Kirk Ferentz kicks off his 9th season as Head Coach of the University of Iowa in 2007. When Coach Ferentz was hired in December 1998, after 20 years under Coach J. Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes were coming off a disappointing 3-8 season in 1998.
Entering 1999, Iowa was clearly not a Top 25 program in Ferentz's first season. Iowa was penciled in as the 9th best team in the Big Ten back in 1999. Of course, the Hawkeyes finished 11th going 0-8, despite a near loss at Evanston, on a poor call that would have given Ferentz his first Big Ten win. The cupboard was a little bare, as former MSU coach Nick Saban commented about in the Hawkeye loss at MSU 49-3 in the Big Ten opener.
After a 0-8 first season at Iowa, in his first season, some Hawkeye fans were a little restless, but a young unknown recruit out of Erie, PA would soon make a statement a Iowa began its climb out of the cellar in the Big Ten.
In 2000, Iowa was clearly pegged 11th in the Big Ten coming off a 0-8 season. Iowa didn't win early in 2000, losing all 3 OOC games, but a 3-5 finish in the Big Ten (eighth), with a win over MSU, a OT win at PSU and a win over 6-2 Northwestern at Kinnick, showed signs that the worse appeared to be over for Iowa.
In 2001, the preseason predictions for Iowa were not outstanding. The Hawkeyes were not picked for the cellar, but 10th, isn't much consolation. However, the Hawkeyes responded better than the predictions in Coach Ferentz's third season at Iowa. The Hawkeyes finished 4-4 in the Big Ten (tied for fourth) and closed out the season with a bowl victory in the Alamo Bowl over Texas Tech, 19-16. After three straight losing seasons, the Hawkeyes were back in the bowl picture and back in the top half of the Big Ten standings.
Entering 2002, the Hawkeyes were not highly regarded by anyone with the preseason magazines. Despite a bowl win in 2001 and a top half finish in the Big Ten, the magazines saw Iowa a second half team in the Big Ten and outside the nation's Top 25. The magazines saw Iowa as the eighth best team in the Big Ten in 2002. No one apparently thought to ask senior defenders, Colin Cole and Fred Barr, who were ready to put a claim on the Big Ten title entering 2002, as witnessed in Coach Ferentz's preseason TV show entering 2002. The Hawkeyes finished 8-0 in the Big Ten for the first time ever. A #8 finish in the National Polls and a BCS birth in the Orange Bowl vs. USC, who were on the cusp of becoming the NCAA best!
Again, entering 2003, the Hawkeyes were moved back by the preseason magazines. No expectations in the Top 25 and a 6th place prediction for the Big Ten finish for the 2003 race.
The Hawkeyes had trouble early on the road in the Big Ten, but a solid road win at Madison combined with home wins at Kinnick, the Hawkeyes finished 5-3 (tied for 4th) in the Big Ten and a huge 37-17 win over Florida in the Outback Bowl completed another solid season for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes with another #8 finish in the National Polls.
After 5 seasons, Coach Ferentz had Iowa back on the map in both the Big Ten and among many in the preseason magazines. Entering 2004, Iowa was picked 4th in the Big Ten and though not all magazines saw Iowa as a Top 25 team, they were 19th on the combined list in the preseason.
In 2004, Iowa wasn't able to get the victory in Ann Arbor, but a 7-1 finish tied for first place was accomplished by the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten. Despite the worse rushing attack in the country, due to injuries, the Hawkeyes under Big Ten player of the year, sophomore QB Drew Tate, won in dramatic fashion on the final play of the Capital One Bowl, 26-25 over defending champion, LSU, to finish #8 in the National Polls for the third straight season.
Entering 2005 and three straight #8 finishes in the National Polls, the preseason magazines had Iowa third in the Big Ten and all but one magazine had Iowa a Top 25 team, at #12. The one bowl magazine was right, while Iowa finished tied for third in the Big Ten at 5-3, the Hawkeyes weren't able to pull off a victory in the Outback Bowl vs. Florida to close out a Top 25 finish, again. In three recent bowl games, Iowa has faced either the defending champ or next year's champ, facing USC in 2003, LSU in 2005 and Florida in 2006.
Last year, Iowa entered the 2006 season as the third best team in the Big Ten entering the preseason and for the first time in Coach Ferentz career at Iowa, a consensus preseason Top 25 team at #15. The season was clearly the most disappointing season in the Kirk Ferentz era and the most disappointing season, since Fry's last season in 1998. Iowa completed last season with a disappointing 2-6 record (tied for 8th) in the Big Ten, closing out the final game in the Alamo Bowl, with a 24-26 loss to #18 Texas.
Kirk Ferentz, now entering his ninth season at Iowa, brings in another Hawkeye team with lowered preseason expectations. Other than 2004, Iowa hasn't fared well with high preseason predictions. Nationally, it doesn't appear any magazine will coin Iowa a preseason Top 25 team. In the Big Ten, a top division finish will likely be predicted, fueled in part that Ohio State and Michigan are not on the Big Ten slate. Of course, when Purdue faced a similar situation in '05, neither OSU or Michigan finished #1 in the Big Ten.
For Iowa's benefit, players stepping up in leadership, as Fred Barr and Colin Cole did in 2002, despite the losses in leadership from Ferentz's first Iowa bowl team would be a good sign for Iowa. Iowa returns two all-Big Ten performers from the '05 season in RB Albert Young and DE Ken Iwebema. The QB position will break in a new starter for the first time, since the 2004 season. In 2001-2004, Iowa had a new QB penciled in entering the preseason, from the previous year, so for OC Ken O'Keefe, history was good for Iowa.
Championships are won with defense, while the 2002 defense was suspect against the pass at times, as shown in losses vs. ISU and USC, the run defense for Iowa in 2002-2004 was outstanding. Further, excellent special teams play fueled a lot of Iowa's success during a strong climb this decade. Getting back to the basics that fueled success in the early decade will be Iowa's task entering 2007. The schedule is favorable, but there a plenty of challenges ahead.