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Ben Niemann and Matt VandeBerg express disappointment but find positives after a 45-16 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com

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PASADENA, Calif. — The confetti commemorating Stanford’s 45-16 win over Iowa was freshly dropped on the lush Rose Bowl Stadium grass when key Hawkeye players turned an eye toward next football season.

“Going into this next season, we’ll have a little chip on our shoulder trying to finish stronger,” junior quarterback C.J. Beathard said in a pained Hawkeye locker room. “A Big Ten championship game, then a BCS bowl game.”

Iowa got to both, but lost both, in this magical 2015 season. Beathard’s approach signifies that the journey isn’t stopping after a 0-2 finish to a 12-0 start.

But the path back to these levels and winning a Big Ten title and/or Rose Bowl will be hard. Twenty-one seniors, a lot of them very important, are moving on. With a smaller class of juniors leading the next march, Iowa — despite returning 13 to 17 starters, depending how you count them — could be younger in some ways than in 2015

Gone are Iowa’s two best offensive linemen in Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh. Gone is the top wide receiver threat in Tevaun Smith.  Gone are both fullbacks that keyed Iowa’s rushing resurgence in Macon Plewa and Adam Cox. Gone are Nate Meier, Cole Fisher and Jordan Lomax, key leaders on a top-20 defense.

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Cole Fisher, Jordan Walsh, Tevaun Smith, Macon Plewa and Austin Blythe speak after the Rose Bowl.

And then there are two huge asterisks. Defensive end Drew Ott is applying to get a fifth season of eligibility after Tommy John surgery (left elbow) and torn-ACL surgery (right knee) shortened his senior year. Consensus all-America cornerback Desmond King has until Jan. 18 to decide whether he wants to apply early for the NFL draft.

If one or both return to the Hawkeye defense, that’d be something to celebrate. But more importantly, Iowa must lean on 2015 “Iowa edge” principles, not revert to a 2014 culture that lacked leadership.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors that were busting their butts. They set a great example for the rest of us,” junior receiver Matt VandeBerg said. “Now we need to go out there and do the same thing they did to show the young guys that 12-0 can be done here.”

With that backdrop, here's an early glance at how Iowa’s starting lineup might look Sept. 3 against Miami of Ohio, plus one final look back at the 2015 season:

2016 PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

OFFENSE

SE Jerminic Smith (soph.): Impressed coaches upon arrival in August with college-ready skill set. Subbed nicely (four catches, 118 yards vs. Illinois) when Tevaun Smith missed two games. Will benefit from first winter with Chris Doyle.

LT Ike Boettger (jr.): A bit of a dice-roll here, as Brian Ferentz will experiment with his line throughout spring and summer camp. Tons of upside in the former high-school quarterback. Just needs to get healthy.

LG Boone Myers (jr.): The left tackle to start the season was a rotating left guard to end it after being slowed by injuries. Like most Iowa linemen, has extreme position flexibility.

C James Daniels (soph.): Learned a lot as Austin Blythe’s road-trip roommate during the season. Now he’ll get a chance to star at his natural position. Four-star talent in 294-pound body played admirably as a true freshman.

RG Sean Welsh (jr.): Quietly powerful force who went from uncertain status in the offseason to one of Iowa’s most consistent pieces. Started all 13 games, including two at right tackle.

RT Cole Croston (sr.): Former walk-on came off the bench to start Iowa’s final 10 games at tackle — four on the left side, six on the right. Seems to be most at home on the right side.

TE George Kittle (sr.): The sky’s the limit. Athletic 235-pounder can block well and led Iowa with six touchdown catches despite backing up Henry Krieger Coble. The real question is, who backs up Kittle?

WR Matt VandeBerg (sr.): Reliable target’s 65 catches rank as the third-most for an Iowa receiver in a single season. Most effective lining up in the slot, but has sneaky speed when starting outside.

QB C.J. Beathard (sr.): Began career 13-0 as a starter, but still showed there’s room to grow with Rose Bowl inconsistency. Needs to get healthy first. It’s an important spring for backups Tyler Wiegers, Ryan Boyle and Drew Cook.

FB Drake Kulick (jr.): We don’t know much about the walk-on from Muscatine, but the converted linebacker is "Next Man In" to replace senior bruisers Macon Plewa and Adam Cox.

RB Akrum Wadley (jr.): If he can get his weight up to 190 – he’s still stuck in the 182-186 range – he is Iowa’s most enticing game-breaking option. LeShun Daniels Jr. (power) and Derrick Mitchell Jr. (third down) will have big roles, too.

PK Mick Ellis (soph.): Redshirted after missing only career field-goal attempt and going 7-for-7 on PATs as a true freshman. Needs to gain leg strength. He’ll compete with Mason City walk-on Miguel Recinos, who may handle kickoffs.

DEFENSE

LE Matt Nelson (soph.): Coaches liked the progress they saw from the 6-foot-8 Cedar Rapids native in bowl prep, and he recorded his first career sack against Stanford.

LT Jaleel Johnson (sr.): The 310-pounder with a high motor was so dominant at times in his first year as a starter that opponents began regularly double-teaming him. Had 45 tackles, including four sacks.

