For Iowa, 2017 was always going to be remembered as the year of “The Wave,” the heart-warming gesture for ailing children from fans and players alike during home games.
It might also be the season where the Hawkeyes established a foundation for success.
Iowa (8-5) finished an inconsistent season on a high note Wednesday night, rallying to beat Boston College 27-20 in the Pinstripe Bowl and snap a five-game skid in the postseason.
The Hawkeyes finished 2017 with the same record as they had in 2016, albeit playing a much tougher schedule this fall. But there are plenty of reasons, starting with their performance against the Eagles, to believe that Iowa can contend in the Big Ten West in 2018.
“The game in a lot of ways was reflective of our season. We’ve had some ups and downs this year, some turbulence along the way, that type of thing, but the guys pushed through it,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes will lose a ton of talent heading into next season, but should be solid at key spots: quarterback and the defensive line.
Linebacker Josey Jewell capped one of the best careers in school history in 2017 by becoming a unanimous All-America pick. He was joined on the All-America first team by cornerback Josh Jackson, who played so well as a first-year starter that he’s being talked about as a possible first-round pick.
Jackson said Wednesday he will announce his plans next month, although few would be surprised if he turned pro after terrorizing the Big Ten in 2017.
Offensive lineman Sean Welsh and running back/returner Akrum Wadley, the Pinstripe Bowl MVP, are also leaving for the NFL — and replacing linebackers Ben Niemann and Bo Bower won’t be easy.
But the Hawkeyes have found their quarterback in sophomore Nate Stanley, who finished his first season as a starter with 26 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. Stanley also threw for nearly 2,500 yards, though his 55.8 completion percentage will likely be a point of emphasis in the offseason.
On defense, Iowa only loses Nate Bazata from a line that went eight deep at times in 2017. The Hawkeyes also gained a potential impact player in junior college tackle Daviyon Nixon, and five-star freshman A.J. Epenesa will get a full offseason of preparation.
Iowa’s offensive line should be improved despite losing Welsh, with freshmen tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs expected to grow this offseason after being unexpectedly thrust into duty this season. That could change, though, if center James Daniels turns pro.
There will be questions at running back, where a host of young players will vie for the carries that went to Wadley and James Butler in 2016, and in the secondary with Jackson’s possible departure.
But on paper, the Hawkeyes look like they might actually be dangerous on offense in 2018 — and their defense has the potential to be as strong as it usually is, provided they can find some Big Ten-quality linebackers.
They’ll also have the momentum gained by winning a bowl game, something the program hadn’t done since 2010.
“Every game is a new discussion. Every season is a new discussion. But one thing that is good is finishing with a win. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Ferentz said. “For our team to come out the way they did in that second half and push through it, to me it was a breakthrough moment for us.”