DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa featured the Big Ten's best wide receiver, one of the league's best running backs and a quarterback who threw 25 touchdown passes in his first season as the starter. The Hawkeyes also struggled on defense and away from Kinnick Stadium.
The result was a 7-6 finish despite a schedule that seemed to leave open the possibility of a bounceback season.
Iowa capped the year with a second straight trip to the Insight Bowl. This time, it ended with a 31-14 loss to Oklahoma on Friday night.
The Hawkeyes produced some highlights in 2011 — just not nearly enough of them to produce a strong season.
Senior Marvin McNutt had arguably the best season by a wideout in school history, finishing with 82 catches — more than a few of them in spectacular fashion — for 1,315 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Marcus Coker had 1,384 yards rushing, the fourth-highest total in school history. But he was suspended for the Insight Bowl because of a violation of the student code of conduct — a troubling sign for his future with the Hawkeyes.
James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards with just seven picks, and he completed the greatest comeback in school history with three TD passes in the fourth quarter of a stunning 31-27 win over Pittsburgh in September.
If the Hawkeyes had that many playmakers on defense, it might have been a completely different season.
Iowa's run of top-10 national finishes in scoring defense came to an end when it struggled to replace a number of stars who left for the NFL.
Iowa was torched for three overtime touchdowns in a loss at Iowa State, and Michigan State put up 31 points in the first half of a 37-21 victory in Iowa City in November.
The Hawkeyes held Penn State to 13 points and Nebraska to 20, but scored just 10 points in those two games and finished 1-4 on the road.
Iowa allowed 23.8 points per game and surrendered nearly 5,000 yards of offense.
Though Iowa wasn't expected to make a serious run at the Big Ten title this season, there was some hope that a soft schedule would help the Hawkeyes blossom into a contender.
It didn't happen — and now coach Kirk Ferentz is saddled with the job of recharging what's become a stagnant program.
The Hawkeyes have finished 7-5 in the regular season and 4-4 in the Big Ten two years running. They just lost defensive coordinator Norm Parker after 13 seasons, and defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski left after five seasons for a similar job at rival Nebraska.
Ferentz will have to figure out what to do with Coker, though the details of why he was suspended have yet to be released.
Iowa will lose McNutt, defensive linemen Broderick Binns and Mike Daniels, cornerback Shaun Prater and offensive lineman Markus Zusevics. Junior tackle Riley Reiff might leave as well since he could be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Hawkeyes should bring back a talented and deep offense — though much of that depends on Coker's status. There's a lot of young players with ability on the back end of their defense, though at first glance it appears that defensive line could again be an issue.
Ferentz declared last week he intends to stay at Iowa for as long as the Hawkeyes will have him, so expect him to return. He's signed through 2020 and makes nearly $4 million a year.
Now Ferentz will need to find replacements for Parker and Kaczenski. Once he does that, the Hawkeyes will head into spring ball looking for answers to get the program back into Big Ten contention in 2012.