’s going to get better as he matures.
On the other side of the ball, Justin Jackson proved to be more than a capable running back in his sophomore season, totaling over 1,500 yards of offense, although only garnering five touchdowns. Iowa stifled him last year, allowing only 30 yards on 10 carries in their rout of Northwestern, so there’s hope to do that again this year in Kinnick.
If either of these players figures it out against Iowa this year, this will be a much closer game than last season.
Oct. 8 - at Minnesota Golden Gophers
#23. Mitch Leidner, QB
The Gophers QB is nothing if not inconsistent, as shown by his 2015 game log. To be honest, this was a surprise entry at the bottom of the list, given Leidner’s poor 56.3% career completion percentage, and I’m not sure I quite understand the hype behind him (Mel Kiper has him as a potential first-rounder in 2017????). He did take a step forward in 2015, throwing for just over 2,700 yards and completing 59.5% of his passes, but he’s definitely most dangerous because of his ability to run. Still, this is a puzzling pick at #23.
Despite his very average stats, he did have his best game of the 2015 campaign under the lights at Kinnick, where he completed 19 of 27 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown to go along with a rushing touchdown.
Oct. 15 - at Purdue Boilermakers
OMHR doesn’t have anyone on the list. They have won six games in the last three years. They’re just not very good. Sorry, Purdue.
Oct. 22 - vs. Wisconsin Badgers
#19. Vince Biegel, LB
#16. Corey Clement, RB
Vince Biegel comes back for his senior year to anchor what was already a damn good defense last year. Last year, he recorded 66 tackles, 14 TFL, and racked up eight sacks, and he wasn’t even the best defensive player on the team. You might remember him from the 10-6 BARNBURNER of a game where he recorded 10 tackles and a half sack. Without Schobert helping man the middle of the field, look for Biegel to have an even bigger role this year.
On the flip side, Corey Clement was a huge bust for Wisco last year due to a sports hernia injury he suffered last summer and a suspension he earned after lying to coaches about an off-field incident (you can read about his problems from last year here if you’re interested). The old heir-apparent to the Badgers’ RB throne after the departures of Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon in the past few seasons, he looks to rebound this year and reclaim some of his magic touch from 2014 where he neared 1,000 yards as a backup.
Nov. 5 - at Penn State Nittany Lions
#4. Saquon Barkley, RB
Barkley impressed as a true freshman last year, rushing for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman behind what’s been known as an abysmal offensive line in recent years (ask Christian Hackenberg). The main questions behind whether or not he’ll be able to take the next leap involve the pieces around him: will Penn State be able to replace Christian Hackenberg? Will the offensive line be better this year? If the answers to those questions are “yes,” Barkley will do some damage this year, and will likely be a huge threat to the Hawkeyes a tough environment like State College.
Nov. 12 - vs. Michigan Wolverines
#25. Ryan Glasgow, DT
#9. Jake Butt, TE
#7. Jabrill Peppers, LB
#6. Jourdan Lewis, CB
Michigan is BY FAR the best team the Hawkeyes are set to face this season, and I could probably talk about these four players for 500+ words. Granted, no one wants to hear me talk about a Harbaugh led team for too long so I’ll make it short.
The Wolverines are expected to be hellacious on defense this year, despite losing all three starting linebackers from last season’s fourth ranked defense. The team has added DC Don Brown, who led Boston College’s #1 ranked defense last year, and boasts a rock-solid defensive line. Peppers is the star of this defense and figures to move from safety to linebacker with few to no problems. This unit could make life miserable for the Hawkeyes under the Kinnick lights this November.
On the opposite side of the ball, things are a little less certain. The team still doesn’t have a quarterback decided upon yet after the departure of former Iowa QB Jake Rudock, but regardless of who the Wolverines choose as field general, Jake Butt will surely be the focal point of the offense. Harbaugh loves using tight ends, and after raking in 51 catches as a junior, Butt should only get better in his second year in the system. Iowa could be able to shut him down with their experienced defense.
Nov. 19 - at Illinois Fighting Illini
#18. Dawuane Smoot, DE
Smoot should have a helluva year for the Illini in 2016. In a strong 2015 campaign, he recorded 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks, but you probably haven’t heard of him because Illinois has been pretty bad as of late. This year, under new HC Lovie Smith, the Illini should improve on defense, giving Smoot more opportunities when opposing offenses have to start game planning for other players. Smith (as I learned during his time with the Bears) isn’t one for blitzing, so Dawuane should have plenty of opportunities to continue blowing plays up in the backfield. Regardless of whether or not the Illini prove to be more stout on defense this season, Smoot will draw plenty of focus from the Hawkeye offensive line.
Nov. 25 - vs. Nebraska Bugeaters
#24. Jordan Westerkamp, WR
#17. Tommy Armstrong, Jr., QB
Westerkamp is actually the highest ranked wide receiver on this list at #24, and it’s mostly due to his knack for the big play. He’s made some ridiculous catches and clutch catches, but has yet to go over 1,000 yards receiving in a season yet. That could very well change this year, as Tommy Armstrong is more seasoned and Westerkamp will be the #1 receiver.
Armstrong is somebody Hawkeye fans are very familiar with at this point, seeing as how he’s started 33 games in his career already. He, however, will need to do some work to cut down on the turnovers this season if he wants to be among the league’s elite. In his career, he’s thrown 36 INTs and fumbled countless times as well. Like Leidner, he’s not a very accurate thrower, as evidenced by his completion percentage of less than 55%, and he’s most dangerous as a threat to run the ball. Iowa has generally kept him in check, although he can be dangerous if he gets it going. Big if, though.
If Iowa gets through the gauntlet of the Big Ten season on top of the West Division, they’ll potentially get the treat of going up against even more star athletes, as six of the eight remaining players on the list are enrolled at Ohio State and Michigan State. Let’s hope that’s the case and that the Hawks get a chance to face the fiercest competition in December.