When Iowa hired Baltimore Ravens offensive line coach Kirk Ferentz as its 26th head football coach in December 1998 …
- Current Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was finishing his first season as Gary Blackney's defensive coordinator at Bowling Green.
- Current Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson was wrapping up his second season as Randy Walker's offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio) and preparing to follow Walker to Northwestern.
- Current Michigan head coach Brady Hoke was a defensive line coach in Ann Arbor.
- Current Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio was a defensive backs coach in East Lansing.
- Current Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was finishing up his fifth year as Saginaw Valley State head coach.
- Current Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was linebacker coach for Pete Carroll's New England Patriots.
- Current Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was finishing up his first and only season as Ron Vanderlinden's linebackers coach at Maryland (Vanderlinden was Gary Barnett's defensive coordinator when Fitzgerald was a player there), his first year of coaching at any level.
- Current Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was preparing for his fourth season as Notre Dame's receivers coach under head coach Bob Davie.
- Current Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien was wrapping up his first season as Georgia Tech running backs coach under George O'Leary and offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Current Purdue head coach Danny Hope was getting ready for his third year as Purdue's offensive line coach.
- Current Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema was finishing up his third season as Iowa's linebackers coach and waiting to see if the new guy would keep him on staff. (Ferentz did.)
Kirk Ferentz is the dean of the new Big Ten, and really, it's not even close. He has seen Iowa through downs (4-19 in 1999-00), ups (31-7 with three top 10 finishes from 2002-04), to downs (12-13 in 2006-07) and more ups (28-11 from 2008-10). He has mirrored the tenure of his his predecessor, the legendary Hayden Fry (9-13 in 1979-80, five straight ranked finishes from 1983-87, 11-10-3 in 1988-89, 10-1-1 in 1991, 16-18-1 from 1992-94, 17-7 in 1995-96), and with his four Top 10 finishes, he has actually surpassed Fry. Given time and patience, there is little reason to believe he won't again turn out another Top 10 season or two at some point.
But it does appear that we are witnessing a bit of a down cycle in the Ferentz regime. The Hawkeyes' win total has fallen from 11 in 2009, to eight in 2010, to seven in 2011, and their F/+ ranking has followed suit, sinking from 10th to 20th to 42nd. A stalwart defense that ranked seventh in Def. F/+ in 2008 and second in 2009, fell to 50th in 2011. And while recruiting has never been the lifeblood of a program that has turned out plenty of diamonds from the proverbial rough, there are still a few too many two-star defenders a little too far up the depth chart on the defense. The Hawkeyes' leading rusher and receiver are gone, as are both longtime coordinators, two all-conference offensive linemen and all four starting defensive linemen. All signs point to a bit of a rebuilding year in Iowa City. Stick around long enough in one spot, and that's bound to happen.
There are two primary reasons why Iowa has such favorable projections:
1. The Big Ten is not exactly chock-full of elite teams this year, especially the eight on Iowa's schedule. Their conference home games come against Northwestern, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State, and they have extremely winnable road games against Purdue and Minnesota. Win those six, and voila ... 6-2. That they are projected to fall from 21st overall to 29th doesn't matter.
2. The Hawkeyes have the most enviable trait in college football: a track record. They are a proven program. They have finished 12th, ninth and 21st in the F/+ ratings in the last three seasons. They have four Top 21 finishes in the last six years, and even with 2007's mediocre squad (6-6, 68th overall) weighing them down, their recent performance gives them the benefit of the doubt. As we continue to count down toward better and better recent programs in this preview series, you will see this becomes more of a theme. For example, Ohio State loses their coach, quarterback, and approximately 38 other guys to a half-season's suspension? No matter. They're still projected 15th. The best way to be good in the present is to have been good in the past.
It clearly doesn't always work this way, however. Just ask Texas. And in Iowa's case, there have been, for quite a while, questions regarding the layer of talent hiding beneath the star power of Adrian Clayborn, Ricky Stanzi, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, Christian Ballard, Julian Vandervelde, etc. The stars are gone in 2011; for better or worse, Iowa will sink or swim with yesterday's backups. And if the talent is lacking, the Hawkeyes will come nowhere near 9-3. […]
The 2011 season will shine a light on the future of the Iowa program. With sophomores like Marcus Coker and James Morris already having made names for themselves, and with so many other sophomores who played at least minor roles in 2010, the future will be on display. A division title run would make the Hawkeyes potentially heavy division favorites in coming years, but really, simple progress is the key. Avoid a crippling backslide, make a decent bowl (not hard to do with the Big Ten's bowl affiliations) and build for 2012.