RT Nathan Bazata (jr.): Slightly undersized at 284, but used relentless energy to record 42 tackles. Will share time with Faith Ekakitie, who got better as the season went on.

RE Parker Hesse (soph.): Forced to play before his time with Drew Ott’s multiple significant injuries. An offseason with Doyle should give him another 10 pounds that he’ll need in order to better challenge left tackles.

OLB Ben Niemann (jr.): Has drawn comparisons to former Hawkeye “Leo” backer A.J. Edds, and was a versatile piece in his first year as a starter. Bo Bower is likely to remain his backup.

MLB Josey Jewell (jr.): Led Iowa with 126 tackles and was second with four interceptions, including one each in the final three games. Quarterback of the defense is already a star.

WLB Aaron Mends (soph.): Holds Iowa weight-lifting records and has “electric” feet, position coach Jim Reid says. Could be a key position battle with Jack Hockaday in the spring.

LC Greg Mabin (sr.): Gets social-media heat at times, but a lot of that comes from opponents throwing away from Desmond King. Game is slowing down for him; was at his best in Big Ten title game.

SS Miles Taylor (jr.): Speaks softly, hits hard. Despite being slowed by injuries in his first year as a starter, recorded 69 tackles. Now needs to take the next step.

FS Brandon Snyder (soph.): Walk-on lost the strong-safety position battle to Taylor, then got moved to Jordan Lomax’s backup. Walk-on looks the part. Senior Anthony Gair could compete here, too.

RC Desmond King (sr.) or Josh Jackson (soph.): King says he’s 50-50 on going to the NFL. If he goes, coaches like the progress of Jackson – who got seasoning as the extra corner in Iowa’s “Raider” defense.

P Colten Rastetter (fr.): About all we know about the Guttenberg walk-on is that he punts left-footed. Recinos could enter the competition as well to replace Dillon Kidd and Marshall Koehn.

LOOKING BACK AT 2015

High point (tie) — There were so many. Let’s pick two.

No. 1: On a blustery Black Friday in Lincoln, Neb., Iowa slammed the door in their critics’ faces with a 28-20 win over Nebraska to complete an undefeated regular season and notch a school-record 12th victory. In the process, the Hawkeyes completed their redemption tour by going 4-0 in trophy games after going 0-4 during the 7-6 disappointment of 2014.

No. 2: Marshall Koehn’s 57-yard field goal as time expired beat Pittsburgh, 27-24, and capped a magical three hours in Kinnick Stadium’s first night game since 2012 – which started emotionally with former Hawkeye Brett Greenwood, once in a coma, leading the team onto the field.

Low point — The outcome of Iowa’s first Rose Bowl in 25 years was a letdown. The Hawkeyes were completely outplayed and overmatched by Stanford on the big stage, 45-16, four weeks after going toe-to-toe with Michigan State in the Big Ten Conference championship loss. In taking a 28-0 lead, the Cardinal ran only 12 offensive plays – that’s how quickly things unraveled for Iowa.

Could have used — A few more knockout wins. The Hawkeyes had to fight to the finish in almost every game. That took a toll physically, especially on the defense, and despite 27 days between games several played hobbled in the Rose Bowl, including the quarterback. It’s also a shame that Jordan Canzeri couldn’t stay healthy. When he was right, he was one of the most complete running backs in the Big Ten. His versatility made Iowa less predictable on offense.

Offensive MVP — C.J. Beathard. Even though veteran Jake Rudock played well after transferring to Michigan, the Hawkeyes were better off with Beathard as a first-year starter. His scrambling ability, big arm and clutch fourth-quarter play were the difference in beating Iowa State and Pittsburgh in September, which got Iowa to 3-0 and set the table for what was to come. In addition to the 23 touchdowns he produced, Beathard was a picture of determination and a catalyst for culture change. He was named second-team all-Big Ten.

Defensive MVP (tie) — This one deserves to be shared between Desmond King and Josey Jewell. King is an obvious choice as a consensus all-American and Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. In addition to the junior’s eight interceptions, he was a difference-maker in the return game. Jewell, a sophomore, was the heart-and-soul of a physical Iowa defense in his first year as a starter. He is on course to become one of the Hawkeyes’ all-time linebacker greats.

Reasons for optimism — Whether or not Iowa gets King or Drew Ott back in 2016, the Hawkeyes will likely be a popular pick as Big Ten West favorites because of returning pieces at key positions, including at quarterback. The offensive line brings back five big bodies with starting experience, and three complementary running backs return in LeShun Daniels Jr., Akrum Wadley and Derrick Mitchell Jr. A new culture has been established, and that will serve Iowa well in the next eight months of workouts.

Reasons for pessimism — Being the hunter has always been advantageous for the Hawkeyes, but in 2016 they’ll become the hunted. The schedule takes a step up as the Big Ten moves to nine conference games per team, and for Iowa five of those are on the road. Losing center Austin Blythe could be a bigger loss than people realize – he was the best at his position in the Big Ten, despite not being honored as such.

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