It's late July, and a young man's thoughts turn to football. And so this week we finally dug into the Phil Steele college football guide, the only essential preseason reading for any fan of VHTs and returning starter charts. Here's what we found:
1. The special teams were as bad as you thought they were. The great Ferentz years were marked by big special teams plays by guys like Bob Sanders, Sean Considine and Adrian Clayborn and consistent kicking and punting by Hawkeye specialists. In recent years, Iowa's special teams haven't been what they once were, but still looked serviceable. In Steele's unit rankings, Iowa's special teams usually landed in the top 40. In 2011 and 2012, they fell into the 50s, but had never been lower than that under Ferentz. That was, until last year.
To borrow from Rick Pitino, Bob Sanders was not walking through that door in 2014. Neither was Jason Baker, for that matter. Iowa finished 109th in Steele's special teams rankings last year, due almost exclusively to horrendous net punting and equally horrendous punt returning. Iowa's top punt returner had just 82 punt return yards, and the team netted just 33 yards per punt. Much of that was due to the kicker -- both Kidd and Kornbrath were disasters -- but Iowa's cro-magnon punt coverage scheme doesn't help. Steele said it best: "Iowa had a disappointing season in '14 and I can point a finger right at this unit."
2. The roster is right where we thought it was. Steele places a lot of emphasis on "unit rankings," preferring to rank an entire group of running backs or linebackers over individual players. His opinions on Iowa in relation to the rest of the country at the moment are not good. Not one single unit makes Steele's top 45. and none are above seventh in the conference. Just two players (center Austin Blythe and defensive end Drew Ott) make his first- or second-team all-conference selections. The Hawkeyes lost more than any other Big Ten West team in quantity and quality from last year's graduating class; 59 percent of Iowa's 2014 yards from scrimmage and 41 percent of its tackles are gone, and the offensive line has just 69 combined career starts. Steele says it best: "There is nothing about this Iowa team that would have you thinking Big Ten West contender." So then why does he have Iowa tied for third in the division?
3. The schedule? Maybe not so much. Steele's prediction for Iowa is as much about Iowa's cupcake schedule as anything else: "Iowa draws Indiana and [Maryland] from the East and 5 of my 9 sets of power rankings [Ed. note -- HE HAS NINE SETS OF POWER RANKINGS] call for 5-3 in the Big Ten." Like everyone, Steele is enamored with Iowa's schedule, arguably the easiest slate of any Power 5 team in the nation this year. Iowa's schedule went 65-74 last year, the lowest win total of any schedule from a Power 5 conference and second-lowest win percentage (only Duke is worse).
And yet, when ranking this year's toughest schedules, Steele puts Iowa's slate above a handful of comparable programs, including Wisconsin. In fact, Iowa's #62 ranking in Steele's table of toughness looks borderline respectable. What gives? For one, Steele believes that Iowa's opponents were unlucky last year and should be better in general (though not across the board). He's higher than most on Maryland's chances this year (though he does expect them to finish with a worse record than last season due to a more difficult schedule), and lists Indiana as one of the most likely teams in the country to have an improved record in 2015. Steele believes that Iowa actually has one of the more underrated schedules in all of college football, which is terrifying given that the schedule is our only source of hope at the moment.
4. Iowa could benefit from last year's close losses, if it can stop being Iowa. Seasoned Steele readers (Steelers?) know that, while the jargon is complicated, Steele's basic prediction model is fairly simple: Evaluate personnel based on recruiting standing and past performance, quantify the force multiplier of experience, attempt to eliminate potential bias due to randomness, and see who will win the next year. It's worked well for him in the past.
One of those items of "randomness" is a favorite of ours: Close wins and losses. Over a long enough timeline, close games are coin flips. Minor events -- things like fumble recoveries, which are truly random -- have exponentially larger effect, and while they may break against you every time in one season, they could well bounce in your favor the next year. Steele states that teams that had two or more net close losses had a better record in the next season 77 percent of the time. When Steele lists Iowa among 22 teams that suffered two "net close losses" (one-possession losses less one-possession wins) in 2014, he's expecting Iowa to rebound, or at least revert toward the mean, in 2015.
The problem, of course, lies in the premise that teams lose close games due solely to chance. It's simply not the case with Iowa over the last decade. The Hawkeyes are 20-32 in close games since 2005. Just three times in those ten seasons has Iowa recorded net close wins (+1 in 2007 and 2013, +2 in 2009), and at least one of those seasons (2007) was still a bit of a disaster. Three times (2005, 2010, 2012) Iowa recorded THREE net close losses, and just once did the Hakweyes return with a bona fide bounceback year. Close losses aren't random at Iowa. They're systemic, and while the rule might apply to college football in general, it would be foolish to rely on it here.