How High Can The Iowa Hawkeyes Climb?

Prior to the start of the college football season, I wrote that Iowa faced a crossroads year with a number of young players and a schedule that left room for a wide range of possibilities. The question this summer was whether Iowa could at least maintain themselves around an eight-win level and set the tone for 2019. So far, so good. Iowa is 5-1 and ranked 19th in the country. Now, can they reach a higher level—win the Big Ten’s Western Division and maybe even reach a New Year’s Six bowl game?

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Whatever Iowa accomplishes this year is going to be done with defense and that starts up front. The Hawkeyes are built around two playmaking defensive ends. Anthony Nelson and A.J. Espensa both have five sacks on the year and both are general disruptors to an opposing blocking scheme. Even though Iowa no longer has the dynamic playmaking of ballhawking defensive back Josh Jackson, now in the NFL, the Hawkeyes still have a stingy defense. They rank 13th in the country in points allowed.

The offensive scheme fits nicely into a defense-first gameplan. Iowa focuses on moving the sticks and their best player is a tight end. Noah Fant’s 23 catches lead the team and Fant is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Having a tight end that can bail you out on third down is invaluable for any offense, but especially a grind-it-out one like Iowa’s.

That combination—defense and ball-control can ensure that Iowa at least finishes the task of getting to eight wins, which would meet any reasonable preseason expectation. If they want to reach a higher level, that’s going to depend on the emergence of some playmakers.

Nathan Stanley is the quarterback. He’s competent, with his 62% completion rate, 8.5 yards-per-attempt and 15 touchdown passes. But he’s on a pace to throw ten interceptions this year. That’s not awful, but for a team that wins with defense, it’s too many if you’re going to talk about reaching the next level.

The running game, a three-pronged attack with Toren Young, Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin is pedestrian, although with Ferentz’s well-established track record of developing offensive lines, this is an area that could be ripe for improvement.

The opportunities are there for Iowa. Their only loss came to Wisconsin, a tough 28-17 defeat at home that’s much closer than the score looks—the Hawkeyes led 17-14 late in the game, before the Badgers scored two touchdowns in the final minute. Wisconsin’s subsequent loss to Michigan confirmed that this year’s Western Division race is anybody’s to take. It’s hard to imagine the ultimate division winner having any better than a 7-2 record in the league and even a multi-team crackup at 6-3 seems reasonable.

Iowa’s remaining schedule isn’t easy. They go to Penn State in two weeks, although the Hawkeyes have always given the Nittany Lions fits. A home date with Maryland this Saturday won’t be easy and with Fant currently questionable, it got a little more difficult. There are games with difficult-to-read teams in Northwestern and Purdue, and the season finale against woeful Nebraska.

If Iowa wins out, they almost certainly take the West. That would only require a Wisconsin loss and the Badgers also play at Penn State. An Iowa team that’s an 11-1 division champ would go to Indianapolis with Playoff hopes and also in position to make a New Year’s Six bowl game even in the event of loss.

A more realistic goal is 10-2, and so long as the wins include Northwestern and Purdue, there’s still hope that the rest of the division will fall in some crazy way. Even if doesn’t, the mere fact ten wins is a reasonable goal at the halfway point of the season tells you how well Iowa’s young team has done in their growth.