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Kirk Ferentz might be the dean of major CFB, but is Iowa up or down in 2017?

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2017 should tell us whether the next few years are on the high side or low side of eight wins a season.

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NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published July 7 and has since been updated.

There are two 20th century guys left in FBS. And they’re both Hawkeyes.

Bill Snyder took three years off in the 2000s but is entering his 26th year at Kansas State. A decade after Snyder’s hire, Ferentz replaced mentor Hayden Fry at Iowa. They are the last two FBS head coaches hired by their current schools before 2000. Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer retired a year ago. Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops called it quits in June.

In the mid-1980s, three of those four lived in Iowa City. Snyder spent 1979-88 as Fry’s offensive coordinator until a desperate KSU called. Ferentz, a UConn grad and former linebacker, served as offensive line coach from 1981-89. After playing there until 1982, Stoops was a graduate assistant in 1983.

When Fry retired following a 3-8 1998, Iowa tried to bring in Stoops, but the thought of coaching a blue blood overruled alma mater loyalty. Or something like that.

Stoops still has numerous friends in Iowa City who were shocked when he accepted the head football coaching position at Oklahoma Monday.

Shock turned to outrage when reports indicated that Stoops never was offered the Iowa job by [athletic director Bob] Bowlsby, who has been the UI men’s athletic director since 1991.

Bowlsby said no official offer was made to Stoops because the screening committee still had to interview candidate No. 5 — Kirk Ferentz — the next day. [...]

Those close to Stoops say that he appreciated Oklahoma’s aggressive approach, and he resented Iowa’s bureaucratic approach.

Ferentz, Stoops, and Snyder have spent a combined 61 seasons at their institutions. Apparently Iowa City teaches you how to lay down roots.

Ferentz has spent so much time at Iowa that I forgot he wasn’t an Iowa grad. It just felt like he’d played for Fry in the 1970s. Regardless, the Hawkeyes have had unprecedented continuity — since athletic director Bump Elliott honed in on Fry in December 1978, the school’s had one coaching search. And if the school has its way, it will be another decade before another one.

We’ve had fun at SB Nation with the length of Ferentz’s contract extension(s), but there’s no questioning the steadiness on the field. Fry and Ferentz have led Iowa to 30 bowls and 16 ranked finishes in 38 years. The program had undergone a nearly two-decade spiral since the fiery Forest Evashevski had moved from head coach to athletic director, and now it is the stablest entity in college football. Fry and Ferentz are proof that you don’t have to fire a coach after a bad season or recruiting cycle, that coaches can find their way back to the path.

That “path” for Ferentz is an eight-win season. He drifts from them — three seasons of 10-plus wins from 2002-04, two six-win seasons in 2006-07, 11-2 in 2009, 4-8 in 2012, 12-2 in 2015 — but finds his way back. He has won either seven or eight games in five of the last seven years. At a different school, that could lead to Glen Mason Territory, in which you’re doing too well to fire but aren’t raising the bar enough to satisfy boosters. Iowa doesn’t do Glen Mason Territory.

If Ferentz does end up staying another 10 or so years, we’re going to have at least one more up cycle and one more down cycle. One way or the other, it appears a new cycle will begin this fall.

The Hawkeyes must replace their starting quarterback, a 200-carry running back, three of their top four receiving targets, an all-conference left tackle, both starting defensive tackles, and both starting cornerbacks.

There is a load of talent on the offensive line, at defensive end, and at safety, and running back Akrum Wadley might give them a skill star to lean on; the cupboard is not bare, and the Hawkeyes should be able to get back to a bowl. But we’re still going to get a look at Iowa’s future, and we’re going to get an idea for whether there’s another 10-win (or more) season on the horizon.


2016 in review

2016 Iowa statistical profile.

Believe it or not, on paper, Iowa may have been better last year than during its 12-win 2015. The Hawkeyes won five one-possession games during their 12-0 start that year and graded out more like a top-50 team than a top-10 squad. Last year, the offense regressed more than I would have expected, but the defense surged.

Imbalance (and regression to the mean) cost them at times, and they lost tight games to North Dakota State, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. An upset of Michigan scored some brownie points, but this was a strange team that flashed dramatic upside at the beginning and end and became unreliable in between.

  • First 2 games (2-0): Avg. percentile performance: 89% (92% offense, 69% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Iowa 7.2, Opp 5.1 (plus-2.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-17.8 PPG
  • Next 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 50% (22% offense, 54% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 4.9, Iowa 4.8 (minus-0.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-11.4 PPG
  • Next 3 games (1-2): Avg. percentile performance: 52% (57% offense, 40% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.8, Iowa 5.4 (minus-1.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-5.1 PPG
  • Next 3 games (3-0): Avg. percentile performance: 90% (63% offense, 93% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Iowa 5.0, Opp 3.2 (plus-1.8) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-24.2 PPG

Up, down, down, up.

