Big Ten football preview: Iowa Hawkeyes

Big Ten football preview: Iowa Hawkeyes
July 29, 2013, 9:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

Second in a series

Death, taxes and Kirk Ferentz.

Those are the three constants in the state of Iowa, with Ferentz in his 15th season as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, though, other trends are starting to reach that same level.

The program’s bad luck with running backs has spawned an Internet meme -- the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God (AIRBHG) -- and last season’s string of incidents might have seen life imitating art, as Iowa had two running backs transfer before the season started, one more dismissed from the team and two top backs injured at various points in the season.

[RELATED -- Big Ten football preview: Indiana]

Mark Weisman, a Buffalo Grove native, transferred from Air Force in 2010 and redshirted in 2011 before leading the team in rushing last season. He played in 10 of the Hawkeyes’ 12 games, amassing 815 yards and eight touchdowns.

Still, Iowa ended up rushing for the fewest yards of any Big Ten team.

But Ferentz is a little more enthused this year.

[MORE: Big Ten media day notebook]

“I never feel too good about that position,” Ferentz said at Big Ten media day. “But we're certainly further ahead than we were last year. Last year at this time, quite frankly, we didn't know if we had a Big Ten running back...Mark Weisman at this time last year, we thought he would be a pretty good fullback. And I'll backtrack. Going into spring a year ago, we weren't sure if he'd block or not. He proved that he could do that. And we kind of stumbled into him as a running back during the course of last year.”

Ferentz also touched on junior Damon Bullock, who ranked second on the team with 513 yards. But, it’s safe to say, that whether or not there’s interference from any Iowa football-specialized deities, the running back position will again be scrutinized.

Last year

Record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)

Bowl: The Hawkeyes did not qualify for the postseason last year.

At the helm

Ferentz is the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten, with 2013 marking his 15th season as Iowa’s leader. Ten of his previous 14 years have ended in a bowl appearance, though last year snapped a four-year stretch of postseason action, highlighted by an Orange Bowl win in 2010.

[RELATED: Beckham looking to change perception at Illinois]

On the 2013 schedule

Iowa opens its season against Northern Illinois, a team that went to the Orange Bowl last season. Despite representing the MAC, NIU should provide a tough test for Iowa, as Ferentz’s defense will have to figure out how to stop quarterback Jordan Lynch.

As for the conference slate, Iowa has a brutal draw this year. One four-game stretch sees them take on Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern and Wisconsin, though three of those four games are at home in Kinnick Stadium. It’s the first time they’ll have to face off with Ohio State and Wisconsin since 2010. Iowa closes the season with a home game against Michigan and a trip to Lincoln to take on the Cornhuskers. A look at the schedule indicates another two-win Big Ten campaign would not be surprising.

Under center

Though James Vandenberg won’t go down as one of college football’s greatest quarterbacks, he was a two-year starter for the Hawkeyes and took every snap last season. He’ll need to be replaced by one of a trio of competing quarterbacks -- sophomore Jake Rudock, junior Cody Sokol and freshman C.J. Beathard -- none of which has ever attempted a pass at the NCAA level.

[MORE: Northwestern's expectations are even higher this year]

“All three competed well throughout the spring,” Ferentz said in the team’s media guide. “They have all been doing a good job since they arrived here, and all arrived at different times. With a group that is this young, it is realistic to think they will look different once we get midway through August. We will let them compete and move forward from there.”

Back in the fold

While the return of Weisman and Bullock looks to provide some stability at running back, it’s the other side of the ball that has the Hawkeyes excited. They return all three starting linebackers from last season, all of them seniors: Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey. They were Iowa’s three leading tacklers a year ago, combining for 332 tackles.

“Three guys have played a lot of football and have done a lot of good things, and that experience was evident in the spring,” Ferentz said. “All three improved; they each played better in the spring than they have played at any time they have been here, which was good to see.”

Season outlook

Judging by their schedule, particularly within the conference, the Hawkeyes would appear to have a steep challenge in front of them if they want to return to the postseason.