The Iowa Hawkeyes enter the new college football season as a consensus Top 25 team and with high expectations coming off one of the best years in school history.
After finishing the regular season undefeated and coming up just short in the Big Ten championship game before a blowout loss in the Rose Bowl, the Hawkeyes return a strong core group that makes them the early favorite to repeat as the Big Ten West Division champions.
That's a far cry from the preseason a year ago when some critics were questioning whether coach Kirk Ferentz had lost his touch at Iowa and that the program would continue to backslide under his guidance.
The perspective is much different as the Hawkeyes head toward September. The reason for the heightened optimism is the return of senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, All-American cornerback Desmond King and a slew of returning starters on both sides of the ball.
Beathard is the unquestioned leader of the offense. He proved last year that the Iowa coaches made the right decision in January 2015 to turn to him as the No. 1 quarterback over two-year returning starter Jake Rudock. Despite battling some nagging leg injuries most of last fall, Beathard passed for 2,809 yards and 17 touchdowns with five interceptions and was named second-team All-Big Ten.
"Number one on my list is to win the Big Ten championship," Beathard said of the 2016 season goals. "Number two is to win a bowl game. It's my fifth year, and I haven't won a bowl game. It's eating at all the guys who have been here awhile now."
The offensive line, always a staple of Iowa's program, should be an anchor again. The five projected starters all played last year. Senior Sean Welsh is the veteran with 23 starts the past two seasons at guard and tackle before moving to center in the spring. One analyst ranks the unit as the best in the country.
"We have some good experience right now in that group, and then, secondly, we've got versatility," Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. "We have guys that can move around."
There's also depth and experience at running back, led by LeShun Daniels Jr., Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. Daniels rushed for 646 yards last year while limited by injuries and Wadley ran for 496. Mitchell has the best hands and blocking skills of the three, and he and Wadley are noticeably stronger this year.
"We're all three playmakers and we're all going to eat," Mitchell said.
The question marks on offense going into the season are at wide receiver -- specifically a game-breaker type of player -- and depth at tight end behind George Kittle. Iowa's only reliable big-play threat last season proved to be Tevaun Smith, who used up his eligibility.
The coaches will be keeping a close eye on the wideouts in camp and looking for someone like sophomores Jerminic Smith or Jay Scheel with deep speed to take the job before the opener against Miami University on Sept. 3 in Kinnick Stadium.
There's a lot of like about Iowa's defense, starting with King in the secondary. The Jim Thorpe Award winner bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. He led the Big Ten last year with eight interceptions.
"To get him back and then just the expertise, being part of the team, all those intangible things besides what he does on the field, those are all positive things certainly, and I think it speaks well," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Iowa was hoping that former All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott would return to lead their pass rush, but he was denied a medical redshirt despite missing a majority of last season with injuries. With Nate Meier graduated on the other side, Iowa is looking to the trio of Matt Nelson (6-foot-8, 282 pounds), Anthony Nelson (6-7, 253) and Parker Hesse (6-3, 250) to step in.
The only other holes to fill are at safety, where veteran Jordan Lomax will be replaced by Brandon Snyder, and at one linebacker spot, which could go to Aaron Mends.
By far, the biggest area of concern is special teams. Iowa needs to replace its kicker and punter, drawing from a group of candidates who will wage an open competition leading up to the opener for both jobs. Punter Ron Coluzzi does have experience as a graduate transfer from Central Michigan.
What will be interesting to watch is how the Hawkeyes handle prosperity. In the past, Iowa was struggled when they're a favorite and overachieved as an underdog. This year's team will be the hunted rather than the hunter.
"We have the potential, and we've got guys with a good attitude," Ferentz said. "What can we do? How fast can we get better, and how much better can we get? That's the race every team is running in the country right now, so it's exciting. It's fun."