Like seemingly every other team in the Big Ten, Iowa dealt with a string of injuries and had to shuffle offensive linemen constantly — not a single one started all 13 games. That is a recipe for inconsistency, especially when your quarterback is also hurt.

The defense had to shuffle quite a bit in the secondary and got torched by Penn State (understandable) and Purdue (much, much less so), but when things gelled late in the year, they gelled.

The bowl was disappointing, but it was a bowl; it doesn’t count for much. If Iowa can replicate the defensive upside, a retooling offense won’t need to produce a ton for Iowa to play a role in the Big Ten West.

It’ll have to produce something, though.


Offense

Iowa offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In two seasons as starting quarterback, Beathard was just tantalizing enough to be frustrating. His upside was higher than that of your normal Iowa quarterback, but in the middle of a lovely stretch in 2015, he went 24-for-52 against Wisconsin and Illinois. He went 9-for-16 against a bad Nebraska defense, then 18-for-26 against a good Michigan State.

The highs and lows were even more extreme in 2016. He produced a steady passer rating of 149.2 through the first five games, but here are his ratings for the last eight games of his career: 80.4, 166.8, 90.5, 152.8, 78.1, 80.7, 213.3, 24.4. That averages into the 110s, but he was never close to the 110s. Beathard’s senior season played out like a sophomore year, with dramatic inconsistency and hints of upside.

And now, Iowa might start an actual sophomore. Nathan Stanley surprised many by overtaking Tyler Wiegers in the pecking order as a true freshman. It appears the battle will continue, and Wiegers still has a chance, but the two have combined to throw 13 collegiate passes. Whoever wins will be quite green.

So is the coordinator. Tasked with replacing an aging veteran, Ferentz did what the university did back in late-1998: promote a line coach named Ferentz. Kirk’s son Brian, a former Hawkeye center and Patriots assistant, spent the last five seasons leading the OL and now takes play-calling duties from the retired Greg Davis.

The Ferentz-Davis offense was known for playing the same type of bend-don’t-break-plus style that the Iowa defense patented under Norm Parker. Iowa ran and ran and ran on standard downs (70 percent SD run rate, 12th in the country and higher than almost any non-option team), played at the slowest possible tempo, and threw as many screens as it could get away with on passing downs.

We’ll see what the younger Ferentz has, but it seems safe to assume the Ferentz-Ferentz offense will be similar to its predecessor. The younger Ferentz has Wadley and a seasoned line (seven players combining for 100 career starts, including all-conference guard Sean Welsh and all-conference center James Daniels), and the Hawkeyes recently added Nevada workhorse back James Butler.

NCAA Football: Nevada at UNLV
James Butler
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Butler is a durable, efficient back who not only carried the ball 262 times last year but also caught an incredible 37 of 39 balls out of the backfield. Depending on Matt VandeBerg’s health, Butler might be Iowa’s most proven receiver heading into the fall.

Even if Ferentz wanted to pass more, it would be hard without McCarron, Smith (who left the team in May), and tight end George Kittle. VandeBerg, 2015’s leading receiver, is the only returning wideout who caught a single ball last year, and he broke his foot last year, then re-injured it this spring. It isn’t a coincidence that Beathard’s production got bumpy after VandeBerg went down. He should be healthy, but the re-injury is scary.

And even if he stays healthy, Iowa will likely have no choice but to lean on JUCO transfer Nick Easley, who caught 72 balls for Iowa Western last year but didn’t receive any major offers, presumably because of his 5’11, 200-pound stature.

A breakout from junior Adrian Falconer (two targets, zero catches last year) or sophomore Devonte Young (ditto) would be welcome. [Update: Iowa also added grad transfer Matt Quarells, who appeared in 21 games for New Mexico.]

Expect Wadley and Butler to carry as much of a load as they can handle. Wadley outgained LeShun Daniels Jr. by 19 yards last year despite 46 fewer carries, and he caught only one fewer ball than Butler. He’s a nice mix of efficiency (44 percent of his carries gained at least five yards) and explosiveness, and he and Butler are both uniquely versatile.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Iowa
Matt Vandeberg
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Iowa defensive radar

There are two ways to look at it.

The optimistic way: Few teams return as much depth as the Hawkeyes do at end, linebacker, and safety. Junior ends Matt Nelson and Parker Hesse and sophomore Anthony Nelson combined for 22.5 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks, four breakups, and three forced fumbles in 2016. Nelson and Nelson are lanky (6’8 and 6’7) pass-rush specialists, and the 6’3 Hesse is excellent in run support. And I haven’t mentioned incoming blue-chipper/legacy A.J. Epenesa, a 6’5, 270-pound specimen.

