Five big questions facing Hawkeye football in 2015

Chad Leistikow

Is the offense that bad, or is the defense that good?

Iowa defensive lineman Drew Ott, left, looked like a first-round NFL draft pick during an Aug. 15 open practice. How good he and the Iowa defense really are will be key for the Hawkeyes in 2015.

In three open scrimmages to the public – April 11, April 25 and Aug. 15 – the first-team offense was held without a touchdown against the first-team defense. And that’s with some possessions starting in the red zone. The focal point of offensive struggles has been Drew Ott looking like an NFL all-pro defensive end overwhelming new left tackle Boone Myers. Head coach Kirk Ferentz had this to say about the chicken-egg question: “It’s a little bit of each,” Ferentz said. “We’ll find out as the season goes along, but we think (Ott’s) a really good player.” Ferentz is probably right, that the answer is in the middle. Myers will be a good player. And while the defense isn't likely to repeat the 13 points a game allowed by the 2008 Hawkeyes, it'll be better than the one that allowed 25.6 a game in 2014. And if C.J. Beathard has the freedom to move as much as he wants, don’t be surprised if some of Iowa’s most explosive plays come via quarterback improvisation that hasn’t been in public view since Jan. 2.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Iowa State receiver Allen Lazard said. “I think I should win every battle and I should catch every ball. That’s what I want to hold myself to. Until I do that, I won’t be pleased.”

How likely is it that the Hawkeyes lose to either ISU?

There’s understandable nervousness surrounding the opener against defending FCS runner-up Illinois State and the game at Iowa State a week later. There’s also a ton of pressure for the Hawkeyes to start the season 2-0. Beating both ISUs would mean a lot for a program that ended 2014 on a three-game losing streak and would generate optimism and buzz entering the Sept. 19 home night game vs. Pittsburgh. Losing to either ISU would sting. Iowa fans will find it hard to stomach a first-ever loss to an FCS school or conceding a fifth straight trophy game. unveiled win probabilities a while back, and they grade Iowa’s chance at 2-0 at 51.47 percent. So, the answer to the initial question is basically 50/50.

The Hawkeyes take the field against Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register)

How big of a deal are sagging ticket sales at Kinnick?

Truth: Ticket sales and projected wins don’t go hand-in-hand. The last time Kinnick Stadium had an announced attendance of less than 60,000 was when 54,211 watched Iowa throttle Utah State on Sept. 21, 2002. All Iowa did after that was go 8-0 in the Big Ten Conference and rocket to No. 3 in the national polls. That said, continued mediocrity at home (Iowa is 10-11 at Kinnick the past three seasons) won’t help any bottom line. The athletic department’s fiscal-year 2016 budget projected a $2.85 million decline in football ticket revenue from last season. That’s not pocket change. In early August, the university revealed season-ticket sales were down 16 percent – off by more than 7,000 from a year earlier. Subtract 7,000 from last year’s season low – 64,210 vs. Ball State – and even if single-game sales are up, the first sub-60 crowd in 13 years is entirely possible. Winning football games is the best way to either conceal or make people forget any attendance stains.

LeShun Daniels welcomes his brother, James, to the Hawkeyes this fall.

Will LeShun Daniels Jr. become Iowa’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011?

Much has been made of Daniels’ anointing as the No. 1 running back. If he can stay healthy and average 20-25 carries a game as position coach Chris White said, then yeah, becoming the first since Marcus Coker to hit four figures is possible. But the guess here is no, it won’t happen for two reasons. One, the offensive line has been overwhelmed trying to construct running gaps during open practices – until that unit improves, it’s hard to think about a 100-yard game, let alone a 1,000-yard season. Two, there are four talented running backs in the stable. Jordan Canzeri has shown the ability to get the hot hand at times, so he (or even Derrick Mitchell Jr.) could become the featured guy some weeks. But hey, Iowa didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2009 – and that year’s backfield tandem of Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher led the Hawkeyes to an Orange Bowl win and 11-2 record.

And finally: What win total in 2015 will satisfy Hawkeye fans?

Short answer No. 1: It’s in the eye of the beholder. Some fans won’t be happy until Ferentz is gone, even if he goes 9-3. Short answer No. 2: It depends on who the wins are against. Anything less than 7-5 will be widely unacceptable, considering there are five home games alone that appear very winnable in Illinois State, North Texas, Illinois, Maryland and Purdue. Add in the game in Ames (which admittedly is never easy, but the Cyclones won zero Big 12 Conference games last year), and that makes six chances at a bad loss. So, against a schedule that ranks 13th-toughest out of 14 Big Ten teams (only ahead of Wisconsin’s and 64th nationally), the Hawkeyes could even finish 8-4 and still have some unpalatable defeats.