In an ongoing Iowa football email thread, a friend suggested today that it would be interesting to analyze our past performance against the point spread "to determine if Iowa is in fact the most bipolar team in the conference." I don't have the time (well, okay, I probably do) to chart every Big Ten team's outcomes against the spread over recent seasons past, but the question piqued my interest nonetheless. I did take a look back at Ferentz-and-staff's record to determine if there was anything there, quantitatively speaking, to support the feeling most Hawkeye fans have that we step up for big games but lose to teams we should beat by thirty. It appears there is not.
I looked only at Kirk's coaching record from the 2001 season through last weekend's (ahem) win @Indiana. I didn't think it fair to include either of the first two Ferentz seasons, so I threw them out. Here's what it looks like in that span:
Record against each Big Ten opponent:
1-4 against Ohio State
4-4 against Michigan
7-1 against Penn State
6-4 against Wisconsin
5-3 against Michigan State
4-1 against Illinois
4-3 against Purdue
3-4 against Northwestern
8-1 against Minnesota
5-2 against Indiana
The only negatives that stand out here are the two losses to Indiana and the god-damned losing record against jNWU. I don't care how well coached jNWU is or that they've actually played in bowls recently...Quick! Name an NFL player from jNWU! Um, Evan Eschmeyer...Michael Wilbon. No and no; you can't, can you? [In fairness there are 12 former Wildcats currently on NFL rosters]
So, how does Ferentz and Co. do against ranked opponents? Well, as it turns out, not too badly, really. In the same aforementioned time-span Iowa is 16-16 vs. ranked opponents (AP poll). Broken down it is 7-9 against top-10 teams and 9-7 against teams ranked 11-25. That would suggest that over the last decade, we're worthy of being considered a top 15 program, and with season ending rankings of 8, 8, 8, 20 and 7 accounting for five of the past nine seasons (likely to be 6 of 10 soon, barring any unforeseen meltdowns), I think considering us a top 15 program is difficult to argue against.
For the sake of comparison, Hayden Fry ended 10 of his 20 seasons at Iowa ranked in the AP polls (though I think for some of those years it was only a top 20). Fry never ended a season ranked in the top 10, while Ferentz has already done that 4 times. Fry's bowl record was 6-7-1, while Ferentz is already 5-3. Fry never won a top-tier bowl game; Ferentz just did this year. Fry held 3 Big Ten titles, 2 shared and 1 outright, while Ferentz already holds 2, both shared, with a shot at a third shared title this season. Fry never went undefeated in conference play; Ferentz did in 2002.
In consideration of space and audience patience, I won't compare either Fry or Ferentz against what Forest Evashevski did in the late '50's or Howard Jones in the early '20's, but Captain Kirk has certainly already earned a spot at the high-porch picnic table with his three most noteworthy predecessors. I wonder if in 10 years time we won't be considering him the greatest Iowa football coach outright?
So what is it that has Iowa football fans so miffed roughly 3/4's of the time? Well, last week is a great example. We wonder (even down a running back or three) how can we come off of nearly beating a top-10 team, then beating a top-5 team, to then, for all intents and purposes (other than concerns our record) lose to the worst team in the conference? I think it goes back to the coaching philosophies of Ferentz, KOK and Parker. On the one hand, our conservatism on both sides of the ball, and in clock-crucial situations (always kneeling out the 2nd quarter, for instance) means that we are able to keep games close by avoiding big mistakes and compete against even the best teams by slowing them down a few knotches. Unfortunately, it has the same effect on us when we're the better team in the matchup. Bottom line is, we play a shit-ton of close games, usually several each season.
Iowa's four top-10 seasons last decade could have, with a few poor turns of luck, ended with us out of the rankings and in a lowly bowl game. