College football countdown: Will Iowa make the Playoff?
Note: Over the next two weeks leading into the first full slate of college football games, we will take a look at 14 of the top teams heading into 2016 and analyze their chances at making the College Football Playoff. We start this series with Iowa, a team that started 12-0 last season before falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in last season's CFP rankings.
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Anthony Chiusano: Iowa’s an intriguing team. Everybody was waiting for the Hawkeyes to drop a game last year and it took a long final-quarter drive from Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game to finally extinguish their playoff chances.
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Let’s start with the defense, where eight key starters return. Five of Iowa’s stout front seven will be back to stop the run and last year’s Jim Thorpe Award winner in Desmond King returns outside the hashes to lead the secondary.
Will these teams make the CFP?
Janie Harris: I agree that Iowa has a strong defense, but a lot of the heavy lifting falls to King. Last year, he was ranked second in the nation with eight interceptions, but if he slows down or gets injured, what happens to Iowa’s defense? They have a lot of experienced players, and for the gaps, the team has a lot of new talent coming in. However, if Iowa is ever on the wrong side of the turnover ratio, it’s less likely that the Hawkeyes will win. These days with highly competitive teams like Ohio State and Michigan, one key loss could take Iowa out of the running for the championship.
Leading me to my next point, Iowa’s offense has to overcome some major challenges to have a season like last year. The Hawkeyes’ two best offensive linemen are gone as well as their top wide receiver. In fact, Iowa’s passing game may seriously struggle this year. The receiving positions must go through a major overhaul before the 2016 season begins, and while plenty of new talent is coming in, it might not be enough to make it through a whole season undefeated.
AC: You may be right about Iowa’s offense. By no means do the Hawkeyes pose an offensive threat like some of the other top teams in the nation — or even their own conference.
But Iowa’s defense has the ability to carry it back to undefeated territory. The unit held opponents to under 17 points seven times last year. That kind of production gives any offense the chance to win.
With that said, the Hawkeyes don’t need to be an offensive juggernaut. Iowa succeeds by embracing the old-fashioned style of showing a strong defense, pounding the ball on the ground on offense and not making any mistakes in the air.
If they can do this, led by quarterback C.J. Beathard, the Hawkeyes can seemingly cruise through most of their schedule, which isn’t that strong for the second straight year.
FCS opponent North Dakota State may be Iowa’s toughest non-conference task. And while the Bison have won five straight FCS titles, Iowa may still have the edge.
Within the conference, Michigan and Wisconsin will be the biggest challenges, but Iowa will be home for both. That Michigan game will be huge for Iowa’s chances, however, the Hawkeyes don’t have to worry about Ohio State or Michigan State unless they meet in the Big Ten championship. And in that situation, anything can happen.
JH: That is a great point, and I do believe Beathard can lead the team well. He may not be a star like Greg Ward Jr. or Chad Kelly, but if he starts to use his feet a little bit more, he may be a real offensive force. Really, the Hawkeyes’ offense is good at not losing the game for the team, but it isn’t great at making explosive, key plays to win the game either.
However, when looking at the schedule for this fall, last year’s schedule could still be seen as easier than this year’s. Iowa didn’t play Penn State, Rutgers or Michigan in 2015, and that might be part of the reason why the Hawkeyes did so well. Each matchup stands as a key game that Iowa would have to win in order to make it to the postseason.
While Penn State’s defense is rebuilding in 2016, they still could overwhelm Iowa’s rebuilding offense. Rutgers, while also struggling at defense, does have a fairly decent offense, and Michigan’s offense could overwhelm Iowa’s defense. Both the Wolverines’ offense and defense contain a number of returning starters, and the defense, led by a new defensive coordinator, may easily stop Iowa’s offense from advancing.
I think this schedule could work to Iowa’s advantage, but asking for another undefeated regular season may be too much for Iowa in 2016.
AC: Let’s say Iowa does win all the games it is supposed to though and pulls out a playoff-spot-worthy win over the Wolverines late in the season to punch another ticket into the conference championship.
My final argument is that this is, for the most part, the same group that fell only one impressive nine-minute Spartan offensive drive short of becoming the surprise team in the 2015 CFP.
You mentioned the loss of receivers surrounding returning leader Matt VandeBerg. That will for sure hurt the Hawkeyes’ passing game. But outside of that one hole, Iowa has stayed mostly intact while many other conference foes lost vital parts from last year’s success.
Michigan State has a new quarterback after Connor Cook, who helped engineer last year’s game-winning 22-play drive, graduated. Ohio State is without star running back Ezekiel Elliott and 16 other starters from last year. Even Michigan needs to resolve its quarterback search.
The point is, Iowa brings intriguing stability from last year that may provide an extra advantage come conference championship time. Will the Hawkeyes ultimately show enough to clinch a playoff spot? I think there’s a shot.
JH: I guess we will have to agree to disagree on the team's potential to make it to the playoffs. The Hawkeyes look like they will have a decent season ahead of them, and you never know, maybe they will surprise me in 2016.