The smell of barbecue and freshly opened beer wafts through the air. The blinding gold is muted only by the black mixed in. The early fall sunshine beams down, warming you to the brink of being hot. The low rumble of voices in the distance slowly turns a wild, joyous rumble.
You’ve made it. After months and months of waiting, reading and prognosticating on the season, you’re standing on Melrose Avenue. The sights, sounds, smells, feels and flavors of college football are overtaking you. College football is back.
7 Days Earlier
We’re almost there. It’s so close to game week, we can nearly taste it. After what seems like an eternity of an offseason where we’ve looked at this upcoming season from nearly every angle, we have but one more week to look ahead with hope and optimism (or pessimism) without being burdened by the realities of the season to date.
As we count down those final days until kickoff, soaking up all the camp photos, videos and insider reports we can get our hands on, there are important questions we’ve approached from different angles, but need to address head on. Questions like “will Oliver Martin have an answer to his waiver request before the season begins?” and “will A.J. Epenesa send flowers to the families of his victims?”. While the answers to some may seem obvious (of course A.J. will send flowers, he’s widely revered as a genuinely nice guy), these are our final few days to wildly speculate on the future and we should embrace that to the fullest.
So, let’s attack some of the big, broad questions before we dive into the nitty gritty. Here are the big ones:
1) Who’s the most important player on offense this season?
2) What about on defense?
3) What will be the biggest change between last year and this year?
4) What is the most important game on this schedule and will Iowa win it?
5) How many games will the Hawkeyes win and where are we booking our winter vacations?
5 Months Later
And just like that, we re-enter the dark abyss that is the offseason. In the blink of an eye, the college football season is gone. We’re now left with month after month of dissecting all the what-ifs, the shoulda, woulda, couldas and what could have beens.
For the Hawkeyes, like oh so many times before, 2019 was filled with those missed opportunities and questions of what could have been. Looking back in the rear-view mirror, Hawkeye fans are surely asking themselves how they possibly watched one of the most talented groups ever to play for Kirk Ferentz not capitalize on the chances given to them.
The season results follow a similar pattern to the stats of starting QB Nate Stanley. No doubt, Stanley was no doubt the most important offensive player for a team that needed its offense to simply avoid costly mistakes. Despite leaving Iowa City as the Hawkeyes’ all-time leader in touchdown passes, Stanley came up short in the two most important games of the year - at Michigan and against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
That’s both frustrating and disappointing for fans and the coaching staff alike given the progress we saw this year. After years of complaining about the Hawkeyes playing in a phone booth, we saw the offense open this year with substantially more success throwing the ball deep down field. That success has to be attributed to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, but also to the talented tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs for getting Stanley enough time for those slower developing plays. But most of all, credit goes to Stanley for sharpening up his deep ball - something he had been criticized for earlier in his career.
But when it mattered most, Stanley couldn’t connect against the Buckeyes and instead threw three interceptions in Indianapolis, quashing any dreams of finally getting that Big Ten title. That’s very disappointing given the year this defense had behind the leadership of star A.J. Epenesa.
While Maui didn’t put up the absurd number of sacks many predicted before the year began, the attention he drew off the edge gave fellow end Chauncey Golston the room to show he’s likely worthy of a top 2-3 round draft pick this spring. That’s not to say Eppy’s numbers weren’t impressive. The 12 sacks are still tremendous and the Edwardsville native will leave Iowa City for the NFL as the third leading sack man in Big Ten history.
And the pressure created up front no doubt changed the game plan for so many opposing offenses. After racking up a ridiculous 15 turnovers through the first four games, we saw Michigan finally break the Iowa defense with quick hitters in the passing game. That largely negated the edge rush and limited chances for future stars like Matt Hankins and D.J. Johnson.
While Iowa was able to bounce back against Penn State, Northwestern showed once again that it wasn’t just talent that could exploit the weaknesses Michigan found. The Hawkeyes bounced back nicely in what proved to be the most important game of the year, finally beating Wisconsin in what was the deciding game in the Big Ten West race, but we saw Ohio State go to the same well in Indy. Had Iowa found a way to combat the short throws with more effectiveness, or counter with a more proficient run game, perhaps we would have seen a more satisfying result for a season that was on the brink of being special.
7 Months Later
Can you feel that? That energy in the air? College football is just around the corner again!
As we prepare for the 2020 season, it’s hard to imagine Iowa outdoing what they accomplished in 2019. After finishing the regular season 10-2 with that gut-wrenching loss to fOSU in Indianapolis, the Hawkeyes showed what they were really capable of with perhaps the most impressive bowl win of Kirk Ferentz’s career with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU.
Now, KF and staff have to find a way to replace their 3-year starter at QB, as well as their bookend tackles who each went in the first round of last spring’s NFL Draft. As if that weren’t enough, Phil Parker finds himself searching for a way to replace both starting defensive ends, including third overall pick A.J. Epenesa, and star safety Geno Stone.
Can the Hawkeyes find a way to replace those missing pieces? Will they need turn back to the run game as their bread and butter? Will Oliver Martin ever get an answer to his waiver appeal? We answer those questions below.
12 Months Earlier
While Iowa has historically been a run-first team, the success of the offense in 2019 rests squarely on the shoulders of Nate Stanley. The defense is poised to be one of the best we’ve seen under Kirk Ferentz, which is saying something. Unless we see substantial improvement on the interior of the offensive line from a year ago, expect Iowa to rely on Stanley to make things happen with his arms and Brian Ferentz to get more creative in his approach to establishing the run.
If they can do that, this could be a very special year. With the talent of A.J. Epenesa, the rest of the defensive line is going to have opportunity after opportunity to get into the backfield. The secondary is littered with playmakers who will prey on opposing QBs forced to make quick decisions. And the potential of big-bodied newcomers in the middle like Daviyon Nixon and Noah Shannon to rotate with veterans like Cedric Lattimore and Brady Rieff means running against this front should be a problem.
Great defense coupled with a less predictable offense should spell victory for Ferentz in 2019. The schedule is brutal, but there are question marks abound with most of those big name opponents. Will Iowa State finish the year with the same QB that starts the Iowa game? Can Penn State replace all that departed talent on offense? Is there a corner Brohm can pick on for an entire game in 2019? Can Wisconsin be successful running the ball 95% of the time?
We’ll find out, but those discounting Iowa’s potential success based purely on schedule do so at their own risk. This is a team that has the talent to have a double-digit win season. The path to Indianapolis runs through Madison (hat tip to Pat Fitzgerald, but I’m calling last year a fluke) and if Iowa can find a way to combat 7 offensive linemen and a cloud of dust, Iowa should be in the title game, regardless of all the preseason calls for no more than 8 wins.
Now, about Oliver Martin...