- Win the down-and-distance battle on offense: The 2013 Iowa offense isn’t likely to be mistaken for the 2002 unit that led the Hawkeyes to an undefeated Big Ten season. Still, they boast a powerful run game anchored by RBs Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. None of the three stayed healthy last year – Canzeri suffered a knee injury that kept him out of action for all of 2012. For Iowa to have a chance to improve on offense, the line must dominate and one of the best stables of tailbacks in the Big Ten must keep an inexperienced crop of quarterbacks out of obvious passing downs.
- Dominate defensively: Along the same lines as the previous point, Iowa can’t afford to fall behind big against opponents. Fortunately, it has a defense that should have little trouble causing problems for opposing offenses. An experienced linebacker corps of Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens combined to make 332 tackles a year ago. The Hawkeyes must do a better job of getting after the quarterback, though. They recorded just 13 sacks and team leader Joe Gaglione graduated after accounting for five. Losing CB Micah Hyde hurts as well.
- Win the close games: If the Hawkeyes had done so last year, there would be substantially less concern surrounding the program headed into 2013. Instead, Iowa went 3-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and 3-4 in games decided by three points or fewer. As discussed previously, the defense should keep the Hawkeyes in games. It will be up to the offense to generate that one extra score – something that will likely dictate whether Iowa returns to a bowl this season.
- Find run production: QB Devin Gardner showed in limited starts last season that he has all the tools to effectively run coordinator Al Borges’ offense. He will need some backup from a run game that fell off the rails in 2012. RB Fitz Toussaint, an all-conference performer in 2011, never found his stride between suspension and injury. He returns for his senior season, but will be pushed by incoming freshman Derrick Green. Another freshman, Deveon Smith, could enter the mix as well. Whoever wins the job should provide plenty of support to generate a balanced attack and set up Borges’ beloved play-action game.
- Trading Places: Star LB Jake Ryan’s knee injury combined with several expected key contributors transitioning to new positions leaves myriad questions for a talented defense. In case you need help following, DE Frank Clark is a converted safety; LB Brennen Beyer is moving from defensive line to help offset the loss of Ryan; LB Desmond Morgan moved inside. How quickly those players adjust – and how quickly Ryan bounces back from an injury expected to keep him out until mid-October – will determine the unit’s success.
- Defend the Big House: The Wolverines have potentially tough road games at Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern, but play host for their three biggest contests. That all starts with Notre Dame in Week 2. Michigan also gets defending divisional champ Nebraska at home and rival Ohio State. If Brady Hoke’s team can handle business at home, it has an outstanding shot to return for another BCS bowl game.
Michigan State Spartans
- Stand Pat: Michigan State made minor headlines by giving defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi a three-year contract. In college football, it’s rare that coordinators (outside the SEC, anyway) receive contracts for longer than one year. Narduzzi has earned the high compliment. With so much uncertainty on offense (see item No. 2), he must back up his sterling reputation for the Spartans to take steps forward in 2013. How good has Michigan State been on defense under Narduzzi? It is among a group with Alabama, LSU, Florida and Florida State as the only teams to rank as a top-10 unit in total defense. LB Max Bullough is a proven beast in the middle of the defense and CB Darqueze Dennard is among the league’s elite corners.
- Solve the backfield mysteries quickly: RB Le’Veon Bell is gone. QB Andrew Maxwell underwhelmed as the full-time starter in 2012 and didn’t officially win the position during spring practice, with coach Mark Dantonio instead deferring the decision into August. Connor Cook will continue to push Maxwell when fall camp resumes. Whoever wins the starting position needs to perform significantly better than Maxwell did last season. There is no obvious reason to think the transition from Bell will be easy. Converted LB Riley Bullough earned the starting nod after spending most of the season on defense, which says plenty about the position. The best tailbacks the Spartans signed this year earned three-star ratings from Rivals. Gerald Owens is probably the most highly anticipated of that group.
- Give yourself a November chance: A gauntlet featuring consecutive games against Michigan, Nebraska and Northwestern will almost certainly determine the divisional fate of the Spartans. Winnable Big Ten tilts precede that stretch. Michigan State cannot afford to get upset by Iowa, Indiana, Purdue or Minnesota if it hopes to contend for a conference crown.