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2021 Iowa college football preview: Can the Hawkeyes rely on their defense again?

Iowa’s defense was one of the best in the country in 2020, but will the unit be able to maintain that production in 2021?

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Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg makes an interception off a pass by Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez late in the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium
owa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg makes an interception off a pass by Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Adrian Martinez late in the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes looked like a laughingstock two games into last season, but they rattled off six straight wins to finish second in the Big Ten West. Kirk Ferentz and the program had a big controversy last summer with strength coach Chris Doyle and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz accused of creating a culture dismissive of black athletes, but that didn’t seem to impact the product on the field.

The NIL era will be a test for Ferentz’s continued old-school style, as well as the market in Iowa City to compensate athletes. With one of the biggest contracts in the Big Ten himself, Ferentz might need to pivot and soften his stances against commercialization of college football to keep the Hawkeyes competitive.

Can Iowa change the style that has made them successful so far? They do enter the campaign with what is projected to be one of the best defenses in America.

2020 Season Review

  • 6-2, 6-2, 2nd in Big Ten West, Music City Bowl cancelled
  • Iowa’s defense was dominant last season, allowing 21 points or less in every game last year. The Hawkeyes are losing some big talent up front with Chauncey Golston and Daviyon Nixon gone. Will someone be able to step up to replace their 11 combined sacks?

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 7th in Big Ten
ESPN Returning Production: 72% overall (57): 69% offense (70), 76% defense (48)
Returning Talent Index: Neutral, 8th in Big Ten
Returning starters: 8/11 offense, 6/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Spencer Petras

Petras looked decent in his last three games, throwing six touchdowns and one interception in three victories. He had accuracy problems for much of the season and could rarely take advantage of Iowa’s strong running game on play-action passes. If Petras can take a jump, Iowa’s offense should be able to make up for any drop off defensively.

Offense (non-QB): WR Tyrone Tracy Jr. (So.)

Tracy Jr. is expected to start at receiver with Iowa’s starters gone and needs to emerge as a weapon. With TE Sam LaPorta and RB Tyler Goodson back, Iowa has some vital pieces returning for Petras. The Hawkeyes need an outside threat to make defenses respect the home run play who can also make plays in tight spots. Tracy Jr. is the best candidate for that role.

Defense: DL Zach VanValkenburg (Sr.)

Iowa’s sack leaders from last season are gone, meaning VanValkenburg needs to step up and become the top option. The Hawkeyes are fairly intact in the secondary, meaning they need to generate enough pressure up front to remain effective. VanValkenburg had 3.5 sacks last season and should be able to build on that in 2021.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 10th overall: 45th offense, 2nd defense, 26th special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 16th overall: 51st offense, 1st defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +2800
To win Big Ten: +1200
Win total: 8.5 (Over +100, Under -125)

2020 Against The Spread: 5-1-2
2020 Point Total: Over 3-5

2021 Iowa Schedule

Iowa 2021 Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Saturday, Sep. 4 vs. Indiana 3:30 p.m./BTN Iowa -5.5
Saturday, Sep. 11 at Iowa State 3:30 p.m./ABC Iowa +4.5
Saturday, Sep. 18 vs. Kent State 3:30 p.m./BTN N/A
Saturday, Sep. 25 vs. Colorado State TBA N/A
Friday, Oct. 1 at Maryland 8:00 p.m./FS1 N/A
Saturday, Oct. 9 vs. Penn State TBA Iowa -3.5
Saturday, Oct. 16 vs. Purdue 3:30 p.m. Iowa -14.5
Saturday, Oct. 23 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 30 at Wisconsin 12:00 p.m. N/A
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Northwestern TBA Iowa -10.5
Saturday, Nov. 13 vs. Minnesota TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 20 vs. Illinois TBA Iowa -21.5
Friday, Nov. 26 at Nebraska 1:30 p.m./BTN Iowa -6.5