No. 13: Iowa

Rascal that I am, when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was presented with the Eddie Robinson coach of the year award at our Football Writers of America ceremony in Arizona last year, I congratulated him—and reminded him that Hawkeye Nation will be expecting him to improve on last year’s 12-0 regular season this fall.

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Ferentz smiled and nodded.

My two favorite things about Ferentz are that he’s unflappable, and he does an excellent job with linemen--especially offensive linemen. [membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Those two attributes—plus another inviting schedule, the right quarterback and a good defense—make the Hawkeyes a heavy favorite to repeat in the Big Ten unassuming Western Division.

An unappealing thing about Ferentz is that, like many coaches, he worries too much about the media. He has a million rules about who you can talk to, and when. Once, when a freshman receiver named Dominique Douglas had a big first half against Illinois in 2006, I was talking to Iowa sports-information director Phil Haddy, one of sport's true gentlemen.

``Don’t get too excited,’’ Haddy said. ``Freshmen are off-limits to the media.’’

It didn’t really bother me; I wasn’t needing a quote for my pithy Chicago Sun-Times report. But I did feel the pain of my Iowa media brothers.

After the game, I saw Phil and said, ``Don’t worry. Your secret is safe. I didn’t mention the kid at all in my story.’’

In Ferentz’s defense, Hawkeye football isn’t merely a program. It’s kind of a fiefdom in Iowa—the Packers and the Cubs and the Lakers all rolled into one giant field of dreams.

The first time I went out there, Hayden Fry’s post-game entourage, complete with State Troopers, was worthy of Broderick Crawford in ``All the King’s Men.’’

On the other hand, Iowa only sold out one home game last year, when its 12-0 shocker sneaked up on people. There should be many more fannies in the Nile Kinnick Stadium seats this year.

The Hawkeye optimism starts with eight returnees on a defense that came up big when it mattered most. The Hawkeyes were fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (20.4), but second in turnover margin. Only Michigan State (28) had more takeaways than Iowa (27).

Another key to the turnover success was just five interceptions lost, the fewest in the Big Ten. That’s a tribute to senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, a really clutch performer who makes the most of his skills and his offense’s.

The league has quarterbacks with better arms, notably Illinois’ Wes Lunt. And QBs with better wheels, starting with Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett. But Beathard might be the best overall quarterback in the Big Ten. He’s certainly a great match for Iowa.

With three starters, and one experienced backup, returning, the offensive line should provide holes for what could be another Iowa running-back-by-committee. A 225-pound senior, LeShun Daniels, is most likely, but explosive junior Akrum Wadley will get plenty of opportunity.

On defense, All-Big Ten cornerback Desmond King’s decision to stay in college for his senior year was huge. The secondary is set. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson and linebacker Josey Jewell are expected to anchor the front seven.

Iowa dodged a lot of bullets during its 12-0 start last year, including a 27-24 escape from Pittsburgh and a 10-6 win at Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes silenced the skeptics with a very competitive effort in a 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, but were trounced by Stanford 45-16 in the Rose Bowl.

So now what?

Iowa hasn’t put together double-digit-win seasons since a three-year run in 2002-04, but the pieces are in place for another big season this fall.

All three nonconference games are at home. Iowa’s five Big Ten road opponents were a combined 10-30 in league play last year. And the four home games (Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska) are against opponents who should feel the wrath of a re-invigorated crowd at Kinnick Stadium, which has seen a surge in ticket sales after last fall's lone sellout.

Is it all going to break right again for the Hawkeyes? I see only one game (Michigan) where Iowa is likely to not be favored.

Predicting another 12-0 start at a place like Iowa seems over the top. But given the schedule and the personnel, 10 or 11 wins certainly looks attainable.

And at this point, expectations of another 12-0 season aren’t as ridiculous as I thought they were when I threw that out to Ferentz last January.

Herb's Countdown so far: No. 16: Georgia, No. 15: USC, No. 14 Michigan State, No. 13 Iowa[/membership]

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