2015 season preview: Iowa Hawkeyes

Previewing the 2015 season for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

2014 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten; lost to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl)

Key losses: QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, OT Brandon Scherff, OT Andrew Donnal, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley, DT Carl Davis, DT Louis Trinca-Pasat, LB Quinton Alston, S John Lowdermilk

Key returners: QB C.J. Beathard, RB LeShun Daniels, RB Jordan Canzeri, C Austin Blythe, WR Tevaun Smith, TE Jake Duzey, DE Drew Ott, DE Nate Meier, CB Desmond King, S Jordan Lomax

Instant-impact freshman: Offensive lineman James Daniels was an outstanding get for Iowa in the 2015 class. The Hawkeyes are known for building offensive linemen, but Daniels hails from Ohio and had offers from Auburn, Ohio State and Penn State, among others. This is a prospect whom Iowa fans should be excited about in the future. -- Tom Van Haaren

Class of '16 update: The Hawkeyes have put together a pretty nice class so far with a few underrated prospects, including running back Toks Akinribade out of Indiana. The entire running back haul in this class is very well-rounded with Akinribade, Barrington Wade and Toren Young. There are already 22 commits in the class, so there aren't many spots left to fill. The staff had a ridiculous month of June, landing 16 of the 22 commitments within that month. -- TVH

Biggest question mark: Will the Beathard gamble pay dividends? Make no mistake, coach Kirk Ferentz gambled with Beathard, the junior quarterback who has started one game and thrown just six collegiate touchdowns. The Hawkeyes had a proven commodity in Rudock, who transferred to Michigan after graduating in May, but went with a potentially higher ceiling in Beathard, likely knowing that they could not keep both QBs for another season. Credit the coach for refusing to settle for the safe choice. We'll soon learn if it was a wise decision.

Most important game: The Big Ten opener, Oct. 3 at Wisconsin, looms as a large test. Regardless of the results in September -- a trickier lineup of games than it appears at first glance -- the Hawkeyes can claim status as a West Division contender with an upset win in Madison, where Iowa has won three of four games since 2003. The schedule softens a bit after Week 5, so a good start to league play could serve as a springboard.

Upset special: We won't stop looking with intrigue at the Hawkeyes' Sept. 5 opener until Iowa dispatches of Illinois State and takes a collective deep sigh. Iowa has never lost to an FCS foe, but the Redbirds -- with quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich -- are more athletic in the backfield than several Big Ten schools. Even a sluggish showing from the Hawkeyes could heighten tension in Iowa City after an offseason of handwringing.

Key stat: Iowa averaged 4.12 yards per rush last season, a figure that must improve in 2015 to keep defenses honest against Beathard and give the QB a fair chance to showcase his strong arm and athleticism. Weisman was a workhorse for Iowa, and Canzeri offered a change of pace, but the Hawkeyes need a difference-maker at running back. Daniels, a junior, looks like a strong candidate, and converted wideout Derrick Mitchell may add some sizzle.

Prediction: 7-5. Ferentz said over the weekend that Iowa is "totally committed to being a Big Ten championship-caliber football team." Yes, well, the Hawkeyes haven't upgraded their talent in recent years. And fans are noticing, with season-ticket sales down 16 percent from last season. The Hawkeyes appear in line for at least one September slip and no fewer than three league losses, having dropped outside the top tier in the West.