Head coach Kirk Ferentz
2008 record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten (T-4th)
After some disappointing seasons, Iowa arrived back on the scene as a Big Ten contender last year and posted the conference season's biggest upset of undefeated Penn State. League MVP Shonn Greene and standout defensive tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King are gone, but most pundits still expect the Hawkeyes to stay in the thick of the league race and play on New Year's Day yet again.
What We Know: The back seven boasts some top-end talent in linebacker Pat Angerer and cornerback Amari Spievey, which means the Hawkeyes should continue to have a solid defense. Ricky Stanzi should be better with a year under his belt, and the Hawkeyes expect to the offensive line to be a strength.
Major Questions: Greene was the engine that made the offense go a season ago; will the Hawkeyes have the help of a credible running game that made life easier on Stanzi last year? Is Stanzi talented enough to be more than a game manager? Will the defense be as strong without King and Kroul upsetting the tempo and rhythm of opposing offenses?
Offensive Overview: There was little mystery about what the Hawkeyes were going to do last season: opposing defenses were going to see a steady diet of Greene, Greene and more Greene.
Of course, opposing teams were Greene with envy at the Hawkeyes because of the talent and durability of the stocky, powerful yet speedy tailback. He was second in the nation with 142.3 yards per game, carrying the ball 307 times overall for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns.
He topped 100 yards in every game, ran more than 20 times in each (except for a laugher against Florida Atlantic) and scored a touchdown in all but one game. Overall, he had 14 scores in the last six games as the calendar turned to November. He did not have a single game in which he took 10 yards in losses.
So the major question going into 2009 is simple: Can the production of Greene be replaced?
It's hard to say yes during the offseason, especially with the summer injury suffered by last year's No. 2 back, Jewel Hampton. Hampton, who ran for 463 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago as a true freshman, is the heir apparent to Greene's job, but recently he suffered a knee injury that was feared to be a torn knee ligament.
Fears have been calmed since then as the knee has improved to the point that the team is optimistic he'll be ready to go at the start of the year, but nothing is known for sure at this point. The Hawkeyes would like to have the 5-9, 210-pounder's combination of power and speed.
If he can't go, Iowa has untested options. Brandon Wegher boasts similar physical characteristics but is a true freshman, while Jeff Brinson is a redshirt freshman whom the Hawkeyes like. Junior Paki O'Meara, a former walk-on who was the No. 1 back during 2008's spring before Greene's return to the Iowa roster, is also in the mix.
Greene and Hampton are talented backs, but an experienced offensive line should get some sort of credit for helping the pair each top 5 yards per carry. Though first-team All-Big Ten guard Seth Olson and second-team center Rob Bruggeman have moved on, three starters from that group return, the best of which is junior left tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Many publications have Bulaga, who was a second-team all-league pick last year, moving up to the top team this year, and some even have the 6-6, 312-pound monster in the running for All-America status.
The running game might not be the unstoppable force it was a year ago but it should still be good, but question marks surround Stanzi. Will experience help him improve enough to offset any output lost from the running game, or was his efficiency last year largely a result of the strong, power rushing attack that allowed him to ease into the offense?
It's an interesting question, but most feel that Stanzi should be fine under center as a second-year starter. A junior from Mentor, Ohio, Stanzi took over for Jake Christensen early last year and provided stability for the Hawkeyes, throwing for 1,956 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine picks while completing nearly 60 percent of his passes.
Rarely was he spectacular – he only topped 200 yards in two of 11 starts, the best of which was a 15-28, 255-yard, three-TD performance during a drubbing of Minnesota – but he managed most games well enough to keep Iowa in them.
Two of the top three receivers graduated, but the top man returns in the dynamic Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. "DJK" has been inconsistent during his first two seasons but he has the talent to be a No. 1 target in the Big Ten.
The other starter should be Avon Lake, Ohio, senior Trey Stross, a U.S. Army All-America recruit who has struggled to find his footing through injuries and competition during his time in Iowa City. The 6-4 target had just 13 catches for an 8.4-yard average last season. In his career, he has 570 yards and three touchdowns.
Iowa also uses its tight end quite a bit in the passing game, and both Tony Moeaki and Allen Reisner return. Moeaki has loads of talent but has been injured; he and Reisner combined for 24 catches and two touchdowns last year.
Overall, Iowa finished second in scoring but fifth in total offense last year, partially because of the lack of turnovers. The Hawkeyes lost the turnover battle in just two games – losses to Northwestern and Michigan State. Not exactly an explosive group, Iowa will have to avoid giving away the ball to be effective.
Key To The Season (Off): The growth and health of the team's running backs. There's no doubt the team will miss Greene; it's just a matter of how much. If Hampton stays healthy and the Hawkeyes can run the ball, the offense again will be effective. If there are any potholes, it will be up to Stanzi to stand up to tough road games at rival Iowa State and on Big Ten road trips against Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Defensive Overview: Iowa's defense was the real deal, topping the league in scoring (13.0) and passing efficiency defense and coming in second in yardage allowed and rushing defense.
