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2019 Preview: Can Iowa Take the Next Step in the Big Ten?

Iowa always seems to be consistently good, but the Hawkeyes are going to need more this year if they're to seriously contend in the Big Ten.

Our college football 2019 season preview issue is here, which means we're checking in with all 25 teams from SI's official preseason Top 25 ranking. What do you need to know about each of this year's top contenders, from top-ranked Alabama down to Stanford? We'll be rolling out scouting reports for each team over the next two weeks, all of which are being collected here. Next up, it's No. 18 Iowa.


You know what you're going to get out of the Hawkeyes: bruising defense, an efficient offense and a solid showing in the Big Ten. Is Iowa capable of more this season? With five returning starters on a defense that ranked seventh in the nation last year, the Hawkeyes won't be a pushover, but Iowa won't be contend for a conference title unless senior QB Nate Stanley plays better in big games: He's 1–6 over his career against ranked teams.


A.J. Epenesa has a chance to be the best pass rusher in the Big Ten—and one of the best in all of college football. The 6'6", 280-pound junior defensive end didn't start last year, when he racked up 10 1⁄2 sacks, leading the Big Ten. Again, and it bears repeating: He did so as a second-string player, lining up for just 48% of Iowa's defensive snaps.


Who's going to catch all of Stanley's passes? Iowa has grown comfortable behind its third-year QB, but Stanley is missing his two most prolific targets from 2018: tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, both of whom are in the NFL. Iowa's offense loves a sure-handed TE, but its roster this year features only one player at the position who's caught a college pass.

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Midway through last season, Iowa shifted to a 4-2-5 base defense. That meant one of the DBs had to play as a hybrid LB, a position they dubbed "cash." Safety Amani Hooker played the role so well he was named the Big Ten's defense back of the year as Iowa had the seventh-best defense in the FBS. With Hooker in the NFL, freshman D.J. Johnson is expected to take over at cash in Kirk Ferentz's unit. Johnson, a former three-star recruit, has practiced behind—and learned from—Hooker. There's one big difference: Hooker is a 210-pound safety, while Johnson is a 5'11", 183-pound cornerback. He has the quickness to disrupt, but he'll have to play physically against the run too.


Under 8.5 wins. Not facing Ohio State helps, but the Hawkeyes have to travel to Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa State. More bad news: quarterback Nate Stanley is 5–5 on the road.


Kirk Ferentz's teams are boring to a fault. They run, they punt, they play solid defense, they win eight games, everyone goes home happy. No team embodies consistently solid football quite like Iowa.