Thursday, July 10, 2008

2008 Iowa Football Season: Year 10 under Kirk Ferentz

Kirk Ferentz opens the 2008 season, against the Maine Bears, the FCS program, that gave Ferentz his first head coaching job back in 1990.

Ferentz served as OL coach for head coach J Hayden Fry at Iowa from 1981 to 1989. The Hawkeyes went to eight straight bowl games from 1981 to 1988 under Fry. After three years at Maine and six more in the NFL as an assistant, Kirk Ferentz replaced one of his old mentor, after Fry retired at the end of the 1998 season.

Entering 2008, Iowa is looking to get back to a bowl game, after their six year bowl streak from 2001 to 2006 came to an end The Hawkeyes went 6-6 overall in '07 (4-4 in the Big Ten, tied for #5). Bowl eligible last year. But, the Big Ten ran out of bowl bids after a record ten Big Ten teams completed season eligible for a bowl. Iowa and Northwestern, both stayed home for the holidays in '07.

So far, it appears the college football preview magazines have mix reviews for the 2008 Iowa Hawkeyes. Most of the reviews have low expectations for Iowa this fall...

  • Street & Smith's Sporting News is picking Iowa #9 (page 52) in the Big Ten for '08. Ferentz (page 15) is one of five found on the Sporting News "Coaches on the Hot Seat" and like many in the media pointing to Ferentz's "$2.8 million a year for six wins."
  • Lindy's is picking Iowa #7 (page 85) in the Big Ten for '08. "Loaded at receiver and defensive tackle -- two keys spots every winning program needs." But, "the Hawkeye ground game has been tougher to find than Waldo." In closing, never to be taken lightly, but this team can neither be considered a title contender." Of the 119 teams in the FBS division, Lindy's rates Iowa #45.
  • Athlon Sports is picking Iowa #6 (page 98) in the Big Ten for '08. They call Iowa's schedule "favorable" since there is no Ohio State or Michigan and they get Penn State and Wisconsin at home. But, "the bad news is that the Hawkeyes have no experience runners, a so-so passing attack and lost three of their top six tacklers." Athlon Sports complete preseason rankings have Iowa #38.
  • Phil Steele's 2008 College Football preview is picking Iowa tied for #4 (page 56) in the Big Ten for '08. "The Hawks do not have overwhelming talent at the skill positions but do have my #4 rated O-line and #4 rated D-line (both in the Big Ten) plus much improved special teams and a top-notch HC. They also do not face OSU or Michigan in Big Ten play, giving them the best schedule of the middle-rung teams." Phil Steele has Iowa rated #34 (page 29) saying "the Hawks were in 4 straight January bowl games from 2002-2005 but are 12-13 the last two years. They have my #12 O-line in the country and #19 D-line. While not flashy at the skill spots, they do have a solid coach in Ferentz, a good fan following and will return to being a winning team with a blue-collar work ethic." Phil Steele predicts Iowa to reach a January bowl game this season, projecting Iowa vs. South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Iowa has played in two Outback Bowls under Ferentz, going 1-1 vs. Florida ('03 and '05 seasons).

50 Years Ago (1958) The Football Writers Association of America crowned Iowa with the school's only football national title, as Lindy's put it "Iowa's outstanding regular season and rout of California in the Rose Bowl got the Hawkeyes the nod." Iowa's top player and head coach were mentioned in this week's Sports Illustrated.

40 Years Ago (1968) head coach Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes were crowned the nation's mythical national champion.

I don't see Iowa in 2008, but Ohio State is certainly a candidate from the Big Ten for the BCS Title. In the Big Ten though, I would call Iowa a sleeper more than a contender. But, does one ever want to say never to Iowa having a stronger year than expected?

Back in 2005, coming off three straight #8 finishes nationally, including two Big Ten shared championships ('02 and '04), Iowa was over hyped by many preseason previews as a Top 25, even Top 5 team. Some of the expectations...

  • Athlon Sports picked Iowa #3 nationally fueled heavily by the "Ferentz" factor...
  • The Sporting News picked Iowa #10 "Believe the hype... Hawkeyes will contend for a BCS bowl..."
  • Street & Smith's picked Iowa #13 fueled on the 10 wins in '04 despite a "completely decimated running game... "Kirk Ferentz could be the best coach in college football."
  • Phil Steele picked Iowa #14 "this is one of Kirk Ferentz's best teams yet which means a Rose Bowl trip is a possibility. OK, I realize that Iowa will likely be in the preseason Top 5 and Hawkeye fans are not too happy as they read this..."
  • Lindy's picked Iowa #15, despite "the front four has to start from scratch."

Hype over substance, there was plenty of it pointed towards Iowa City after three straight #8 finishes back in '05...

Lindy's wrote the right comment back in '05. "The Bad News: the most telling trait among championship teams is a veteran, stout defensive line that is immovable against the run. Iowa lost four seniors on the D-Line, and their are Big Ten teams eager to test the underbelly." A win over Florida in the Outback Bowl would likely have made Lindy's projection for Iowa in '05 a good one. But, Iowa came up short 24-31 to a team that went on in '06 to win the BCS Title.

Kirk Ferentz is entering his tenth season at Iowa in '08. Over the past ten seasons, we have seen some common denominators for success and for failure...

