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NCAA Football Preview - Iowa Hawkeyes

By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Coming off an ugly 4-8 campaign in 2012, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz vowed to turn things around in 2013, and he surely did.

Iowa doubled its win total and earned a New Year's Day bowl bid against 14th- ranked LSU. Certainly, there were doubters following a season-opening home loss to Northern Illinois. At that point, Iowa had lost seven in a row going back to 2012. But Ferentz rallied the troops, and the team rebounded with four straight wins, including a 59-3 rout over Western Michigan and a 23-7 triumph at Minnesota in back-to-back weeks.

Once October hit, the Hawkeyes fell to Michigan State (26-14), Ohio State (34-24) and Wisconsin (28-9) during a four-game stretch, with the lone victory coming against Northwestern in overtime (17-10). But Iowa really hit its stride in November, reeling off three straight wins at Purdue (38-14), home against Michigan (24-21), and at Nebraska (38-17) to secure bowl eligibility.

The Hawkeyes hung tough with LSU in the Outback Bowl but ultimately fell by a 21-14 margin.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Skill position players tend to get all of the glory, but the Hawkeyes have their own rock star in offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, who earned All- America honors in 2013 as well as being named to the All-Big Ten First Team.

"We've had a lot of outstanding players over the last 15 years, linemen that have come through," coach Ferentz said at media day. "And I think Brandon really embodies a lot of the best qualities of all those guys, and certainly he's got some physical characteristics that are just highly unusual, quite frankly. So it's a great attitude with a good skill set.

"I think the thing we're all excited about more than any is the fact that we all believe he can improve and be a much better player this year than he was a year ago."

Running back Mark Weisman is not flashy, but he has good vision and gets the tough yards behind road grader Scherff and company. Weisman, a former walk-on at fullback, ran for 975 yards (4.3 ypc) and 8 touchdowns last season.

"There's a lot of different ways to be successful," Ferentz said. "And Mark I think plays within his skill set ... we have a chance to use him a little bit more judicially this year. So hopefully we can do a better job keeping him fresh throughout the entire season so he can play at a level where he's fully effective."

At quarterback, Jake Rudock is back after earning the starting gig last year as a sophomore. Although his stats were not eye-popping (183 ypg, 18 TD, 13 INT), Rudock has a command of the offense and can inflict damage with his legs (218 yds, 5 TDs rushing). Also returning is Kevonte Martin-Manley, the leading receiver from a year ago, who hauled in 40 passes for 388 yards and 5 scores.

DEFENSE: The linebacker corps was decimated by graduation, leaving a big void in what was easily the strong point of the defense last season. Gone are James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens, a trio that combined for a whopping 322 tackles and countless impact plays.

Along the front line, defensive ends Drew Ott (6.5 TFL) and Mike Hardy (1.5 TFL) return, although they combined for only 4 sacks last year. Tackles Carl Davis (42 tackles) and Louis Trinca-Pasat (38 tackles) are solid at the point of attack.

In the secondary, cornerback B.J. Lowery has moved on along with his 3 interceptions and team-high 16 pass breakups from 2013. But the coaching staff is really high on Desmond King, who plays a physical brand of football (69 tackles) and broke up 8 passes as a freshman. Senior safety John Lowdermilk provides a steadying presence and is the team's top returning tackler (78 tackles, 4.5 TFL).

SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior Marshall Koehn, a former walk-on who has hardly seen any game action, will be given a chance to replace Mike Meyer at kicker, while Connor Kornbrath returns at punter. Kornbrath averaged 40.0 yards and landed 27 of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line.

The Hawkeyes boast one of the nation's most dangerous return weapons in Martin-Manley, who returned a pair of punts for touchdowns last season.

OUTLOOK: This season marks the 10th anniversary of Iowa's 2004 Big Ten Championship team, but the 2014 squad faces long odds of pulling off such a feat.

The defense will have to take on a whole new identity with three highly productive linebackers no longer in the fold, although there are fewer questions surrounding the offense.

The schedule sets up rather favorably with Iowa taking on Indiana and Maryland from the East Division. From the West, the Hawkeyes face Wisconsin and Nebraska at home in the final two weeks of the regular season.

All in all, they should be able to at least match last year's win total; anything less would have to be considered a disappointment.

08/20 12:39:49 ET

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