The Iowa Hawkeyes are coming off of a season in which they became champions of the Music City Bowl, but ultimately fell short of their team goals under Head Coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes brought in former Michigan starting QB Cade McNamara to run the team.

The presence of McNamara, who led the Wolverines to a national playoffs appearance against Georgia in 2022, has raised expectations for the Hawkeyes entering the 2023 season.

In 2023, the Hawkeyes must replace Jack Campbell, the team’s standout linebacker taken #18 overall by the Detroit Lions, and Sam LaPorta, the tight end who signed a big rookie deal with the Lions recently after being drafted #34 overall.

The Hawkeyes will kickoff the 2023 season at home against Utah State in Iowa City on September 2. Twenty-one days later, the team will tangle with Head Coach James Franklin’s Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley as part of a four-game stretch that could define the team’s season. For Iowa to win the Big Ten in 2023, or even the Big Ten West, a lot of unexpected improvements will need to happen.

The following are Iowa’s ‘X-Factors’ for a 2023 Big Ten championship run:

1. Diante Vines, WR- 

The Hawkeyes lost LaPorta’s 58 catches for 657 yards from last year’s team, and somebody has to pick up the slack. Vines will likely start at receiver  alongside Nico Ragiani, who caught 34 balls last season, at the wide receiver position.

The sophomore Vines was a three-star prospect out of Watertown, Connecticut. If Vines can play up to his potential, McNamara could have a talented quartet of targets to ramp up the passing game in 2023.

2. Erick All, TE- 

All served as the Wolverines’ starting tight end in 2022 before suffering an injury that derailed his 2023 season. Fast, athletic, and capable of making big plays when it matters most, All is the biggest X-factor for the Hawkeyes’ passing game in 2023.

Alongside Luke Lachey, the Hawkeyes’ tight end room appears to be in great shape. The duo should be able to match and perhaps even surpass LaPorta’s production this season with McNamara at the controls.

3. Kaleb Johnson- 

It’s well known among Big Ten and Hawkeyes fans that Johnson has talent. The former four-star from Hamilton, Ohio racked up 779 yards and six touchdowns for the Hawkeyes in 2022.

With the passing game likely improved as well as the running of McNamara helping the Hawks to acquire first downs, Johnson’s running along with the threat of the play action pass could be what puts his team over the top in 2023.

4. Cade McNamara- 

This might seem like an obvious pick, but it’s one overlooked part of McNamara’s game that Hawkeyes fans should be excited about in 2023. The former Wolverines starting quarterback is not just an effective runner and passer — he’s also a take-no-prisoners type of leader the team has lacked at the position for many years.

Last season, with J.J. McCarthy poised to take his job away, McNamara refused to back down. He fought to the bitter end under impossible circumstances that seemed more like a coronation of McCarthy than a true quarterback competition.

To Michigan Head Coach Jim Harbaugh’s credit, he gave McNamara the best chance possible to save his job. In the end, it wasn’t meant to be for McNamara, who hails from Reno, Nevada.

Now, he’s back in a familiar underdog role with a program that suits his short-yardage passing skills incredibly well, and he’s already relishing the opportunity, based on recent comments.

“They can keep doubting all they want,” McNamara in February 2023. “That’s fine with me, honestly. What I’ve grown to realize is this is a chip-on-the shoulder type of program.”

Iowa returns all five starters on the offensive line. With McNamara’s leadership and a whole new outlook for the team, expect improved play as they work to keep defenders off of their leader both inside and outside the pocket.

5. Xavier Nwankpa- 

A rare former five-star recruit for the Hawkeyes, Nwankpa could star in Phil Parker’s defense this season.

Flanked by star cornerback Cooper DeJean, Nwankpa could form a one-two punch that will be hard for the Hawkeyes’ opponents to overcome in the passing game.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Nwankpa has what it takes to lower the boom on opposing ballcarriers and the athleticism to excel covering both wide receivers and tight ends.

Nwankpa has impressed his teammates so far in preseason workouts, adding to expectations for what should be an exciting season for fans in Iowa City.

“I feel more confident in what I’m doing,” Nwankpa said. “I understand the defense a lot better, (it’s) easy to make reads and everything.”

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