No team topped 27 points, and just four of 12 got above 20. Only four teams averaged 3.5 yards per carry and five got to 100 yards on the ground. Penn State ran for by the far the most yards all year on Iowa, getting 180, but it took 46 carries and the Nittany Lions had 40 negative rushing yards and just 109 passing yards.
While teams could rarely get untracked on the ground, Iowa boasted a pass defense that was among the best in the country. No team got to 300 passing yards, and four of the five teams that topped 250 yards needed more than 40 passing attempts to do so. Iowa also picked off 23 passes, the most in the league by seven, which helped the Hawkeyes win the turnover battle in eight games. All that without a pass rush, as Iowa had just seven sacks in Big Ten play and a league-worst 19 overall. Opponents converted just 34.5 percent of third downs, second in the league.
So while the Hawkeyes shouldn't expect to win the turnover battle the way they did in 2008, the underlying stats show that Iowa boasted a dominant defense last year that has the fundamentals to again be tough to beat.
That's with eight starters returning from last year, though many might focus on the losses of King and Kroul, who combined for 16 tackles for loss and six sacks. As a result, King was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten choice by the coaches and made the media's first team, while Kroul was on the media's second team.
Karl Klug is the top returning tackle as far as the stats go, as he finished the year with 17 tackles and three TFL. However, he's undersized at 258 pounds, as is another possible starter in sophomore Mike Daniels, who checks in at 267. Sophomore Cody Hundertmark is a big body at 280.
Just about every other position should be fine. Starting ends Adrian Clayborn (50 tackles, eight TFL) and Christian Ballard (40 tackles) are both juniors with size who have a chance for major improvement in 2009.
The linebacking group is led by Angerer, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year and could very well have made the first team with his numbers: 107 tackles, 6.5 TFL, five interceptions, eight pass deflections and a sack. He can play the pass and run equally well.
Senior A.J. Edds and junior Jeremiha Hunter are good players on either side of Angerer. A third-year starter, Edds made 4.5 TFL, two fumble recoveries and a pick last year, while Hunter was second on the team with 80 tackles.
The Hawkeye safeties were young last year but turned in fantastic performances given their experience levels. Brent Greenwood earned honorable mention all-league status by making 68 tackles and two picks, while true freshman Tyler Sash was all over the field and made 53 tackles and five interceptions.
Spievey, a junior cornerback, is expected to be among the best in the Big Ten after snagging four passes last year and making 68 tackles, an astounding amount for a cornerback. Junior Jordan Bernstine should be ready to take over opposite Spievey after being a four-star recruit in 2006.
Key To The Season (Def): Iowa has eight returning starters on the defensive unit; they have to play like it. Losing King and Kroul is tough, but the octet of returners should make up for that loss with added experience and guile. If those players turn in similar seasons to the ones they had last year, Iowa will continue to be one of the league's premier defenses. A pass rush wouldn't hurt, either.
Special Teams: The Hawkeyes have two capable kickers in Trent Mossbrucker and Daniel Murray. The former earned the starting job as a freshman last year and made 13 of 15 kicks – all from inside 40 yards – before Murray was called on to make the last-second field goal that earned Iowa the upset of Penn State. He made it and became the starter again, finishing 6 of 9 with a long of 45 yards.
Punter Ryan Donahue is back after a solid sophomore year in which he averaged 41.6 yards per kick and put 19 inside the 20.
Hampton was an excellent kickoff return man last year, averaging 23.3 yards per try, but the Hawkeyes will have to replace Brodell, who went 10.6 yards on average on 36 punt returns and had a touchdown.
New Name To Know: Wegher, 5-11, 206, Sioux City (Iowa) Bishop Heelan Catholic – If Hampton ends up taking time to recover from his injury, one would have to expect Wegher to get a chance to earn a few carries in the running back rotation. Wegher was a four-star prospect and the nation's No. 16 running back. Also keep an eye on Davis, a four-star recruit who boasts good size (6-3, 200) and could work into the wideout rotation as well.
Best Case Scenario: The offense finds balance behind a rebuilt running game and an improving Stanzi and the defense continues to be dominant. If those happen, the Hawkeyes should be in the Big Ten race, though the main factor working against them is the five tough road games on the docket.
Worst Case Scenario: Losing the team's three best players proves too much to overcome. The Hawkeyes still should be a team that lands in the top half of the league, but there are no gimmies on the road. All could be losses if the team fails to jell.
OSU Game: Many people feel this contest is a trap game between a trip to Penn State a week earlier and the huge rivalry contest with Michigan a week after that will end the season. One thing is for sure, and that's that the Buckeyes shouldn't expect to pile on the points at home against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa will have to ride that defense against the Buckeyes considering the fact that the OSU defense that will take the field should be able to slow down a Hawkeye attack that doesn't exactly have explosive written all over it.
This one looks like another late-season, low-scoring outing, although it's hard to predict exactly how this game will go once the first two months of the season have elapsed.
The Buckeyes have to be slight favorites as of right now because of the home field and the talent they return, but this will not be an easy win by any stretch. Ohio State will have to show up ready to play in order to beat the Hawkeyes in this contest.