The 2015 college football season went pretty much as you'd expect. Alabama won the national championship for the fourth time in the past seven seasons. Two Southern schools were in the title game. Perennial powers Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Notre Dame all played in top-tier bowls. Oh, and Iowa went 12-0 in the regular season.
In one of the most unpredictable turnarounds of the past decade, boring, sturdy, typically forgettable Iowa went 12-0 in the regular season, despite mediocre recruiting, a new starting quarterback, and a longtime coach on the hot seat due to fan dissatisfaction.
Because of a relatively easy schedule in the weak Big Ten West, the Hawkeyes got little national respect during their undefeated run. In fact, the most respect they received came after they lost a nail-biter to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game—and then they frittered it all away with a blowout loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Still, 12-0 is 12-0, a rare achievement for any program. It's highly unlikely that the Hawkeyes will be able to repeat that feat this fall, but they could end up being a better team, and perhaps making more noise on a national level.
Along with Nebraska—and maybe Wisconsin and Northwestern—Iowa will be a factor in the Big Ten West race. But the Hawkeyes' fate in 2016 largely hinges on which Iowa squad from 2015 shows up: the elite bunch that piled up impressive numbers and started last season 7-0, or the middling team that finished 5-2 while taking a statistical nosedive.
Go back in time. Despite reaching as high as No. 4 in last year's College Football Playoff rankings, the computers hated the Hawkeyes. The F/+ ratings, which rank teams on how they would be expected to perform based on their per-play stats, put Iowa 38th, two spots behind 5-7 Nebraska. Bill Connelly's S&P+ ratings—a component of F/+—were less kind still, ranking the Hawkeyes a mediocre 47th.
Why the disconnect? The stats from Connelly tell the story. Iowa started the season on fire, and then settled into abject meh-ness.
● First 7 games
Average percentile performance: 76% (~top 30)
Average performance vs. S&P+ projection: +12.2 points per game
Yards per play: Iowa 6.0, Opp 4.4 (+1.6)
● Last 7 games
Average percentile performance: 52% (~top 60)
Average performance vs. S&P+ projection: -3.5 points per game
Yards per play: Opp 5.5, Iowa 4.9 (-0.6)
Iowa was very, very good in those first seven games. Maybe not good enough to go 7-0 without a bit of luck, but good enough that even S&P+ was a believer. The Hawkeyes were 14th in those rankings after a 40-0 demolition of Northwestern moved them 7-0. They ranked eighth in the Massey computer rankings, too.
Then Iowa fell off a cliff, with a number of poor offensive performances (in wins against Maryland and Nebraska, and losses to Michigan State and Stanford) and two very poor defensive performances (a win against Minnesota and the loss to Stanford). Iowa might have gone 5-0 in its last five regular-season games, but it was very lucky to do so, despite facing worse competition than during its 7-0 start.
So why did the Hawkeyes fall off? The biggest reason was an injury to quarterback C.J. Beathard in the sixth game of the regular season. Beathard's passing wasn't affected, but he lost his ability as a runner. He averaged 3.84 yards per carry in the first six games of the season, mostly from scrambles, but just 0.76 yards per carry in the final eight.
Iowa doesn't run a spread offense with a mobile quarterback, but Beathard's footwork helped the Hawkeyes escape jams that many previous Iowa quarterbacks hadn't been able to avoid. For example, he did this to spark a big win over rival Iowa State:
Because of Beathard's ability to extend plays, coach Kirk Ferentz seemed more willing to open up the playbook. Widely known as a boring, conservative coach, Ferentz started getting aggressive. Against Iowa State, he let Beathard air it out for a 48-yard completion on third-and-21, all because he trusted his quarterback to get out of a potential jam.
With Beathard's mobility shot, Ferentz went back into his shell. This quote from Maryland defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson sums it up well:
"They were honestly running really the same play over and over again just to different sides," he said.
To be clear, this is a terrible strategy. A superior team shouldn't make it easier for an inferior opponent to stay in the game. But that's how Ferentz coached the second half of the season, playing not to lose. And that caught up with the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game.
So, that's the bad news. The good news is that Beathard is presumably healthy for 2016. Most of the talent that helped the Hawkeyes start 7-0 in 2015 is back, too. The running back stable is deep. Linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Desmond King both have All-American potential.
Moreover, Iowa has another manageable schedule. The Hawkeyes have tougher non-division foes than last year—Michigan, Penn State, and Rutgers replace Indiana and Maryland—but they get Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska at home.
Iowa almost certainly won't go undefeated in the regular season again. It probably won't make another New Year's Six bowl. Regression is real, and good luck tends even out over time. Still, the Hawkeyes have a lot of potential, provided Ferentz learned from his team's ill-conceived turtling. If Iowa's adventurous play-calling returns alongside Beathard and Co., the Hawkeyes might end up much closer to the top 15 team the computers saw halfway through last season than the mediocre one they saw at the end.
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