By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — There were extra eyes on the University of Iowa’s 16th football practice of fall camp Wednesday morning with Big Ten Network making its annual preseason trek to the Kenyon Outdoor Practice Facility.
The Hawkeyes passed the eye test for BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart, who was impressed by the UI student-athletes preparing for their Sept. 3 season opener against Miami (Ohio).
“You look at the debits and credits of the roster and there’s not a super glaring weakness,” Dienhart said. “The big deal for Iowa is not so much personnel, but dealing with expectations and having that target on its back. They will be everybody’s big game and how will they handle being the hunted this year?”
Coincidentally, Iowa was the first stop on BTN’s swing through the Big Ten Conference West Division. The Hawkeyes are set to defend their division title after sweeping the other six teams from the west in 2015 en route to a 12-0 regular season and a berth in the Big Ten Championship. While Northwestern and Wisconsin had 10-win seasons and shared second-place in the west in 2015, Dienhart looks at Minnesota and Nebraska as the biggest threats to the Hawkeyes. Both teams were 6-7 a year ago and combined for a 3-9 record against division foes.
“The teams that could really challenge Iowa are Minnesota and Nebraska, in particular Minnesota,” Dienhart said. “Maybe people are sleeping on the Gophers. They are a talented team with a senior quarterback in Mitch Leidner. I know that is a rivalry game, too. That will be a good measuring stick and hurdle for Iowa this fall.”
Iowa plays at Minnesota on Oct. 8.
Dienhart acknowledged that the Hawkeyes aren’t short of talent behind center, either. Senior C.J. Beathard, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2015, was Iowa’s most valuable offensive player and named team captain. He joins fellow Big Ten quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong, Jr., (Nebraska), J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), and Wes Lunt (Illinois) on the Manning Award Watch List as the top quarterback in the nation.
“You have arguably the best quarterback — at least the second-best quarterback — in the Big Ten,” Dienhart said. “You have J.T. Barrett at Ohio State and C.J. Beathard — two great quarterbacks.
“When you have a quarterback like that you’re always going to have a shot. Iowa always has good offensive lines and they will be able to run the football. The offense is going to be able to set defenses up with the running game and play-action passes.”
Beathard won his first 13 games as a starting quarterback. As a junior, he threw for more than 200 yards per game with 12 more touchdown passes than interceptions. He also ran for six scores.
Dienhart is curious to see if the Hawkeye offense added “big-play explosiveness” at the receiver position. On defense he is looking for an emerging defensive end.
“There is a lot balance there. There isn’t a 10,000-pound gorilla that everyone is chasing. Iowa is good, but I don’t think they are head and shoulders ahead of Nebraska, Minnesota, and Northwestern in the west. That’s what makes that division fun and exciting. It will be fun for the fans this year to see who comes out on top.” — Tom Dienhart, BTN.com senior writer
“I think that end spot is a question when you lose a guy like Drew Ott in particular off that edge,” Dienhart said. “Who’s going to rush the passer for Iowa? That’s a big key. The tackle spots are good, the back seven overall is good.”
Iowa ripped off six consecutive wins last season with Ott on the sideline, making its school-record winning streak at 12 to start the season. The Hawkeyes dropped a heartbreaking 16-13 decision to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship before falling to Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game.
“That was impressive, I don’t think anybody saw that coming,” Dienhart said. “It was a season for the ages, now they have to reset the bar. I think they’re the favorite this year in the west.”
Favorite with an asterisk: Dienhart would not be surprised to see any of four teams win the West Division.
“There is a lot balance there. There isn’t a 10,000-pound gorilla that everyone is chasing,” Dienhart said. “Iowa is good, but I don’t think they are head and shoulders ahead of Nebraska, Minnesota, and Northwestern in the west. That’s what makes that division fun and exciting. It will be fun for the fans this year to see who comes out on top.”
Despite higher expectations and Iowa having a target on its back, Dienhart said the Hawkeyes’ maturity will serve them well.
“Most people do well when nobody is looking at you and there are no expectations,” Dienhart said. “How do you do when great expectations loom over your head? It will help that this is a veteran squad. Having a quarterback like Beathard will be a calming influence on the offensive side of the ball.
“I know Josey Jewell is not a senior (he is a junior), but he is a guy mature beyond his years, then you have Desmond King in the secondary. You have to count on your leaders within your team to keep everybody focused. How to deal with those expectations will be Iowa’s biggest hurdle to try to have a successful 2016.”
BTN will air its segment on Iowa on Wednesday at 4 p.m. (CT).