Today is a special day in the world of Hawkeye sports. Today we get the first signs of life for the 2018 football season. A week ago, the returning players began their summer workouts. Over the weekend, the newcomers arrived on campus and today the team will kick off their training together for the first time.
There are just over 80 days standing between us and the first kickoff in Kinnick Stadium this fall. With those days slowly ticking down and the return of the players and newcomers to campus, what better time than now to take a look at expectations for the upcoming season?
What Others Are Saying
There seems to be a bit of a consensus among college football writers and oddsmakers alike heading into the 2018 season. Unsurprisingly, that consensus is that Iowa will be good, not great this year. Most are predicting 7.5 wins and a second place finish in the Big Ten West.
That’s where Phil Steele has the Hawkeyes, right behind Wisconsin in the division. He also has Noah Fant as the only 1st team All-Big Ten selection for Iowa.
Do you want to be the first to read the 2018 Phil Steele College Football Preview? The Digital Browser version for phone, computer or tablets browsers is available RIGHT NOW for $12.99!! https://t.co/P7ljSJYxMh pic.twitter.com/BQPPiYO5os— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) June 5, 2018
It’s also where BetDSI has the Hawkeyes. They also have Northwestern over/under 7.5 wins, which would mean Iowa and the Wildcats are tied for second. Here’s their full listing for the conference:
- Ohio State 10.5
- Wisconsin 10
- Penn State 9.5
- Michigan 8.5
- Michigan State 8.5
- Northwestern 7.5
- Iowa 7.5
- Minnesota 6
- Nebraska 5.5
- Indiana 5.5
- Purdue 5
- Maryland 4.5
- Rutgers 4
- Illinois 3.5
They also have Iowa at 200/1 to win the whole damn thing. Plan your retirements accordingly.
The South Point casino also has Iowa over/under 7.5 wins on the year, though they have the Hawkeyes firmly in sole possession of 2nd place in the West.
Perhaps the most optimistic projection, and it scares me to say this, seems to be ESPN’s Football Power Index. The FPI, which I typically loathe, has the Hawkeyes at 8-4 and a ranking of 25th overall. It projects Iowa to lose at home against Wisconsin and on the road against Penn State. The other two losses come via statistical probability rather than any individual matchups. The two closest to losses on the schedule are at Purdue (59.5% chance of winning) and home against Northwestern (64.5% chance).
What I’m Saying
This is going to come as a complete shock to you all, especially in a column entitled “Overreaction Monday”: I think Iowa outperforms all those expectations. I mean, I get why 7.5 seems to be the number, but I’m hammering the over.
Iowa lost an absolute stud RB in Akrum Wadley and saw his primary backup (when healthy) in James Butler graduate as well. That’s tough to replace. That’s exacerbated by the loss of guard Sean Welsh and center James Daniels. It would be easy to think the running game takes a major step back in 2018. In an offense predicated on the run game bleeding the clock and setting up manageable 3rd downs, that would certainly lead most to believe this team struggles to get much beyond 8 wins.
But it doesn’t account for a couple things.
First, the backfield isn’t exactly devoid of talent or experience. Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin both played meaningful minutes in 2017 with the injury to James Butler. Both showed they’re more than capable of filling in on a full time basis going forward. And they make a tremendous duo with Young providing the power between the tackles and IKM bringing the home run ability on the edges.
And over the weekend we got news of another strong addition to the backfield with the unexpected arrival of JUCO All-American RB Mekhi Sargent from Iowa Western. Like Kelly-Martin, Sargent bring some very good top-end speed and the ability to find his way to the edge. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield, amassing more than 900 receiving yards a season ago.
That provides three very good options to fill the void left by Wadley and Butler. It also presents opportunities to pressure opposing defenses in new ways with the varying skillsets and some creativity from offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Those opportunities are why I’m more optimistic about the season than other prognosticators may be.
And it’s not just the backfield. The talent at tight end is perhaps as good as we’ve seen in Kirk’s tenure, which is truly saying something given the rich history at that position. With Brian’s prior experience with the New England Patriots when they had the two-headed monster at tight end (the position group he coached) and the staff’s recent journey back to the Pats, I think we can count on some creative use of that talent in 2018.
Between the backs and the tight ends, defenses should have their hands full. But Iowa returns a pair of very good, young tackles and a number of high-potential interior linemen that should be able to provide time to throw for Nate Stanley. With a recent history of success at the QB position, Stanley is positioned to have perhaps more than any of those guys. Coming off a Hawkeye record-tying season in 2017, Stanley will have better command of the offense and more weapons to throw to on the edges.
The WR group continues to improve. After losing Matt VandeBerg to graduation, Iowa returns Nick Easley, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith. We should also see more of Max Cooper. The class of 2018 also included some potential playmakers with Calvin Lockett, Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy. If the Ferentz family wants to get creative in 2018, they’ll have options.
The defense will have their work cut out for them, needing to replace all three starting linebackers and an All-American corner in Josh Jackson. But the defensive line will be very good with the kinds of athletes on the ends that can put pressure on opposing QBs without needing to bring extra defenders. The safety position will also be very solid with the return of Jake Gervase, Brandon Snyder and 2017’s breakout star Amani Hooker.
I look for the corners to be solid, despite a likely dropoff from the level of play you get with a star like Jackson. But we’ve seen glimpses in the past from Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia. Matt Hankins proved he belonged a year ago and the depth chart is loaded with potential in guys like Josh Turner, Trey Creamer and newcomers like DJ Johnson, Julius Brents, Dallas Craddieth and Terry Roberts. Phil Parker has the secondary in reload rather than rebuild mode.
All that has me optimistic. Based purely on returning and additional talent, I’d take the over on 7.5 wins for Iowa in 2018. I think we’ve seen 7-5 to 8-4 as the baseline for Kirk Ferentz. With this talent I’d guess 8-4 to 9-3. But then you look at the schedule.
There are certainly some potential land mines on there, but any reasonable person who takes the time to break down what Iowa has returning should see a clear path to well beyond 8 wins. Iowa State should be solid again, though I don’t see 8 wins for them. Wisconsin will be an early barometer with the winner likely in the driver seat for the Big Ten title game.
Penn State on the road will be a major challenge and Purdue gave Iowa problems a year ago. Northwestern has always been a thorn in the side of Ferentz the elder, but beyond that, there appears to be a lot of Ws. Assuming Iowa doesn’t lose all the tough matchups, you get over 7.5 wins.
For me? As I said, I’m hammering that over. I don’t see 8-4 or 9-3. I think 10 wins should be the target for this team. An early win over Wisconsin and I think this team is looking at 11-1 and a return to Indy. A loss and they still have a shot if the Badgers stub their toe.
Bottom line: this is going to be a good Iowa team. They’re being underrated by nearly everyone. I’m sure I’ll be disappointed, but I’ve got my room booked in Indy.
Happy Monday, ya’ll. Stay optimistic this week, football is just around the corner. Go Hawks!
Full disclosure: the room is 100% refundable up to 2 days prior and I stayed in Champaign the last time around. I will NEVER do that again.