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Iowa and its Big Ten brethren play only three nonconference games this year because of the nine-game conference schedule that goes into effect for the first time since the 1980s. All three are at home for the Hawkeyes, starting with Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 3, followed by in-state rival Iowa State and FCS national champion North Dakota State. The Big Ten opener is scheduled for Sept. 24 at Rutgers. Anything less than a 4-0 starter would be disappointing, but there's the potential for upsets against Iowa State, which always plays well at Iowa, and North Dakota State, a giant-killer that has upset Minnesota, Kansas State and Iowa State in the past few years.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: How will the Hawkeyes handle the hype and the expectations? Much will be expected from Iowa this year after surprising college football with a 12-2 record and reaching the Rose Bowl in 2015. As Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz frequently has pointed out, the slate is wiped clean for a new team. If the Hawkeyes are able to handle the spotlight and get through September unscathed, that would be set them up nicely for Big Ten play. Offensively, finding a wide receiver that can stretch the field vertically will add another dimension to a unit that played well last season. Historically, Iowa has enjoyed its greatest success when the running game is good -- and the depth and talent is there this year. The importance of finding a fullback (yes, there is still such a position in college football) to replace two veterans cannot be discounted because he is the lead blocker to open holes for the running backs. On defense, the Hawkeyes were good at stopping the run and forcing takeaways last year, and those areas will bear a focal point again in 2016.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Can QB C.J. Beathard stay healthy? That might be the biggest fear for the Iowa coaching staff entering the new season. Beathard was banged up for most of last year, and while he went undefeated a starter in the regular season, the injuries hampered his effectiveness as a scrambler and a playmaker. Also, does Beathard have enough receivers who can get open downfield and make big plays? The Hawkeyes are admittedly thin at wideout entering the fall and need someone reliable to emerge. Finally, can Iowa find a kicker and a punter to take over those duties after both specialists graduated?
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Preseason polls are kind of like rankings of recruiting classes, too. It really doesn't matter until you get there and start going something." -- Coach Kirk Ferentz on Iowa's No. 15 ranking in the first coaches' poll.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Kirk Ferentz, 18th year at Iowa, 127-87 record at Iowa and 139-108 overall.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB C.J. Beathard -- In Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's preseason news conference, he compared Beathard with one of Iowa's all-time great quarterbacks. Ferentz said Beathard possesses many of the same leadership qualities as Brad Banks, who was the runner-up in the 2002 Heisman Trophy voting and led the Hawkeyes to a co-Big Ten championship. Beathard played hurt most of last season with a painful groin tear and a sports hernia, which was surgically repaired during the offseason but still completed 62 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns. He's healthy now and considered by former Dallas Cowboys talent scout Gil Brandt the best senior quarterback prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft. That's high praise for the grandson of former Washington Redskins GM Bobby Beathard. C.J.'s has an interesting family. His father, Casey, is a country music songwriter in Nashville for some of the top recording artists and brother Tucker is now touring with his own band.
BREAKOUT STAR: RB Adrum Wadley -- Last year, Wadley was one of four running backs who shared the carries. He emerged as a legitimate threat in the win against Northwestern when he rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns. Heading into this season, Wadley is stronger and faster and primed to make a major impact. He'll likely be sharing carries with LeShun Daniels Jr. and Derrick Mitchell Jr. "We're seeing good things from him thus far and really eager to see how the season unfolds for him," coach Kirk Ferentz said.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: FB Drake Kulick -- The junior is expected to step in and replace the veteran duo of Adam Cox and Macon Plewa. Iowa's offense makes use of the fullback position as a lead blocker and the running game functions better when there's a battering ram like Kulick to help the offensive line clear space. Last year, Kulick carried three times for eight yards in the winner at Northwestern.
--WR Jonathan Parker had foot surgery before the beginning of preseason camp. Coach Kirk Ferentz wasn't specific about when Parker might return, but the estimate is six to eight weeks.
--DE Michael Slater is recovering from offseason surgery and was unavailable for the start of fall camp. The redshirt freshman was supposed to be in the mix for playing time at defensive end, a position where Iowa was affected by graduation losses.
--WR Ryan Boyle came to Iowa as a highly recruited quarterback but moved to wide receiver in the spring for a chance to get more playing time knowing that C.J. Beathard was entrenched as the starting quarterback. Boyle is a talented athlete with speed that the Hawkeyes need in the field.
--LB Jake Sobotka, OL Mitch Keppy are DL Austin Schulte are recovering from offseason surgeries and weren't ready to participate at the start of camp.