Big Ten Preview: Close endings focus Hawkeyes heading into 2019

Halfway through 2018, Iowa was 6-1, ranked #18 in the country, and controlled their destiny in the Big Ten West race. Then, close games happened. Iowa proceeded to lose 3 games in a row in excruciating fashion, at Penn State, at Purdue and home against Northwestern. All 3 games Iowa had the lead in, and proceeded to lose.

That did not deter the team as much it did the fanbase, as Iowa flipped the script in the regular season finale. After blowing a two touchdown lead against Nebraska, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley lead the Hawkeyes down the field and Miguel Recinos drilled the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Iowa ended their 2018 season with an Outback Bowl date with Mississippi State of the SEC, who held perhaps the best defense in all of college football.

In a fashion only Iowa could do, the Hawkeyes beat the Bulldogs while only netting -15 yards rushing, against a defense that held a Tua Tagovailoa-offense to only 24 points.

Iowa starts the 2019 season ranked 19th in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, surprising even me with how little Iowa had been talked about nationally. But, for as long as Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa, that’s exactly how they want it.

Who They Lose

A year ago, Iowa possessed perhaps the best tight end duo in college football since the turn of the century with Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. A year later, Hockenson was drafted 8th overall by Detroit and Fant drafted 20th overall by Denver. Hawkeyes also lose sure-handed receiver Nick Easley and interior linemen Keegan Render and Ross Reynolds.

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The NFL Draft took its toll on the Hawkeyes defensively as well. Defensive end Anthony Nelson and safety Amani Hooker declared after Iowa’s Outback Bowl win and both were drafted in the 4th round. Iowa also lost veteran defensive linemen Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse, along with linebacker Jack Hockaday and free safety Jake Gervase.

Who They Return/Gain

An offense that averaged 31.2 points per game a season ago, Iowa returns signal-caller and 3-year starter Nate Stanley at quarterback, who has a chance to set a lot of offensive records this season. The Hawkeyes also return their 3 top running backs in Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin.

Iowa’s passing attack may be the best it’s been since the late-2000’s, as they return receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and could possibly add Michigan transfer Oliver Martin, if his waiver is cleared by the NCAA. Iowa also has perhaps the best offensive tackle combo in the country in Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.

Brian Ray/Hawkeye Sports

On defense, the Hawkeyes may have more natural talent on the defensive line this season compared to 2018. The nation has began to learn the name A.J. Epenesa, a defensive end built like a god from Greek mythology. Iowa also boasts veterans in Chauncey Golston and Brady Reiff as well as Dayvion Nixon.

Iowa returns most of their secondary, which helps in their move to a 4-2-5 defense. Linebackers are shaping up to be Kristan Welch and Dijmon Colbert, and the “Cash” position will either be junior Barrington Wade or freshman D.J. Johnson. The back four returns Matt Hankins, Michael Ojemudia, Geno Stone and young guys such as Riley Moss and Julius Brents.

Toughest Game

This season presents the toughest schedule Iowa has had in a while. Road trips to Iowa State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska present a daunting task for the Hawkeyes. The Cy-Hawk game in Ames will be tough, but it’s hard to top a game played in Michigan Stadium against a likely top-10 Michigan squad.

The Ceiling

Nate Stanley finds the consistency and accuracy Iowa fans have so longed for. Iowa’s rushing game improves vastly as offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz is able to find a recipe that works and compliments Iowa’s passing game very well. A.J. Epenesa plays the role of Mongo from “Blazing Saddles” and terrorize every quarterback and offensive tackle he sees, which helps make Iowa a top 25 defense yet again. Indianapolis, and maybe even Pasadena, here come the Hawkeyes.

Justin Torner/Iowa Now

The Ceiling: 11-1, Big Ten Champions, Rose Bowl

The Floor

Nate Stanley’s inconsistencies continue, and against a schedule as tough as this one, he’s going to pay the price dearly. Iowa is still unable to find a reliable rushing attack and the carousel of running backs in the backfield continues. This leads to Iowa leaning on their defense more than normal, which leads to trouble on that end as well.

The Floor: 8-4, Bowl Game in Nashville or Santa Clara

The Bottom Line

10 years ago an Iowa team came into the season, ranked lower in the polls, freshly off a 9-4 season and an Outback Bowl win, and ran up an 11-2 record and a win in the Orange Bowl. Now, we have a long way to go before this team reaches that level of success, it’s certainly notable and shows history may be on Iowa’s side.

This could be a legacy defining season for Kirk Ferentz, bring home a Big Ten Championship, or even just an appearance in the championship game, will solidify his legacy 100%. With a 3rd-year starting quarterback, a lot of returning offensive and defensive production, along with the number of individual stars on the roster, the sky is the limit for the boys in Iowa City.

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