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2021 football opponent preview: Iowa Hawkeyes

How will the Hawkeyes fare after a strong 2020 showing?

Iowa v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers opened up fall practice earlier this month and the rest of the country has joined them as well. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next, the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Wisconsin v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Team name: Iowa Hawkeyes
2020 record: 6-2, No. 2 in Big Ten West
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, Oct. 30, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 2020, Iowa 28 - Wisconsin 7, Madison

Returning leaders:

Passing: Spencer Petras, 140-of-245 (57.1 completion %), 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions
Rushing: Tyler Goodson, 143 attempts, 812 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.3 YPC
Receiving: Sam LaPorta, 27 receptions, 271 yards, one touchdown
Tackles: Seth Benson (MLB), 47 tackles, two sacks
Sacks: Zach VanValkenburg, 3.5 sacks
Interceptions: Jack Koerner, three interceptions

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 05 Iowa at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Key offensive player:

Spencer Petras comes into the 2021 season with some very high expectations from a lot of people after a solid freshman campaign, especially in the back half of the season. Petras had just a four touchdown to five-interception ratio in the first six games of the year, but picked up and had a 5-0 ratio in the last two games of the season. Petras posses a big arm that can stretch the field, but the accuracy struggled completing just 57.1% of his passes a year ago.

Overall, Petras is what will likely make or break this Iowa offense. If he takes another step forward it should allow a young and inexperienced wideout room to take a step forward with him. If he struggles it could magnify a passing game that will be without two of their top three targets from a year ago. Tight end Sam LaPorta is back and will likely be the go-to guy for Petras in 2021, but the Hawkeyes will need to develop some other players in the passing game and that starts with the quarterback leading and establishing a rapport with them.

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Key defensive player:

Defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg led the team in sacks a year ago and looks like he could be the next great down lineman for the Hawkeyes. Last year he benefitted from some other strong running mates on the line, but this year VanValkenburg will be the guy opposing teams focus on as Iowa loses Chauncey Golston and Dayvion Nixon who allowed Iowa to have a really nasty front in 2020.

VanValkenburg will be a player that Iowa will want to have an even bigger season as their top pass-rushing option and to solidify an inexperienced defensive line. The linebacker spot loses their leading tackler from 2020 in Nick Niemann, but the secondary looks to be solid once again. If Iowa can get production from VanValkenburg and others up front it could elevate this defense from good to great. If not, it may allow opposing teams to attack with the ground game.

2021 season preview:

Iowa comes into year 23 of Kirk Fertenz riding a six game winning streak from a year ago. They started out 0-2 with losses to Purdue and Northwestern but then bounced back defeating Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Offensivley, Iowa returns quarterback Spencer Petras after a solid freshman campaign. At running back they return Tyler Goodson who led the team in rushing a season ago. Receiver is the main question as the Hawkeyes lose Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith at wideout, but tight end Sam LaPorta should be the top target for their passing offense.

Upfront Iowa loses three solid starters but return Tyler Linderbaum at the center position. While they may not be as experienced as they were a year ago it’s hard to imagine Iowa seeing much of a drop off on the line. Overall, it seems like this team will go as far as Petras and the passing game takes them.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa
Linderbaum leading the way for Goodson.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, the main concern is the front seven which lost a lot of production Chauncey Golston and Davyion Nixon on the line, and Nick Niemann at linebacker. The other two linebackers return for the Hawkeyes, but replacing three of your top four tacklers will be somewhat challenging.

The secondary for Iowa should once again be strong as the Hawkeyes return all four starters including Jack Koerner who was a second team All-Big Ten safety a year ago. Add in Riley Moss at corner and you have a secondary that should be one of the tops in the nation. If the front seven can create pressure this group should really thrive.

Overall, Iowa appears like it has some questions but will likely have answers for them and still be a solid team. The schedule is tough as the Hawkeyes open with Indiana at home before traveling to Ames. The Hawkeyes have won the last five Cy-Hawk meetings, but Iowa State will start as a top ten team in the country. After that they have two very manageable games in Kent State and Colorado State before traveling to Maryland. The following week they get Penn State and then Purdue at home.

After a bye week they travel to Madison for a likely Battle for the West lead before heading to Northwestern the following week. The Hawkeyes finish the season with home games against Minnesota and Illinois before traveling to Nebraska to end. In 22 years here Ferentz has averaged 7.6 wins a season and I would expect you could plan for the win total to hover right around that mark once again. At 8.5 wins on many betting outlets I lean under, it seems to me that 8-4 is likely any which way you run the schedule, but we’ll see.