IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Most coaches only get one chance to turn around a program.
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is poised to revive the Hawkeyes for the third time in 12 years.
Many dismissed Ferentz and the Hawkeyes after a 4-8 finish in 2012. But Iowa answered its critics with eight wins last season, including victories at Minnesota and Nebraska and a trip to the Outback Bowl.
A veteran roster and a favorable schedule should put Iowa in position to contend for the inaugural Big Ten West title in 2014. The Hawkeyes return eight starters on offense, don't play Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State and host fellow West contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska to end the season.
"It's going to be fun to actually see what's going on and what we can do. Bottom line is how we play this year is going to be determined by what we do on the field," Ferentz said.
Here are five things to watch for as the Hawkeyes try to reach a major bowl just two years removed from missing the postseason — like they did in 2002 and 2009 under Ferentz.
QUARTERBACK DUO: Junior Jake Rudock is back for a second season as the starter after throwing for 2,383 yards and 18 touchdowns. He threw 13 picks as well, so ball security will be one of Rudock's biggest keys in 2014. The Hawkeyes have also kicked around the idea of using Rudock's backup, sophomore C.J. Beathard, as a change of pace player designed to give opposing defenses something else to think about. Beathard is arguably more of a running threat than Rudock — though Rudock can be surprisingly nimble himself — but he completed just 9 of 27 passes in a reserve role in 2013.
LINED UP: Iowa's best teams in the 16-year tenure of Ferentz have always been built from the inside out, which is one of the main reasons there's so much optimism in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have perhaps the nation's top lineman in left tackle Brandon Scherff, one of four starters back on the offensive line. The defensive front is led by seniors Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and junior end Drew Ott has All-Big Ten type potential.
WIDE-EYED: The Hawkeyes have plenty of options at wide receiver. But few of them are proven Big Ten wideouts. Beyond senior Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa is as unsettled at wide receiver as any position on the roster. Juniors Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer are also listed as starters, but redshirt freshman Derrick Willies could push for one of those spots by the end of the month, and senior Damond Powell is one of the fastest players the Hawkeyes have ever had under Ferentz. "Hopefully it's a little deeper position than we've had in recent years," Ferentz said.
KEEPING WEISMAN HEALHTY: Converted fullback Mark Weisman has been Iowa's top option at running back ever since the Hawkeyes turned to him in desperation in 2012. But he's never been able to stay healthy for a full season, mostly because he still runs like a fullback. So the Hawkeyes will look to preserve the bruising Weisman by limiting his carries and giving more touches to junior Jordan Canzeri and senior Damon Bullock.
BACK AT IT: Iowa will have five new starters at the back end of the defense that ranked ninth in the nation in scoring defense in 2013. But Ferentz is confident that a pair of inexperienced veterans; senior linebacker Quinton Alston and junior safety Jordan Lomax, can help stabilize the defense. "Both those guys give you a good feeling. They worked extremely hard. They're accepting of the leadership role. They push hard out there," Ferentz said.