These ends can take chances, too, knowing that the linebackers can clean up messes. Iowa basically only played three LBs last year, but Josey Jewell, Bo Bower, and Ben Niemann — two two-star recruits and a walk-on — were excellent, combining for 211.5 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, and 18 passes defensed. If any get hurt, veterans like Kevin Ward and Jack Hockaday are waiting their turn.

Almost no one in the Big Ten has more known quantities.

Iowa v Purdue
Parker Hesse (40) and Josey Jewell (43)
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The ... less optimistic way: Turnover in the secondary has an especially dramatic impact on whether your defense improves or regresses, and while Snyder and Taylor are back, corners Desmond King and Greg Mabin and safety Anthony Gair are not, and star safety Brandon Snyder tore his ACL in April. King was a fifth-round draft pick who defensed 47 passes over four seasons; he was one of the most proven on-ball defenders in the sport, and Snyder was equally important.

Manny Rugamba’s exciting, though. The sophomore saw the field quite a bit in Mabin’s absence last year, as did junior-to-be Joshua Jackson. The two combined for 26 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, two interceptions, and eight breakups. Sophomore Michael Ojemudia saw some action, too. The cupboard isn’t bare, but any excitement is based on potential more than proven production.

Meanwhile, the linebackers will have a lot more messes to clean up if a newish batch of tackles can’t hold things down up front. Jaleel Johnson (a fourth-round draft pick) and Faith Ekakitie were stalwarts over the last two years. Senior Nathan Bazata has seen plenty of rotation time and had more TFLs than Ekakitie last year, but after him, the only other tackle who saw the field last year was sophomore Garret Jansen (2.5 tackles).

With such depth at end, it wouldn’t be a surprise if someone like Matt Nelson were to move inside. Mid-three-star sophomore Cedrick Lattimore already made that shift.


Special Teams

Iowa’s starting over in special teams. As much as the Hawkeyes might miss King at cornerback, he was also a stud in the return game. And when he wasn’t returning punts, Riley McCarron was doing an even better job of it. McCarron’s also gone. So is Ron Coluzzi, a solid punter and excellent kickoffs guy.

Basically the only returnee is last year’s least consistent contributor: place kicker Keith Duncan, who was decent but did miss a couple of shorter field goals and a PAT. He’ll probably improve as a sophomore, but you figure it’s going to be difficult for Iowa to stay in the Special Teams S&P+ top 60.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Wyoming 80 10.8 73%
9-Sep at Iowa State 57 -1.6 46%
16-Sep North Texas 106 17.9 85%
23-Sep Penn State 8 -14.5 20%
30-Sep at Michigan State 44 -3.3 43%
7-Oct Illinois 85 12.8 77%
21-Oct at Northwestern 37 -4.7 39%
28-Oct Minnesota 47 2.5 56%
4-Nov Ohio State 2 -19.1 13%
11-Nov at Wisconsin 11 -16.7 17%
18-Nov Purdue 87 13.5 78%
24-Nov at Nebraska 42 -3.7 41%
Projected S&P+ Rk 48
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 112 / 13
Projected wins 5.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.5 (44)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 41 / 50
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 6.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 47% (27%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.0 (0.0)

It’s easy to understand why S&P+ doesn’t think too highly of Iowa’s chances — No. 48 projected ranking, 5.9 projected wins — in 2017. The Hawkeyes are dealing with major turnover in the three position areas that carry the most weight in the returning production formulas (QB, WR, DB) and have only turned a 20-win two-year span into top-45 recruiting.

(Plus, if you ask a lot of Iowa fans, S&P+ is programmed to hate the Hawkeyes.)

Ferentz has won a lot through the years, however, with the combination of a strong running back, a good offensive line, excellent defensive ends and linebackers, and a stud safety. Iowa fits the Iowa profile, if nothing else.

Close games will again tell the tale. Even with a pessimistic S&P+, the Hawkeyes are given between a 39 and 56 percent chance of winning in five games, with four likely wins and three likely losses. If the passing game doesn’t crater and the new cornerbacks are as stable as I assume, they’ll probably overachieve and reach their seven- to eight-win comfort zone.

The addition of Butler makes the Hawkeyes a little more intriguing, but regardless of this year’s win total, the main goal for 2017 is to find the pieces that will lead to another run in 2018 and/or 2019. There are quite a few exciting sophomores and juniors on this squad, and we’ll find out a lot about their ceiling.

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