IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Even after losing a program-high four early entrants to the NFL, Iowa likely has enough talent to win the Big Ten West.
Whether the Hawkeyes can navigate a brutal schedule will determine whether they do so.
Iowa (9-4 in 2018) will feature a three-year starter at quarterback in Nate Stanley, a veteran offensive line anchored by future pro tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs, a surprisingly talented group of receivers and a defense led by Big Ten sack leader A.J. Epenesa.
The Hawkeyes also have four road games against teams that went to bowl games a year ago and a fifth at resurgent Nebraska to close out the regular season.
"We lost a lot of good players," said coach Kirk Ferentz of a group led by first-round picks T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. "But I think we have some really good players coming back, and they'll kind of be the guys that will have to lead the way."
Iowa opens its season at home Aug. 31 against Miami (Ohio).
Stanley is on pace to leave Iowa as the most statistically prolific quarterback in school history outside of Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long. Stanley has thrown 52 touchdown passes against just 16 interceptions in his two seasons. With junior receivers Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette expected to break out in 2019, Stanley could be poised to throw at least 30 TDs for the first time. One area where Stanley could improve, though, is accuracy. He completed 59.3% of his throws in 2018, ranking just 67th nationally.
The 6-foot-6, 280-pound Epenesa has been talked about as a possible top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL draft after racking up 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2018 while coming off the bench. If Epenesa can thrive as his snaps increase in a starting role, he should push for All-America honors.
"He's done a lot of good things already, but now the challenge is to play 60, 70 snaps in a ballgame and play them all as well as he possibly can," Ferentz said. "He works hard. He's got a great attitude. There's no reason to think he won't be a better player this year."
Like they typically are, the Hawkeyes should be stout along the line on both sides of the ball. In addition to Epenesa, the defensive line returns standouts Chaucey Golston and Cedrick Lattimore — and highly-touted junior college transfer Daviyon Nixon has finally landed on the depth chart. The offensive line features two of the Big Ten's best tackles in Jackson and Wirfs, and redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum has been a standout after switching to the offense in the offseason.
Remember when Iowa went 12-0 in the 2015 regular season only to be criticized for its easy schedule? That won't be the case in 2019. The Hawkeyes play Iowa State, Michigan, defending West champion Northwestern, Wisconsin and the Huskers on the road.
"There (are) usually five to eight teams you can pretty much say, 'Yeah, these guys will probably be in the top 20.' After that it's a jump ball," Ferentz said. "I hope nobody is wasting too much time on it from our camp."
Iowa could finish anywhere between 7-5 and 10-2. Given the stability of Ferentz's staff and his son Brian's evolution as an offensive coordinator and play caller, the Hawkeyes will likely be closer to those 10 wins.