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Know Your Opponent, Week 9 Edition: Iowa Hawkeyes

Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.

The basics
Returning starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7
2012 record: 4-8 (2-6 Big Ten)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 15th season

2012 capsule 

2012 was by far Iowa's worst season since Kirk Ferentz recharged the program in 2001. It was the Hawkeyes' first regular season losing record since that year and the first time they missed a bowl game since 2007. Heading into the season, things didn't look all that bad for Iowa. They were replacing coordinators on both sides of the ball, but they had James Vandenberg — supposedly the best passer in the Big Ten — at quarterback and a solid offensive line. However, Vandenberg never gelled with new offensive coordinator Greg Davis, the running backs had an astounding amount of attrition and the young defense struggled to keep games close. Part of the issue was a lack of talent. The Hawkeyes had very mediocre recruiting classes in 2008 and 2009 — pretty inexcusable, considering how Iowa finished those years — and that lack of talent among the veterans caught up to them. It also caused Ferentz to land firmly on the hot seat, despite Iowa apparently signing him to a 100-year, $10 trillion contract.

Offensive overview

This year, Iowa's offense should be better, considering there's no way it can possibly be worse. The players should be more in sync with Davis, and Davis has a coach who he knows well — Bobby Kennedy — working with the receivers now. The offense should be half good, half, well, who knows? The offensive line will be solid and there's a full stable of solid running backs — Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock, Jordan Canzeri battling for carries, with freshmen Barkley Hill and Michael Malloy in the background — as long as AIRBHG doesn't hit. Now the unknowns: There is a three-way battle at quarterback between Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and CJ Beathard. None have taken a snap in a game, but all have different skills. Rudock may be the best all around player and seems to have the upper hand — Beathard has the best arm, while Sokol is the best athlete — but it's truly up in the air. Receiver could be a weak spot again, but Kevonte Martin-Manley has potential as a No. 1 guy, while speedy Jordan Cotton could step up, and junior college transfer Damond Powell will provide immediate assistance. Tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ray Hamilton will also have an impact.

Defensive overview 

On defense, everything depends on how the defensive line comes together. It's a very young, but very deep and talented group, and if it plays to its potential, the Hawkeyes could surprise a lot of teams in 2012. Defensive tackles Carl Davis, Darian Cooper, Faith Ekakatie and Jaleel Johnson were all highly-rated recruits, and now they're all likely to be in the rotation, joining last year's starter Louis Trinca-Pasat. It will take some time for things to come together, but if they do, they should be very good. There's less talent at defensive end, but Dominic Alvis and Drew Ott and still capable players. The linebackers will be the strength of this team, as starters James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey all return, with talented MLB Quinton Alston waiting behind Morris. The secondary is a mixed bag, as well. Cornerback B.J. Lowery is a potential breakout player, while Jordan Lomax and Maurice Fleming are young, but quality players, as well. Free safety Tanner Miller did this the last time Northwestern was at Kinnick Stadium, and Nico Law and John Lowdermilk have a good battle going at strong safety.

Three players to know

James Morris, MLB – Morris is the face of the defense, and while he has been a solid player in his time at Iowa, he hasn't been the star that some of his predecessors were. This is his last chance to be a star, and he'll be in competition for All-Big Ten honors.

Mark Weisman, RB – Weisman gained a cult following after putting up monster numbers in the middle of last season. He sustained some injuries and was never the same, but he's back to full health this year and could be a force for the Iowa running game once again.

B.J. Lowery CB – Lowery has gained praise as a potential breakout player this year as he tries to fill in for Micah Hyde as the Hawkeyes' No. 1 corner. He has shown flashes of his potential, but now needs to be more consistent. If he puts everything together, he'll surprise some people this year.

Behind enemy lines: The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse (@marcmorehouse) and HawkeyeDrive.com's Brendan Stiles (@thebstiles) tell us what to expect from the Hawkeyes this season this season:

Morehouse

Iowa is in the second year of a major staff overhaul. When the Hawkeyes meet BCS-buster Northern Illinois this fall, coach Kirk Ferentz will have hired six new assistants, including offensive and defensive coordinators, in the last 13 months.

That's significant change, especially if you consider the stability of Ferentz's first 13 years in Iowa City.

The transition to Greg Davis as offensive coordinator came with lumps last season. The general thought is Iowa's offense has to improve this year because it can't get any worse (just seven TD passes in 2012).

Iowa's defense allowed big plays and couldn't get off the field on third down in 2012. Coordinator Phil Parker, who served as Iowa's secondary coach for 13 seasons before '12, uses the same defense. Personnel up front took a dip after Iowa had a magnificent run of NFL-caliber defensive linemen.

The cleanup will continue in 2013. As far as "hot seat" and Kirk Ferentz's name, it's unlikely that happens in 2013 with Ferentz's contract, which runs through the 2019 season, and buyout. After 2014? The buyout would be around $11.6 million.

There is a restlessness in Iowa City. Iowa needs a lot of players with short resumes to quiet it in 2013.

Success: Is 6-6 and a bowl setting the bar too low? Or is it cold reality?

Disappointment: Another 4-8 and Iowa City would plunge into one of those Alaskan nights that last 20 or whatever hours. Except we’re talking nine months with no sun.

Stiles

The Iowa Hawkeyes enter this season with uncertainty following an abysmal 4-8 campaign in 2012 that included six straight losses to end the year. Head coach Kirk Ferentz hasn't settled on a starting QB yet and three new assistants are in place, but Iowa does have plenty of experience returning elsewhere on both sides of the football. The Hawkeyes face a tougher schedule in 2013 and how they ultimately fare could hinge on their season opener against Northern Illinois, who comes off an Orange Bowl appearance and is favored to three-peat as "MAC Daddy."

Final thoughts

Considering how much talent returns and the fact that the new coordinators are more settled in, Iowa should be much better in 2013 than it was in 2012. That may not show up in the record, since Ohio State and Wisconsin both come onto the schedule, but it's definitely reasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to go bowling once again. A lot will depend on the quarterback and how easily that player can mesh with the offense — the receivers will certainly need to step up to help — but the running backs and offensive line will provide plenty of assistance. As long as the line comes together, the defense should be much better than it was in 2012 — there's just a lot more talent. Once all the new pieces get settled in on both sides of the ball, this team could surprise some people. But if the pieces and the talent don't come together as the coaches hope, it could be another bowl-less season in Iowa City.