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Know your Northwestern football opponent, Week 7: Iowa

Hawkeyes Nation is losing patience with Kirk Ferentz. Is this the year he marches Iowa out of mediocrity?

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

With our Summer Guide now complete, you probably have a general sense of Northwestern's outlook for the coming season. But breaking down any given team's strengths and weaknesses doesn't paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team's win-loss potential, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important.

Come game week, we will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent, but in the interim, we present to you our Know Your Opponent series. It's our look ahead at all 12 teams on Northwestern's 2015 schedule. So by the time training camp rolls around, you'll have a fuller view of the upcoming season.

Today, we preview Iowa.

The Basics

Returning Starters: Offense - 5, Defense - 6
2014 Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 17th year (115-85)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2014 S&P+ Overall Rank: 70
2014 S&P+ Offense Rank: 71
2014 S&P+ Defense Rank: 67
2015 S&P+ Projection: 57

2014 Capsule

Despite an embarrassing home defeat to in-state foe Iowa State in non-conference play, the Hawkeyes started the season 6-2 and looked as if they would win more than eight games for the first time since 2009. But Iowa, plagued by a subpar running game and an un-Iowa-esque defense, failed to take advantage of an easy schedule and fizzled down the stretch to finish at an all-too-familiar 7-6. After Tennessee romped Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, many wondered if Kirk Ferentz had coached his final game for the Black and Gold.

Offensive Overview

Iowa has to replace its top passer, top rusher, top receiver and top two tackles from a season ago. And you thought Northwestern had a lot of turnover on offense? While the players on the field will change, Iowa's offensive identity will remain the same. As they have historically, expect the Hawkeyes to run the ball over 60 percent of the time. Senior running back Jordan Canzeri and junior Leshun Daniels Jr. should get most of the carriers now that Mark Weisman has graduated.

On the other 40-odd percent of plays, signal caller C.J. Beathard will get to show off his powerful arm. The junior battled for the starting job late last season, forcing former starter Jake Rudock to transfer to Michigan. Beathard's athleticism makes him more of a dual threat than Rudock was, but it also makes him more prone to injury, which the Hawkeyes can ill afford since they lack depth at the position. Despite losing their star left-tackle Brandon Scherff, the line returns three starters and has enough experienced replacements to perform at a high level. Wideouts Tevaun Smith, Matt VandeBerg and tight end Jake Duzey round out a pretty promising passing game.

Defensive Overview

Last season Iowa had a strong pass rush and a decent everything else. This season it'll most likely be the other way around. Three-fifths of the line are gone and all but one of the linebackers and one of the defensive backs return with an extra year of experience.

Senior pass rusher Drew Ott will anchor the line, which had the 46th best adjusted sack rate last season and shouldn't have too much trouble getting to the quarterback again this season. But rush defense could be a problem since the Hawkeyes have to replace both starting tackles and linebacker John Lowdermilk, who led the team in tackles a season ago. Overall the Hawkeyes, who were never comfortable on defense in 2014 with a brand new linebacker core, should see an improvement, especially against the pass.

Three Players to Know

C.J. Beathard (QB) - Beathard's only major reps at quarterback came last season against Pittsburgh and Purdue after Rudock went down with an injury and against Tennessee in the bowl game. In those two and a half games he threw for a combined 488 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. His father, Bobby Beathard was a successful general manager in the NFL, whose lasting blemish was drafting Ryan Leaf second overall in 1998.

Drew Ott (DE) - Ott finished tied for fifth in the Big Ten with 7.5 sacks last season. With his sack partner Louis Trinca-Pasat (6.5 sacks) gone, Ott has to carry the sack load for the D-line. How he handles the extra attention from opposing teams will go a long way in determining the effectiveness of Iowa's defense.

Tevaun Smith (WR) - Smith enters 2015 as this team's No. 1 receiver. Though he only started eight games, Smith led the team in receiving yards (593) and hauled in a team-high three touchdowns. You might remember Smith as the guy who upstaged Odell Beckham Jr.'s one-day-old world record by catching 41 passes with one hand in 60 seconds.

Behind enemy lines

Jason Shawley of Rant Sports on Ferentz' job security:

Kirk Ferentz currently ranks ninth on the list of highest paid college football coaches, pulling in just over $4.07 million per year. But few coaches tenured as long as Ferentz have produced so many average seasons through their careers...Ferentz made a decision in January to make an adjustment to the depth chart, bumping quarterback CJ Beathard to the top over two-year starter Jake Rudock. Subsequently, Rudock transferred to Michigan and will be eligible to play immediately. Expectations are that Rudock will be the starter for the Wolverines this upcoming season under new head coach Jim Harbaugh.The decision to make a change at the quarterback position can be effective, but it’s also risky. Should Rudock have a great year with the Wolverines and Beathard have a disappointing campaign with the Hawkeyes, the decision to make the change could be one that costs a coach his job. On the other hand, making a bold decision like this one could be a great career decision if Iowa has success this season.

Bill Connelly Says...

SB Nation college football guru Bill Connelly has been maniacally churning out previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here's an excerpt from his Iowa preview on their chances this season:

Once again, Iowa's schedule is manageable, with only one projected top-25 team and seven projected 60th or worse. If Iowa doesn't improve one iota, the Hawkeyes will go to another bowl, their 13th in 15 years.

But if you're an Iowa fan, 2009 is getting further away in the rearview mirror, and you'd like to know that Ferentz is building toward something better eventually. There's little proof.

In 2013, we thought the end was nigh, and Ferentz responded by fielding a top-30 team. It's not inconceivable that the same thing could happen -- the passing game clicks, the run game isn't terrible, the run defense is stable, the pass defense improves.

But a) while top-30 could be possible, top-20 or better seems impossible, and b) the smart money isn't on such a rebound. By focusing on the floor more than the ceiling, Ferentz has created one of the more stable programs in the conference, one less capable of collapsing than at least half of the rest of the Big Ten.

Final Thoughts

Northwestern's worst performance last season came in a 48-7 rout at the hands of the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. The Wildcats can't afford another dud against their self-manufactured "rivals" this time around. The Iowa game is one of those Big Ten 50-50 contests Northwestern has to win to win six or more games.

Iowa, like NU, is going through a bit of a transition period, especially on offense. This offensive turnover, along with home field advantage, make the Hawkeyes vulnerable. Pat Fitzgerald will have his team fired up to avenge last season's embarrassing loss. Expect NU to feed Justin Jackson early and often to test Iowa's shaky rush defense and for this one to be much closer than it was last season.

The Game

Date: Oct. 17
Time: 11:00 a.m. CT
Home/Away: Home
Projected Betting Line: Northwestern -1