Last year's Football Outsiders projections gave Iowa a 60 percent chance of finishing 9-3 or better. Not so much. Close, upset losses to Iowa State and Minnesota precluded that, but tight wins over Pitt and Michigan prevented something much worse. In the end, a 7-6 finish was just about right for a team that saw quite a few stars walk out the door, few of them to be replaced. The defense did improve, from poor to slightly above average, as the season progressed, but the offense fell apart late in the year.
First Five Games: Opponents 30.3 Adj. Points per game, Iowa 29.8 (minus-0.5)
Next Four Games: Iowa 31.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.8 (plus-3.1)
Last Four Games: Opponents 26.4 Adj. Points per game, Iowa 25.4 (minus-1.0)
Only once in its final six games did the Iowa offense score more than 24 points in a game (31 against Purdue, which almost doesn't count). And that was with star receiver Marvin McNutt, Jr., and running back Marcus Coker. Now both are gone. So is tackle Riley Reiff, a first-round draft pick.
Almost as impressive as Ferentz's longevity through the years has been that of his coordinators. Both offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe and defensive coordinator Norm Parker had been with Ferentz since Day One in Iowa City, but both are now gone. Parker retired, and O'Keefe took the receivers coach position with the Miami Dolphins. When you are in the middle of a stagnation period, a change in coordinators isn't a terrible idea; but Ferentz's choice of a replacement was a curious one.
When Mack Brown suddenly found his own period of stagnation in 2010, he, too, brought in two new coordinators. Boise State assistant Bryan Harsin replaced Greg Davis on the offensive side of the ball in Austin, and now Davis will replace O'Keefe at Iowa. Once Vince Young and Colt McCoy left, Davis just couldn't come up with any answers for Texas; now, he inherits an Iowa offense that is missing quite a few pieces from 2011 and, predictably, got a slow start this spring.
Davis' new toy, senior quarterback James Vandenberg, is probably a bit underrated. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 6.5 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) and a 25-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Of course, some of his decent numbers were clearly due to having a strong No. 1 target -- Marvin McNutt, Jr., averaged 9.5 yards per target over 10.7 targets per game, and he was targeted by 35 percent of Iowa's passes. Only three wideouts targeted more than five times in 2011 return: senior Keenan Davis, sophomore Kevonte Martin-Manley and senior Steven Staggs. They combined to average 7.7 yards per target over 10.8 targets per game. Davis is the rare four-star Iowa skill position player, but he has yet to really play like it; he's got one more chance this fall, and he will basically be the default No. 1 target.
The most dangerous target, however, might be former high-four-star tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. He was the most highly ranked recruit on the current two-deep, and he averaged 8.0 yards per target in limited opportunities in 2011. He is huge (6'7, 265 pounds) and rather mobile, and he will combine with senior Zach Derby to give Vandenberg a couple of interesting options on the inside. And when the Texas offense was at its best under Davis, tight ends like David Thomas and Jermichael Finley played prevalent roles. (Of course, so did guys named Young and McCoy.)
On the bright side, the running game should at least be decent despite the losses of Marcus Coker and three starting offensive linemen. Coker gained 1,384 yards last year, but it took him well over 20 carries per game to do it, and his plus-4.6 Adj. POE suggests he wasn't too much better than an average collegiate back. Random exploding drummer Jordan Canzeri is likely out for the season after tearing his ACL in the spring (Iowa loses approximately 13.4 running backs per season to either injury or transfer), but sophomores De'Andre Johnson and Damon Bullock were both strong in the spring. Bullock's 84-yard touchdown run was one of the highlights of spring ball. Only two linemen return with starting experience (including two-year starting center James Ferentz), but Iowa has recruited well up front, and compared to the receiving corps, I just cannot get too concerned about the line.
At their best, O'Keefe's offenses always seemed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher, successful linemen and steady game managers at quarterback. But the true Iowa personality from the Ferentz era has come mostly from a steady, plug-'n-play defense that always seemed to have an intimidating presence at end, linebacker and safety. Parker's defenses were always big, hard-hitting, and fundamentally sound. They did not take a ton of risks, and they did not adapt particularly well to the spread offense, but they were brutally effective.
