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Good Cop/Bad Cop: Iowa Football’s Over/Under

Examining the pros and cons in Iowa’s upcoming season

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

This football offseason has been one full of pessimism from me. So when I saw the Vegas over/unders open with Iowa at 6.5, I was filled briefly with hope. For Vegas to put Iowa slightly above .500, it must mean that I am missing something. A trip over to our Iowa-blogging brethren shows that I am in the minority with my pessimism.

So, am I being a realist or overly pessimistic? Are those sporting Brian Ferentz-colored glasses actually seeing reality? Time to activate everyone’s favorite schtick from buddy cop movies, but inside my own head:

Bad Cop: Learning Curve

Nearly everywhere I turn as we enter summer oozes “new.” New quarterback. New wide receivers. New backup running backs, which matters for a team like Iowa. New defensive tackle. New cornerbacks. New safety. The same is said for the offensive staff, as the only holdover manning the same role is LeVar Woods.

Iowa prides itself on its developmental model, which has been framed many different ways. The following two concepts have stuck with me, though I can’t for the life of me find the quotes, so I’ll paraphrase.

  • To have a great season, Iowa needs everyone who returns to improve upon where they were last year. Plus, you need a couple surprises: either kids with no expectations to perform well or starters to perform like bona fide stars.
  • In terms of playing teams like Michigan, it’s important to turn them into games of Iowa’s best 25 vs. the opponents best 25. Iowa cannot match many teams through 85, but they sure as hell can match through 25, maybe 30.

Right now - who are in Iowa’s top 25? How many of those 25 are have reasonable expectations of performing well? This, in and of itself, tells me 2017 will be, at the very most, a rebuild which yields 7 wins, with a very high chance under .500.

Good Cop: Back to Basics

There are two things overlooked with everything described as “new.” Those are the offensive line, which returns five guys who formed the best run-blocking unit down the stretch in: Boone Myers, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Sean Welsh, and Ike Boettger. The Paulsens have received their seasoning - Levi played in spots last year - and Alaric Jackson is a bona fide tackle recruit on the depth chart as a tackle instead of a Doyle-ized tight end or walk on. Iowa’s best teams have been built from the inside out.

Brian Ferentz’s promotion and Ken O’Keefe’s re-hire mean they will rely on this strength inside to eliminate the volatility which manifests itself in youth on the outside and under center. Ferentz the Younger understands what it means to put his best guys on the field and play to their strengths. This means a return of the “Bullies of the Big Ten” mindset he was a part of as a player. Both understand what works at Iowa and won’t try to fit the square peg of a Big 12-style offense into the round hole constraints of Big Ten weather and defenses. Even with all the losses to the NFL (and injury (and academic indigestion), it’s still hard to envision an offense being worse, statistically, than last year.

On the other side of the ball, losing Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakite hurts the line depth, but four others - Anthony and Matt Nelson, Parker Hesse, and Nathan Bazata - received significant playing time throughout 2016. All linebackers return. Though the secondary lost Desmond King to the Chargers, Mabin and Gair to graduation, and Snyder to injury, there is experience: Miles Taylor started most of 2015 and 2016. Josh Jackson and Manny Rugamba played well when called upon, as well.

Bad Cop: History

While the exodus of Greg Davis has been music to many fans’ ears, he’s still being replaced by someone who has called as many NCAA plays as I have. Despite his lack of experience, he was the only real candidate:

A further dive into the history books makes it clear it can be worse than last year. 2012 faced similar constraints on offense - new playbook, uncertain depth at skill positions - and it went horribly. They racked up 19 points and 310 yards per game, which was almost 6 points and 15 yards worse than 2016. The experience which departs in Greg Davis and CJ Beathard (and Ron Coluzzi) account for how they can score .107 more points per play than 2012’s offense, an even steeper drop off from 2015 to 2016 (.063).

Perhaps the most rosy comparison for what this offense could become, and it’s a stretch, is 2008. Staring down the barrel of a QB controversy, Kirk Ferentz leaned on a running back who had a bed made in Ferentz’s dog house and nasty defense.

As much as I love Akrum Wadley, he is no Shonn Greene. Greene was arguably Ferentz’s ideal RB as he was shifty like Albert Young, big like Mark Weisman. Yet, even that team caught a break with the schedule with four of their five conference wins coming against teams under .500 in the Big Ten and three non-conference wins against absolute pushovers. The best Iowa teams get better as the calendar turns to November, and even if this is the case for 2017, they’re facing two opponents who played in New Year’s Six bowl games during that fateful month plus a third who may be playing for a division title.

Good Cop: Future

With no entrenched starters at the skill positions, Brian Ferentz can play the best man at each spot without having to fight his father and the tenure track which often defines playing time. This means Brandon Smith and...Peyton Mansell make immediate impacts.* The combination of Toren Young and Toks Akinrabe provides the balance needed to maximize Akrum Wadley’s impact as a change-of-pace back masquerading as a starter. Ferentz also taps into his New England Patriots past to dial up the tight end voltron with Noah Fant, Peter Pekar, Nate Vejvoda, Jon Wisnieski, and Drew Cook.

*I am jealous of Max for being first on this bandwagon. Recent Land of 10 posts about Mansell make it easy to get behind him as starter since he is on relatively even footing with those already on campus.

Phil Parker continues his track record of developing NFL-caliber cornerbacks as Jackson and Rugamba shut down the outside. A safety emerges in Djimon Colbert or Amani Hooker. The vets along the line and at linebacker hold the fort while AJ Epenesa turns into a super saiyan on the edge and wreaks havoc on opposing tackles right out of the gate.

They probably lose an unnecessary game early, which makes clear the need for trial by fire with the above players. But it culminates strong performances at home to Ohio State and in Madison against a Wisconsin team struggling to find their footing before cruising against Purdue and Nebraska’s misguided 3-4 defense.

With that unbridled optimism, I can understand how Vegas gets to 6.5 as a line. It’s always much more fun to bet the over, than the under.

Until it loses.