The Seat Has Cooled Down
And it probably will be so for a long time. 2012 was pretty much a disaster for Iowa in every sense of the word, and it came closer than anything did in putting Kirk Ferentz potentially on job notice. Fortunately for the Hawkeye faithful, Ferentz managed to right the ship enough in 2013 so that stability is returning, the program is developing, and Ferentz is breathing a sigh of relief.
Iowa also did not have to deal with the plethora of injuries that they normally do, and they reaped all the rewards of a stalwart, consistent set of starters. They rode and depended on their experienced upperclassmen throughout the majority of the season. Sure, there were hiccup losses to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin, who were obviously the best teams in the conference, but they managed to take care of business against everyone that they were supposed to, including Michigan, against whom the Hawkeyes maximized the opportunity of the Wolverines' poor play. (Iowa always seems to have a satisfying season when they knock off the Maize and Blue.)
The Hawkeyes held their own admirably against LSU in the Outback Bowl, and with 14 returning starters, it doesn't look like they're going anywhere. More importantly, it doesn't look like Kirk Ferentz is going anywhere. At a time when many in the Iowa fan base were calling for his head, Ferentz calmed everybody down with a few apt changes but largely by bringing the program back to where they're used to being. A lot of that has to do with the fortune of avoiding injuries that typically make them take a step back, but Ferentz must have felt vindicated that he was able to get back to his steady 8-4 type run without completely overhauling everything about his program's philosophy.
With Ferentz's immense buyout, he doesn't appear to be going anywhere even if he were to bottom out in the next couple of seasons. However, right now, for the Iowa fan base, that doesn't matter. All that matters is that the team is back to being competitive and entertaining and worth supporting on Saturdays. And let's be honest; they could do a lot worse than Kirk Ferentz.
Best in the West?
Iowa is one of the teams that benefits most from the new divisions of the Big Ten. Their biggest challengers for the foreseeable future are Wisconsin and Nebraska as primary threats, and while teams like Northwestern and Minnesota might start to creep up the ladder, Iowa certainly looks to have the short term depth to stay just ahead. At worst they'll be third best in the division. Knock off Wisconsin or Nebraska and it suddenly becomes an entirely different discussion about the Hawkeyes chances of finishing with double digit wins and a trip to Indianapolis.
In the 2014 season, Iowa has a legitimate chance of starting the season 10-0. (Their two biggest tests lay at season's end, against Wisconsin and Nebraska, but both are in Iowa City.) The Hawkeyes have one of the most favorable schedules in the Big Ten for the upcoming season, and they should easily be 3-0 before heading off to face Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. Until those final two weeks of November, no one truly looks challenging on Iowa's schedule (save for a possible trap game against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium on November 8), and they miss out on facing Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State -- pretty much all the big wigs (B1G W1G's?) of the East Division. Wisconsin has a similarly favorable outlook, but Nebraska faces Michigan State early. The division race could come down to the Badgers and the Hawkeyes if the Cornhuskers falter.
Where does Recruiting Go From Here?
One of the biggest questions I think around Kirk Ferentz's program is about recruiting. It seems like every time I turn around the Hawkeyes are experiencing some sort of attrition. Granted, this isn't uncommon for large programs. (Michigan experiences a similar but lesser amount with uncomfortable regularity.)
On top of that, Ferentz has taken a general "we'll see who has mutual interest" approach to getting recruits. Now, this just might be me, but that kind of approach hardly seems like the preferred method of a Big Ten head coach. At a program like Iowa, which has experienced numerous winning seasons, bowl trips, and BCS bowl appearances (and victories), it seems like they should be able to do a little bit more than simply taking what they can get in the same way Minnesota or Illinois does.
Since 2009, the Hawkeyes' recruiting classes have been ranked 11th, 6th, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 9th, according to Rivals.com. In those six years, they have not had one five-star prospect commit to them, and several of their four-star prospects -- most notably running back Greg Garmon -- have left the program. This gives anyone who follows recruiting little reason to get excited. Though his method of developing two and three-star players on the field has been proven beyond any sense of irrational reproach, the classes that Ferentz brings in often lack headliners. (Watch out, though, for Iowa's 2014 QB Tyler Wiegers, the unsung phenom out of Detroit Country Day.)
True, Ferentz's 2006 class, which contributed greatly to his 2009 Orange Bowl run and brought home a season record of 11-2, was merely ranked 7th, so one could make the argument that for what Ferentz's classes lack in style they make up for in substance, to use a horrible cliche. However, at some point, Ferentz is going to have to instill some sense of recruiting consistency to keep his program from bottoming out in the event that underclassmen are thrust into playing time early, as they were in 2012. A few highly-talented freshmen here and there would take a lot of the pressure off waiting for everyone to go through development and not being considered legitimate contributors until their junior or senior seasons.
Ferentz's 2014 class kept things relatively close to home, which seems like a good start. Iowa, like Nebraska and Wisconsin, prides itself by depending on its walk-on program, for better or worse, which itself depends on local talent. This might have been a sound strategy fifteen years ago, but non-conference opponents are tougher, FCS schools are getting tougher, and of course the Big Ten's top half is getting tougher, because most athletes would rather take scholarships to places like Eastern Illinois than be "preferred walk-ons" at Iowa. Just imagine if Jimmy Garoppolo had suited up in Black and Gold and played in the Big Ten.
That isn't to suggest that Iowa (or Nebraska, or Wisconsin, or even Michigan) abandon its walk-on program, but Ferentz could possibly solve a lot of his seasonal problems by shoring up sound athletes in the off-season, especially with everything his program has achieved and can offer them. (Iowa, after all, is and has been one of the most solid and reliable pipelines to the NFL.)
Hopefully the recruiting coordinator Ferentz just hired will do just that.