Just a few years ago, it looked as if Iowa was going to run off the tracks. Now, the Hawkeyes not only are back on track, but they are also a dark horse to contend for the national championship.
From 2005-07, the Hawkeyes were a combined 19-18. The program hit a low in '07, finishing 6-6 and missing a bowl. On top of all of that, there were myriad off-field issues that had some whispering that this was a program out of control. The struggles were a steep drop from a run that saw Iowa win two Big Ten titles and go 31-7 from 2002-04.
But in the past two seasons, coach Kirk Ferentz has squashed any notion that he still wasn't in command. The Hawkeyes went 9-4 in 2008, then 11-2 last season, capped by an Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
Iowa remains a throwback-type team, not doing anything fancy but making sure all the little things are done correctly. This is a run-the-ball-and-defend team, and the defense is good enough to win the Big Ten. Is the offense?
Here's a closer look at the Hawkeyes.
THE SCHEME: Iowa operates a conventional two-back, two-wide attack that is a throwback in some ways. The Hawkeyes always want to establish the run first, setting up defenses for play-action passes. This is a patient offense.
STAR POWER: Is there one? It's debatable. This is the quintessential "sum-is-greater-than-its-parts" offense. If there is a star, it figures to be one of the running backs. Adam Robinson ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last year with 834 yards. And Jewel Hampton is back after missing 2009 with injury. Each could be special.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Keep an eye on true freshman TE C.J. Fiedorowicz. Allen Reisner is poised to replace Tony Moeaki, but the rest of the tight end depth is unproven. That means Fiedorowicz will have chance to impress. At 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds, he looks the part but needs to prove he can block.
STRONGEST AREA: The backfield looks good. QB Ricky Stanzi was the No. 4 passer in the Big Ten, completing 56.3 percent of his passes for 2,417 yards and 17 touchdowns. To become one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten, Stanzi needs to cut down on his 15 interceptions and complete around 60 percent of his passes. Running back appeared to be a potential disaster in 2009. First, Shonn Greene turned pro early. Then, Hampton was sidelined for the season by a preseason knee injury. But the Hawkeyes were able to cobble together an OK ground game behind the likes of Robinson and Brandon Wegher. This season, they will be joined by Hampton, giving the Hawkeyes a strong collection of runners.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line is looking for three new starters. The good news is that there is talent, with as many as eight or nine candidates to fill those vacancies. T Riley Reiff is a future star who could leave Iowa City as one of the program's best linemen. Pencil in Julian Vandervelde at one guard slot. After that, things need to continue to develop. But developing offensive lines is Ferentz's specialty.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Norm Parker keeps things simple -- and it works. The Hawkeyes operate out of a 4-3 scheme and Parker rarely blitzes. Instead, Iowa employs a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, preferring to keep plays in front of its defenders rather than gamble and risk yielding a big play. The idea: If an offense is going to score a touchdown, it's going to have to earn it by driving down the field.
STAR POWER: E Adrian Clayborn was the MVP of the Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech after making nine solo tackles and two sacks in helping limit the Yellow Jackets to 143 rushing yards. Clayborn is a dynamic force off the edge who had 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: There aren't any newcomers who look poised to play a big role, but keep an eye on true freshman James Morris, a linebacker who may work his way into the two-deep and figures to play a big part on special teams.
STRONGEST AREA: This should be the top line in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, as all four starters return for a group that produced 202 tackles and 27 sacks. The leader is Clayborn, who has a good bookend in E Broderick Binns. Binns is physical at the point of attack and shows a burst as a pass rusher; Binns had 10 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. Iowa has two strong tackles in Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Ballard is one of the most athletic tackles in the Big Ten, while Klug is a classic Iowa blue-collar force who rarely is outworked.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Iowa has had to replace some good linebacking duos in recent years (Abdul Hodge/Chad Greenway, Mike Humpal/Mike Klinkenborg). Now, the Hawkeyes must replace the standout tandem of Pat Angerer and A.J. Edds. The good news: There are lots of quality options. The one sure thing is Jeremiha Hunter, a strong run defender. Jeff Tarpinian is a wild card who could fit in somewhere. Tyler Nielsen may emerge to claim an outside linebacking slot.
There may not be a better kicker-punter combination in the Big Ten than the duo of K Daniel Murray and P Ryan Donahue. Murray was one of the best kickers in the Big Ten last season, nailing 19-of-26 field-goal attempts. Donahue averaged 40.9 yards per boot. Should Murray go into a funk, Iowa won't hesitate to let Trent Mossbrucker kick. He redshirted last season but was Iowa's starting kicker before giving way in 2008 to Murray, who hit that memorable, last-second 31-yard field goal to beat then-unbeaten Penn State. The Hawkeyes also have weapons in the return game. Colin Sandeman led the conference in punt returns, averaging 9.0 yards per return. Sash also can return punts. Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Keenan Davis will handle kickoff returns. The coverage units were excellent last season and that shouldn't change.
There is a chance for a fast start, with four of the first five games at home. But the lone road trip during that stretch will be daunting, as Iowa plays at Arizona. And the Hawkeyes get no breaks in the Big Ten schedule, missing out on playing projected second-tier programs Illinois and Purdue. But unlike last season, the Hawkeyes get to play the conference heavyweights at home: Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State all travel to Iowa City. The Hawkeyes waste no time finding out just how good they are, as the Big Ten schedule opens with four daunting games: Penn State, at Michigan, Wisconsin and Michigan State. While three of the four November games are on the road, those opponents are Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota. It all could come down to Ohio State's Nov. 20 visit, in what could be a de facto Big Ten championship game.
Iowa used a great defense (No. 3 in the Big Ten last season, at 276.5 ypg) en route to 11 victories last season, the school's fourth double-digit win season under Ferentz and first since 2004. But if the Hawkeyes want to win the Big Ten this season, they must improve the offense. That makes it critical for a rebuilt line to develop quickly. Most of last season's team is back, fueling hope that Iowa could win the Big Ten, make its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1990 season -- and maybe even play for the BCS title.