After proving the prognosticators wrong in each of the past three seasons, the Iowa football team will try to prove them right in 2004. Some believe that Iowa might have the best shot to compete with Michigan and Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Iowa has won 21 of its last 26 games -- including an impressive 37-17 rout of Florida in the Outback Bowl -- and there is reason to believe that more victories are coming. Seven starters return from one of the top defenses in the country, the offensive line is experienced and the coaching staff returns intact.
OffenseFor the first time since 1999, Iowa will not have a senior start the season at quarterback. The Hawkeyes thrived behind a string of one-hit wonders that featured seniors Nathan Chandler last season, Brad Banks in 2002 and Kyle McCann in 2001.
Now comes a youth movement, as sophomores Drew Tate, Jason Manson and Cy Phillips will compete with redshirt freshman Eric McCollom for the starting position.
Tate, who is the all-time leading passer in Texas high school history, has the edge at this point after serving as Chandler's backup last season. Manson and McCollom both are very athletic and have styles that are similar to that of Banks. "I'd make a prediction that we'll go into August … where we're not quite sure how it's going to shake out," said Ferentz.
Senior running back Jermelle Lewis has recovered from a knee injury that caused him to miss the first seven games last season. He will replace Fred Russell as the featured back. Lewis rushed for 709 yards as a sophomore in 2002.
There are plenty of receivers, but besides junior Ed Hinkel and speedy sophomore Calvin Davis, few have experience.
Though it hurts to lose All-America left tackle Robert Gallery, the Outland Trophy winner, there is still a solid nucleus returning on the offensive line. Senior tackle Peter McMahon could be Iowa's next star-in-the-making.
DefenseAs good as Iowa was on defense last season, it could be even better in 2004. Junior linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway finished first and third, respectively, in the Big Ten in tackles. Senior end Matt Roth also is back to terrorize quarterbacks for one last season. He made first-team All-Big Ten last season after leading the team with 12 sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
As for the secondary, the good news is that three starters return, including junior cornerbacks Jovon Johnson and Antwan Allen. Johnson led the team with six interceptions last season, while Allen has started 26 consecutive games. The bad news is that Iowa will be without All-America strong safety Bob Sanders, who has moved on to the NFL. Sophomore Marcus Paschal is expected to replace Sanders.
SpecialistsSophomore Kyle Schlicher, who once made a 56-yard field goal in high school, has one of the toughest jobs in college football -- replacing All-America kicker Nate Kaeding. Senior David Bradley will punt for the fourth consecutive season. He suffered through a midseason slump in 2003, but still finished with a respectable 40.8-yard average.
Hinkel is steady, but not spectacular, as a punt returner. There are plenty of game-breakers to return kickoffs.
Final AnalysisCoach Kirk Ferentz has lifted the program to the point where it seems to reload instead of rebuild. And while the schedule is challenging, it could be a lot worse. Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin will play at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa is 13-1 over the past two seasons.
"I'm real confident that if we take the proper steps and don't have too many unforeseen things take place, we feel like we're going to have a good football team," Ferentz said. "But we've got a lot of work to do between now and then."