Kirk Ferentz starts his 20th year as the head football coach at Iowa and he’s seen more than his share of ups and downs. He shared pieces of the Big Ten title in 2002 and 2004 and was the hot young coach that was rumored for more marquee openings. He fell to as low as four wins in 2012 and was the old coach that had seen the game pass him by. He delivered an undefeated regular season in 2015 and was the comeback coach. Now, his program enters a critical two-year cycle that will likely decide what sort of condition it will be in for his successor.
You don’t see this on the surface. Iowa is projected for a typical 7-8 win season—their Over/Under on wins in Vegas is 7.5, That’s second in the Big Ten West and sixth in the league overall. But a look at the landscape of the Western Division shows some rumblings that could displace the Hawkeyes if these next couple years go poorly.
Wisconsin has been the standard-bearer in this division in recent years, including reaching the last two conference title games. There’s no sign the Badgers are slowing down. Nebraska has consistently brought in the best recruits. If you think first-year head coach Scott Frost knows what he’s doing—and I do—then you expect the Cornhuskers to be revitalized very quickly.
Purdue has newfound momentum under Jeff Brohm and Pat Fitzgerald’s program at Northwestern is always lurking. I suppose if you believe in P.J. Fleck then you have to watch out for Minnesota–I personally find Fleck to be a snake-oil salesman, but that’s for another time. Illinois, a dysfunctional mess that no one short of Nick Saban or Urban Meyer could save, is the only safety valve in the West.
I’ve used two years as the cycle, because this is a very young Iowa team. The Hawkeyes will only start four seniors. They’ve lost most of their best playmakers—Josh Jackson in the secondary, Josey Jewell at linebacker, center James Daniels and running back Akrum Wadley. A down year this season would not be automatically cause for deeper alarm. But it’s important the Hawks show progress and position themselves as a team on the rise for 2019.
Ferentz’s teams have always been keyed by their offensive lines, a reason I like this old-school football coach. He’s going to play two sophomores at the tackle spots, both of whom got starting experience as freshman. The play of Tristan Wirts and Alaric Jackson in sealing the pocket will go a long way in determining the success of quarterback Nate Stanley.
Stanley’s TD-INT ratio was a dazzling 26-6 last year, although I’ skeptical of the modest 56% completion rate and 6.9 yards-per-attempt. Iowa will have to find a way to get the ball down the field more effectively and that’s going to require the young offensive tackles to give the quarterback time.
The schedule is a tough read. Iowa plays all their September games at home, which will help a young lineup. But the opener against Northern Illinois is no gimme and the final week of that month is against Wisconsin. The road schedule isn’t overwhelming—Penn State is the toughest trip and Iowa avoids Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the crossover games. A visit to Minnesota on October 6 will tell us a lot about how this division will shake out this year.
Iowa still has a lot going for them. A good red-zone offense, keyed by big tight end Noah Fant, and a solid kicker in Miguel Recinos will ensure they make the most of their opportunities. It’s not hard to look at this schedule, take an optimistic view and find nine or ten wins. That would really set the stage for a big year in ‘19.
But Hawkeye fans have seen this before—Hayden Fry was a legend in Iowa, going to three Rose Bowls from 1981-90 and turning out competitive teams each year. Until the end, when his program collapsed and it took Ferentz a couple long years to rebuild. What sort of situation will Ferentz hand over to his own successor? The next two seasons will decide and this year will give us a good read on how it’s going to turn out.