Opinion | Iowa football could compete with the Big Ten’s top teams in 2023 with marginal offensive improvement

With the addition of Michigan transfer quarterback Cade McNamara, the Hawkeyes could challenge the likes of Ohio State and Michigan next season.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa quarterback Joe Labas calls a play in the huddle during the 2022 TransPerfect Music City Bowl between Iowa and Kentucky at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Labas passed for 139 yards and a touchdown. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 21-0.

Austin Hanson, Pregame Editor

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Iowa football’s 2022 campaign wasn’t pretty. The Hawkeyes looked great at times, but at others, they looked like the bottom feeders of the Big Ten Conference.

Through the wins and losses, Iowa consistently did two things — play stout defense and piss-poor offense. At the end of the year, the Hawkeyes will likely rank inside the top 10 nationally in key statistical categories like total, scoring, and pass defense. They’ll also probably find themselves in — or close to last in — every major offensive category.

The Hawkeyes’ imbalanced attack has certainly dictated my evaluation of them on a week-to-week basis. But how could I not be impressed when Iowa’s defense improbably propels the Hawkeyes’ inept offense to victory? Conversely, why would any columnist not be critical when a generationally talented defense is wasted by an offense that struggles to pick up eight first downs in a game?

I might be letting the momentum the Hawkeyes seemed to generate in their 21-0 win over the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday dictate my opinion to too extreme a degree again. But I think Iowa took a big step forward in the 2022 Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium.

The Hawkeyes proved that, with marginal progress on offense next season, they can be formidable.

Iowa’s defense is losing longtime starters like linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell, strong safety Kaevon Merriweather, and cornerback Riley Moss. But don’t expect their defense to miss a beat next season.

I’m not going to guarantee Iowa will have a top 10 defense next year, but former five-star high school recruit Xavier Nwankpa, cash Sebastian Castro, and linebacker Jay Higgins certainly seem competent enough to carry the torch Campbell and company lit this season. Nwankpa recorded a pick six in his first career start on Saturday, and Castro had five tackles, one sack, and two pass breakups. Higgins recorded nearly 40 tackles this year as a part-time starter.

“I think we’ve got a lot of talent in our DB room,” sophomore defensive back and Music City Bowl MVP Cooper DeJean said. “I think we played well today. Obviously, there’s always things you can continue to improve on, and you see that stuff that those guys are doing in the games and practice all the time. You know they’ve been making those plays for a while now, and they made the most of it today.”

With defensive coordinator Phil Parker at the helm, there’s no limit to how salty the Hawkeyes can be next year.

If Iowa’s defense can sniff the production it had this season in 2023, the Hawkeyes won’t need a prolific offense to succeed. The Hawkeyes won eight games this season scoring fewer than 18 points per contest, on average.

Liberty’s offense — which ranked in 65th in the 131-team FBS — scored 24 points per game this season, not counting field goals. Had the Hawkeyes’ offense ranked in the middle of the pack like Liberty’s and scored 24 points per game this season, Iowa likely would’ve gone 11-2.

Iowa won three games in which it gained fewer than 210 yards this season. The rest of the FBS mustered just six wins under the same conditions, per ESPN’s David Hale.

Now, for the first time in two years, there are clear signs that show Iowa’s offensive production might elevate to an acceptable level.

Iowa signed Michigan transfers Cade McNamara and Erick All in December. All will bolster the weaponry available in the Hawkeyes’ tight end room, and McNamara might be the biggest quarterback upgrade Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has ever gotten during his 24-year tenure with the Hawkeyes.

McNamara threw for 2,576 yards and 15 touchdowns when he was Michigan’s full-time starter in 2021. Senior Spencer Petras, who has been the Hawkeyes’ starting quarterback for the last three seasons, has never thrown for more than 2,000 yards in a year. He also has just 24 career touchdowns to his name.

McNamara and All alone will likely lift Iowa’s offense up from last in the country. If Iowa also finds a way to improve along its offensive line, via the transfer portal or traditional coaching and recruiting, the Hawkeyes could rank in top half of the country in total offense next year.

Iowa’s offensive line struggled to provide its quarterbacks with adequate protection in 2022, surrendering 38 sacks in 13 games. The Hawkeyes also ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing offense.

The Hawkeyes will also likely need to switch up their play calling next season. I’m not sure if such a change will be furnished via the termination of current offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz or some forced offensive innovation or philosophy change with the same coaching staff. Regardless, the Hawkeyes will have to make their playbook a bit more creative next year. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will need to ensure Kirk Ferentz makes staffing decisions that are in the best interest of the Iowa football program — especially when it comes to the evaluation of his son and OC.

Iowa needs to make major changes, and a commitment to throwing in front of the sticks in short yardage situations would make for a great start. Fewer tight end screens or run plays in long yardage situations and more wide receiver involvement might also go a long way.

Iowa’s offense will be supported by punter Tory Taylor again next season, as he announced following the Music City Bowl that he’s returning to the Iowa City in 2023. Taylor was one of Iowa’s most important pieces in 2022, punting 82 times and downing 38 inside the 20-yard line. He’s broken Iowa’s single-season records for punting yardage in each of the last two years.

If Iowa’s offense plays better next year, Taylor’s stats won’t be as inflated. But having a weapon like him to fall back on when things don’t go well can only boost an offense’s confidence.

Coupling key additions like McNamara with the pieces Iowa already has in place can position the Hawkeyes for future success. Ohio State and Michigan aren’t on Iowa’s regular season schedule next year, but if the Hawkeyes meet the Buckeyes or Wolverines in the Big Ten title game, they might be up to the challenge.

“Although the time was probably right to leave [for the NFL], it was just kinda in my best interest, and yes, I will be coming back next year,” Taylor said Saturday. “Just really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a special year. We’ve kind of got a young group. Yeah, obviously bringing in a pretty special quarterback and pretty big couple of transfers. I really think this team can go far, and I just want to be a part of it.”