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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Iowa's season outlook

The Hawkeyes made their 12th bowl game since 2001, but failed to win a game vs. FBS foes with winning records. Will things change in 2015?

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa returns seven starters from a strong defense and is coming off its 12th bowl appearance since 2001.

But it's fair to dub 2014 as the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Hawkeyes.

Can the team get over the hump in Kirk Ferentz's 17th year at the helm?

This week we examine Iowa in our Big Ten season outlook series.

Troubling record

Don't judge Iowa's 7-6 record like a book and its cover.

On the outside, the Hawkeyes played well enough in the regular season (7-5 record) to make a bowl game. That's not a bad season for most teams.

Look deeper.

Six of Iowa's wins came against FBS teams with losing records. Another win against Northern Iowa — a 31-23 victory where, ya know, Iowa had to stave off an FCS team.

Non-conference play did not come easy either, where wins against Pittsburgh and Ball State required a fourth-quarter comeback. And to make matters worse, the Hawkeyes lost a heartbreaker to an embarrassing 2-win Iowa State team.

Against FBS teams with winning records, Iowa struggled, posting an 0-5 record.

Amongst the rubble of a thrashing by Minnesota were close contests vs. Wisconsin and Nebraska.

A slow start plagued Iowa against Wisconsin, and time had run out on a comeback bid in the 26-24 loss. The Nebraska game was a barn burner. Iowa imploded late, allowing 17 points in the fourth quarter, before falling in 37-35 in double overtime.

With improved performances in these two games and against Iowa State, Iowa could be sitting at 9-3 before bowl season, but i's easy to say that in hindsight.

Key returnees

Iowa returns 12 starters in 2015, headlined by seven on defense.

This should bode well for a group that ranked 22nd in the nation in total defense (344.2 yards allowed per game).

Junior Desmond King and senior Jordan Lomax stand out at defensive back after strong 2014 seasons.

King totaled three interceptions and one touchdown in 13 games, while Lomax led returnees with 92 tackles.

Defensive lineman Drew Ott had 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in 13 games as a junior last season and should shine in the trenches in his final year.

On offense, Iowa has to replace its starting quarterback and running back.

Jake Rudock is at Michigan via a graduate transfer while Mark Weisman is tasting the NFL's waters with the Cincinnati Bengals.

C.J. Beathard should fill Rudock's shoes. In nine games last season, the rising junior threw for 645 yards and five touchdowns, completing 56.5 percent of his passes.

But it will be hard to replace Weisman, who rushed for 812 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.

Senior Jordan Canzeri seems to be the best candidate. In 11 games last season, he rushed for 494 yards. Akrum Wadley should fill in nicely as a backup. The rising sophomore totaled 186 yards and a touchdown in eight games.

With turnover at quarterback and running back, three returnees on the offensive line is a relief for Iowa.

Redshirt sophomore Sean Walsh and fifth-year seniors Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh all made starts on the line last season. Walsh earned first-team All-Freshman Big Ten honors by, while Blythe has started 36 games in his Iowa career.

Seniors Tevaun Smith and Jake Duzey headline returning pass catchers.

Smith caught 43 passes for 596 yards and three touchdowns as Iowa's lead wide receiver to Duzey's 36 receptions, 392 yards and three touchdowns at tight end.

To-do list

From improved play to replacing productive players on offense, several pressing needs have been mentioned.

But there's still more to work on.

Iowa has to improve its offense in 2015; it ranked 66th nationally in total offense (400.1 yards per game) last season. But it's hard to imagine this happening with Rudock playing across the midwest and Weisman in the NFL.

As good as Iowa's defense was last season, big plays haunted the unit. It allowed 24 rushing plays of at least 30 yards — including four rushes of at least 70 yards — and 16 passing plays of at least 40 yards.

The third-worst turnover margin in the Big Ten could use some work, too.

The schedule

Sept. 5 vs. Illinois State
Sept. 12 at Iowa State
Sept. 19 vs. Pittsburgh
Sept. 26 vs. North Texas
Oct. 3 at Wisconsin
Oct. 10 vs. Illinois (Homecoming)
Oct. 17 at Northwestern
Oct. 31 vs. Maryland
Nov. 7 at Indiana
Nov. 14 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 21 vs. Purdue
Nov. 28 at Nebraska

Iowa opens the season with an FCS foe for the second consecutive year. On paper, the non-conference schedule seems light minus a home contest vs. Pittsburgh.

Two of the Hawkeyes' premier contests, Wisconsin and Nebraska, will be played on the road, while Minnesota visits Kinnick Stadium (Don't count out an Iowa win over Nebraska, though). Crossover games against Maryland and Indiana are played in consecutive weeks.

Iowa could roll into November bowl eligible, but it's hard to imagine much more than six-seven wins.

Wins: Illinois State, Iowa State, Pitt, North Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue

Losses: Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota

Toss-up: Maryland, Nebraska