I got the itch to delve into Iowa's schedule and it's upcoming opponents and after looking a little deeper, here are a few notes to get the football juices flowing…
Iowa opens the season next Saturday against the Maine Bears. Maine went 4-7 one year ago, and returns six starters on offense, including their quarterback, two offensive linemen, running back and two wide receivers. One running back that returns topped the 1,000 yard mark last year, and their two quarterbacks combined to gain nearly 600 yards on the ground. But Maine threw for a grand total of 1,397 yards last year against a schedule that was all FCS opponents save UConn, and they lost to the Huskies 38-0 in their second game of the season. Maine's offense was ‘punchless' last year, averaging just 16.9 points per game. Maine employs a spread offense, which will be a common sight for Iowa's defense this year. They return eight starters on defense and they finished in the Top 15 in sacks in each of the past two FCS seasons.
Florida International won just one football game last year, their season finale against North Texas. Their losses included 59-0, 55-3 and 59-10 games against Penn State, Kansas and Arkansas. 77% of the Florida International two deep was made up of first or second year players last year, so they will return some experience. But that could be a good news/bad news affair, as they put up some of the worst offensive totals in the nation.
They were 119th, dead last, in scoring offense and passing efficiency last year, averaging just 15.08 points per game. They were 118th in total offense, 117th in passing offense and 98th in rushing offense. The news wasn't much better for them on defense, as they were 115th in scoring defense, 105th in rushing and total defense. They were bitten by the turnover bug, as they were 114th in turnover margin. They were also 97th in sacks allowed last year. So on both sides of the ball, this team has nowhere to go but up.
They will be entering their second year with new schemes, and their offensive coordinator comes from the Joe Tiller tree, so expect to see multiple looks, similar to what we see from the Boilermakers.
Cyclone Sports Report, the ISU site on the Scout.com Network, interviewed ISU Offensive Coordinator Robert McFarland recently and he said that both quarterbacks (Austen Arnaud and Philip Bates) will play in their opener next week against South Dakota State. I expect to see that in their second game against Kent State, a team that beat ISU in Ames last year. It would not shock me to see both quarterbacks in Kinnick, but it will be the first road experience for Bates at quarterback, and for all intents and purposes, that will be the case for Arnaud as he did not start any games last year. I expect ISU to present more spread looks this year, and Gene Chizik has been adamant in the two press conferences I have attended in saying that the ISU quarterback will be expected to run the ball this year.
In all, I see just three teams that won't run spread offensive looks at Iowa this year; Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Wisconsin. I'm not entirely sold that we won't see some of that from Michigan State, to open up more running room for their talented tailback Javon Ringer. Pitt has a stellar defense returning, plus one of the best running backs in the Big East, a player that topped 1,300 yards last year as a freshman. But they will be more straight ahead and smash mouth on offense, similar to Wisconsin.
Not all ‘spreads' are the same; Illinois spreads the field to create running room, something I am totally in favor of. Purdue runs multiple looks at you, Northwestern probably gets ‘crazier' than any other Iowa opponent. Indiana utilizes their spread formations to create space to run and throw, and QB Kellen Lewis can beat you with his legs, as he showed Iowa last year in Kinnick Stadium.
Penn State used a shotgun spread look in spring ball this year, and they have an explosive freshman running back. Minnesota's offense will be even better this year, and they were on the cusp of being dangerous last season.
The Hawks will have to break out their track shoes when it comes to defense this year.
Only one of Iowa's 2008 opponents, Penn State, was among the Top 29 rushing defense teams from one year ago. Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa State and Pitt were 88th or worse in turnover margin from a year ago, and all but ISU returns the majority of their starters. When you see a stat like that, the statistics show that those teams are in line for more wins the following season.