  • 1999 to 2000 - Iowa's biggest weakness was found in the offensive and defensive lines, when Kirk Ferentz arrived in Iowa City. Former Michigan State head coach Nick Saban mentioned it after the 1999 Iowa-MSU game in East Lansing to open the Ferentz era in the Big Ten.
  • 2001 to 2002 - Kirk Ferentz was gaining praise in the development of the offensive line at Iowa. Iowa's top two scoring offenses to date in the Ferentz era came during this period. Iowa began to develop a reputation of strong special teams that would become a strong baseline for Iowa's better Hawkeye teams to date in the Ferentz era.
  • 2003 to 2004 - Defensive coordinator Norm Parker was gaining high praise for the play of the Iowa defensive line, especially against the run, but improved pressure on the QB lead to a stronger overall defense for Iowa. Iowa's linebackers were gaining a lot of notice, as well.
  • 2005 to 2007 - Iowa's defensive line and wide receiver units clearly had ups and downs. Further, the offensive line was suspect at times, especially last year, when Iowa's OL gave up 46 sacks, which was #114 in the NCAA. Also, the running game dropped from 4.8 yards per carry in '05 to 4.3 and 3.5, respectively, the past two seasons.

Going back to the baseline for Iowa during the 2002 to 2004 seasons. Some highlights entering the '08 season:

  1. Iowa from '02 to '04 had a new starter each season at QB. Iowa had a different starting QB the season previous to the 3 year run. Skills varied throughout the period, with each QB. The biggest formula for Jake Christensen or Ricky Stanzi will be avoiding mistakes in '08. Titles have been won around the Big Ten with such a formula.
  2. The best two seasons offensively were highlighted by the offensive line more than any other position group. The '08 OL doesn't compare to '02, but appears capable of being a successful group with all 10 members of the two-deep returning for '08.
  3. A strong run defense is essential to success for Iowa, with the strongest results coming in '02 to '04. Mitch King and Matt Kroul anchor the interior defense entering their 4th season as starting DTs.
  4. Iowa success in '02 to '04 was fueled by by stopping the run and creating pressure on the quarterback. Sophomore defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Christain Ballard bring less experience as first year starters, but are very talented players and could bring an upside to Iowa's pass defense, with added pressure on the QB.
  5. Iowa's defense is designed to put at least one linebacker at the top of the tackle chart. Iowa must replace two of their top three tacklers from '07, both LBs. However, junior AJ Edds returns after finishing #2 in tackles for Iowa last year and will step into the leader of a unit that is young, but appears to have some interchangable parts, after Edds.
  6. Iowa's skill players on offense have varied greatly during the Ferentz era. Injuries have at times depleted Iowa's TEs, RBs or WRs options. We saw that last year, but we also saw it at times during the '02 to '04 run at Iowa in the skill positions. It takes 11 players working together to be successful on offense, but don't be surprised to see Iowa's offense improve this fall. Iowa returns 4 of the top 5 WRs from last year. Everyone is back at TE. In '02, Iowa went 8-0, but opened the season with a new starting QB, RB and FB and had to replace its #1 WR.
  7. Iowa's secondary plays two important roles... run support and pass coverage. Iowa has to replace its top two CBs, but the secondary has experience returning, lead by both returning safeties and a part-time starter at CB. Sophomore FS Brent Greenwood is a former walk-on and returning starter from last year. Ironically, between '02 and '04, former walk-ons Derek Pagel and Sean Considine filled the FS position for Iowa.
  8. Special teams play will be very important. Iowa has three very good players returning with special teams experience. Sophomore punter Ryan Donahue should emerge as one of the Big Ten's best this fall. Sophomore kickoff returner Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and senior punt returner Andy Brodell also could figure as candidates for all-Big Ten honors. A consistent placekicker needs to emerge, Iowa has three candidates, two with experience. Coverage units have been a trademark of good Ferentz teams and should continue to improve with the experience returning this fall. Iowa played 31 freshmen last year, with many contributing to Iowa's special teams.
  9. Iowa coaching staff is very respected by the NFL. In '05, Kirk Ferentz received a lot of praise. Today, some of those same sources, point to the high salary and 12-13 record the past two seasons and cast criticism. But, this is still mostly the same experienced staff that put together strong performances from '02 to '04 at Iowa.
  10. Kansas was 17-18 over the previous three seasons, before last year's breakout 12-1 campaign. Iowa is 19-18 over the past three seasons. Lindy's had KU #58 entering '07, while Athlon Sports had KU #57. Phil Steele in '07 commented about the fact, since the inception of the Big 12 in '96, 3-5 was as good as it got for KU, until last year's 7-1 finish in the Big 12 North. Can Iowa pull a KU type season in '08? KU clearly had a more favorable schedule, facing all 4 OOC opponents at home. KU and Iowa will face two common opponents in '08: Iowa State and FIU. KU coming into '07 had 4 close losses in '06. Last year, Iowa opened 2-0, but lost two close games in back to back road games at Iowa State and Wisconsin.

Like Kansas in their conference (Big 12) in '07, I don't see Iowa winning their conference title (Big Ten) in '08, but they should be an improved team and a tougher out for opponents during the '08 season. A January bowl game would be a nice outcome for '08, after two disappointing seasons the past two years. Of course, a Top 3 finish may be required and Iowa has some teams to catch before they can be considered for a bowl game of any kind. In the Big Ten, Ohio State is the team to beat.


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