Last year, you wrote a pre-season prologue about how Kirk Ferentz had to go all-in (full measure, a la Breaking Bad) with his assistants, especially offensive coordinator Greg Davis. How did that go, exactly? Would you say you were pleased with Iowa's season in 2013?
I'm honestly not sure if I was right or wrong last year. On the offensive side of the ball, where we expected to see the most innovation because there had been the most upheaval, Iowa did what it does every year: Ninth in total offense, ninth in scoring offense, ninth in passing offense, sixth in rushing. The efficiency numbers were even worse: Iowa was tenth in passing efficiency and pass completion percentage, and eleventh in red zone offense. There was a bit of an uptick in tempo, but you'd never confuse the Hawkeyes with Oregon: Iowa hovered between 60 and 72 plays most of the season (traditionally, the benefits of up-tempo in Davis' offenses plateau around 71 plays, so that's fine). There were signs of innovation -- the three-tight end assault against Ohio State was pretty awesome for a half -- but it was generally a return to the zone running-heavy Iowa offense of old. As Iowa's line became something approaching dominant in November, that was fine, but it was far more Kirk Ferentz than Greg Davis.
Defensively, Iowa broke out of its Cover 2 tendencies more than ever. Phil Parker varied coverages, tinkered with some man-to-man from time to time, and even -- GASP! -- blitzed on occasion. He showed a real knack for defensive playcalling, especially against Michigan and Nebraska late in the year, and things like the zone blitz and 'raider' formation -- a two-down lineman, five-linebacker look on passing downs -- gave Iowa variety and nuance it never really had before. The defense carried last year's team, as it does for most good Ferentz teams, but it did so in a new way.
For those who are happy when Iowa wins and sad when Iowa loses, it was a good year. Eight wins was probably the glass ceiling for this team entering the season, and they hit it in spectacular fashion. Furthermore, any year the Hawkeyes can win in Lincoln, Ames, and St. Paul should be considered a banner year for any Iowa fan. For those who were looking for signs that Ferentz was ready to do something beyond the zone game -- and I freely admit to being one of them -- it was more of a mixed bag. However, Iowa won four games in 2012. I'm not going to complain about doubling that total with a team that brings almost everyone back.
Injuries have been a bit of a mainstay at Iowa for at least half of the past decade. How has Ferentz found a way around this? Or is it just something that you've come to expect? How much would you say injuries hold this team back, or is there enough depth?
Iowa football has always been, and will always be, a developmental program. The recruiting base is small, and the caliber of player simply can't compete with Ohio State or Michigan in most years. So Iowa recruits three-stars with certain attributes they like, those guys come in, they redshirt, they spend some time learning the system, and they eventually rotate in as spots open due to injury or graduation. The pipeline is incredibly important, and when it breaks -- the attrition of 2009-2012 is a prime example -- Iowa's entire system collapses.
Injuries, then, are usually fixable. If your fifth-year senior linebacker breaks his leg, your fourth-year junior understudy can step in without missing too much. When attrition makes that replacement a redshirt freshman, there's a bigger problem. The depth wasn't there in 2010, which sunk a really, really good team that took some body blows. The depth certainly wasn't there in 2012, when the line imploded and took the offense with it. It looks like the depth is back, which should bode well for Iowa this coming season.
What's your current impression of offensive coordinator Greg Davis? Is the fan base feeling much better about him these days? Or are there still quite a few grumbles?
The things that are truly new from Greg Davis are fairly minimal. Iowa runs some up-tempo on occasion, usually more in the early season than October and November. Iowa has added sight reads to its passing plays, which crippled the offense in 2012 but seem to be taking root now that Davis has his own receivers' coach. There's a new reliance on the bubble screen as a constraint play, though its effectiveness as a constraint play in an offense predicated on the zone stretch is questionable at best. He's played footsie with New England's Hernandez-Gronk tight end-heavy spread stuff, but that's likely driven more by Brian Ferentz (the offensive line coach and former Patriots' assistant) and D.J. Hernandez (the tight end coach and, yes, that guy's brother). Davis has remained horizontal, but frankly, Iowa was pretty damn horizontal to begin with.
If there's one thing we learned from Davis so far, it's that the hyper-conservative offensive philosophy isn't due to the coordinator. Kirk Ferentz wants to protect his defense, and he wants to run the zone stretch, and so that means we're getting in a huddle, running the zone stretch, and then we're getting back in the damn huddle. That will remain a constant as long as he is here, regardless of who the coordinator is.
Are you excited, relieved, or disappointed that Iowa and Michigan are no longer in the same division? Talk about Iowa's new place in the West division. Who do you anticipate to be your biggest challengers and/or divisional rivals?