He took unheralded recruits like Bob Sanders, Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Pat Angerer, Amari Spievey, Tyler Sash, and a handful of walk-on safeties and turned them into all-Big Ten performers and NFL-caliber talents, to say nothing of what he could do with top-level high school talents like Matt Roth, Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Iowa has put the third-most defensive linemen into the NFL of any program in the last seven years. It has landed an absurd number of secondary players, as well, including guys who had no business being that good. He took a 5'8" kid with a couple of MAC offers and turned him into the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He transformed an eight-man option quarterback from South Dakota into a first-round draft pick at weakside linebacker. He did more with less than anyone in the country. […]
Parker wasn't always perfect. There was the well-documented trouble with spread offenses, the stubborn adherence to using linebackers in zone coverage, the resistance to blitzing. Yet, even Parker's faults reflected the program and the state it represented. He was the gray-haired, conservative, occasionally profane, common sense voice of a gray-haired, conservative, common sense program. When Norm would joke that he would never retire because his wife wouldn't want him around the house, we smiled with acknowledgement that someday, we'd be there too. When he rolled out an Abbott and Costello routine with Tom Brands on the I-Club circuit, we laughed at our grandfathers talking with our crazy friends. When he famously advocated the illegality of the spread offense, we felt his level of frustration. When he stubbornly shirked the spotlight after returning from his stay at the hospital, we respected his work ethic for the upteenth time.
Parker was famous for turning nothing into something. And to be sure, he continued to do so late in his career. Of the 14 Iowa defenders drafted in the last five years, six were two-star recruits out of high school. But it bears mentioning that some recent stars were also four-star recruits -- defensive ends (and 2011 draft picks) Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard, safety (and 2012 pick) Jordan Bernstine. In 2011, Iowa had to replace three draft picks up front, and the line predictably struggled. The Hawkeyes ranked just 58th in Adj. Line Yards and 94th, and now new defensive coordinator Phil Parker (no relation) inherits a line that must replace five of its top seven tacklers. Parker will have to make something out of a batch of two-star upperclassmen (Dominic Alvis, Steve Bigach, Joe Gaglione) and more highly touted youngsters like ends Mike Hardy, Riley McMinn and Melvin Spears and tackles Carl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Darian Cooper.
As it pertains to the linebackers and secondary, Phil Parker is saying things that Iowa fans want to hear: Iowa will blitz more and play more press coverage than in recent seasons. And honestly, with what is probably going to be a shaky line, taking risks might be a necessity. Outside linebackers like Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens are smaller and faster than one would consider the Ferentz prototype, but they could be well-suited to this newfound aggression. And a healthy, experienced James Morris could be strong in the middle. Relatively speaking, the linebacking corps should once again establish itself as the strength of the Iowa defense.
The secondary, meanwhile, must replace Bernstine and cornerback Shaun Prater, but in corner Micah Hyde (who somehow has eligibility remaining after what seems like 13 years in Iowa City) and safety Tanner Miller, it does still boast solid experience. And in players like corner B.J. Lowery and safety Nico Law, it can boast some untapped potential as well. The back seven of this defense should be strong, but the tale of the 2012 Iowa defense will be told by its line.
This probably will not be one of Kirk Ferentz's better Iowa squads, but the schedule still lends itself to a decent record. The non-conference slate does not include a team projected to rank higher than 57th (and three are 84th or worse), and the Hawkeyes do play Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue as well, none of whom are projected higher than 68th. If Iowa is a Top 45 team or so, it should expect to still win about seven or eight games. So we'll set the bar there.
Noting the schedule is important here. With so much turnover, both on the field and on the coaching staff, this will almost certainly be a bit of a rebuilding year for Ferentz, and one shouldn't entirely assume that the Hawkeyes will produce at a Top 45-50 level. Still, they would have to play quite poorly not to at least win six games and reach another bowl game. Ferentz might have a lot to prove about the new long-term trajectory of the program (especially after a bit of a baffling hire at offensive coordinator), but this a good year to have an easy slate. Just win the games you're supposed to win, take your lumps against better teams, and hope that the underclassmen develop enough to become a factor for the division title in 2013-14.
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