I'm disappointed, in that I always enjoy playing Michigan in anything and many of my favorite bloggers are Michigan guys. But the gains from the new alignment for a purely regional Iowa fan far outweigh the losses. Every season, Iowa will get Nebraska (ask anyone at Memorial Stadium last year if it's a rivalry yet), Minnesota (who vocally hates us), Wisconsin (who is so much like us that we have to hate them), Illinois (who we haven't played since 2008, for some reason, and who is hated by the eastern half of the state more than anyone), Northwestern (who lives to ruin every nice thing we've ever had), and Purdue (OUR MOST HATED RIVAL). It's a "hexagon of hate," and Iowa is pretty much at its center. I love it so much.
Here's more of a long term question. How and when do you expect the Ferentz era to end at Iowa? Does he retire in the next few years of his own accord, or is he pretty much on the hot seat right now? Or does he stay until the end of time? If Ferentz does leave Iowa soon, who might you like to replace him?
That is the $40 million question. His contract runs through January 2020, so he technically has six seasons left at the helm. Financially, he'd be insane not to play out the string; his compensation package caps at $4.125 million per year beginning in 2016, so retiring a few years early would cost him approximately the GDP of San Marino. And the buyout, which will be $14.25 million when the 2014 season begins, is far too large for Ferentz to ever truly be on the 'hot seat' without some Weimar Republic-like inflation going on. What I'm saying is, in order to understand the insanity of Ferentz's contract, you need a firm grasp of European geography and history.
So let's just assume there's no way he leaves before the end of 2018. By that point, Ferentz will be 62 years old. He might have as many as seven relatives on staff by then -- at the moment, it's just his oldest son and son-in-law, but 2016 Iowa special teams coordinator James Ferentz is a given, and there are probably a few of his cousins or long-lost nephews out there who need jobs, too. Still, he will need an extension or succession plan if he's going to plausibly pitch the program to recruits. If the wheels have come off by then, the path would be obvious, and the $5.3 million buyout is at least somewhat affordable. On the other hand, if Ferentz is still cranking out seven-win seasons, could an Iowa athletic director actually offer him an extension?
A lot could change between now and then, but my guess is that nobody could possibly justify another $13 million for a three-year extension of the Ferentz contract in 2018, and a pay cut would likely be a non-starter. That points to succession plan, and with a defensive coordinator who is now 51 and an offensive coordinator who qualifies for Medicare, it's not coming from the top spots. Obviously, there's one young assistant whose name gets floated frequently. If Ferentz is in a good enough position to make it happen -- like a back-to-back ten-win seasons sort of position -- then installing his own version of Jay Paterno wouldn't be the most shocking thing to ever occur. Otherwise, it's an open race for the job, with much of the Bob Stoops coaching tree in play.
Prediction time! How does Iowa do in 2014?
Best case scenario: Iowa finds itself with a beastly offensive line, three running backs worth a damn, and a trio of young receivers who can stretch the field. The offense gets back to its play-action-based attack in the finest incarnation, the defense has no trouble filling the holes left by three graduating starters at linebacker, and Iowa cruises through its first ten games before a run of back-to-back home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes squeak past Wisconsin and hammer Nebraska -- Bo Pelini throws a cat at the back judge in the third quarter -- and the Hawkeyes take an undefeated record into a Big Ten Championship Game where they narrowly lose to someone you hate. A Capital One Bowl isn't so bad.
Worst case scenario: The run defense can't recover from the loss of James Morris and Anthony Hitchens inside, and assignment issues in the secondary further cripple the Iowa defense. The offense has never been able to win on its own, and 2014 is no exception. Iowa is stunned by a feisty Ball State in the first weekend of September and drops the Iowa State game while still reeling from the defeat. A loss to Pitt leaves the Hawkeyes 2-3 at the end of September, and October's light schedule only gives the fans more time to revolt. Iowa is 5-5 going into the Wisconsin game, but a loss to the Badgers sends the fans to the exits. Nebraska invades the following week, Iowa plays a de facto road game and finished 5-7. We spend the offseason trying to figure out how much grain alcohol we could buy with $14.125 million.
Most likely scenario: Iowa gets a bit of momentum early, but drops the game at Pitt (remember, Ferentz has gone undefeated through a full September schedule just once in 15 years) and gladly lets the Hawkeyes plummet out of the polls. The squad starts Big Ten play 5-1 (the trip to Minnesota on November 8 is probably the most likely culprit), and Iowa drops the November 22 game against Wisconsin before handing Nebraska its fourth loss of the year (a Nebraska tradition!) The tie for the division title goes to the Badgers, and a 9-3 Iowa beats a disinterested Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl.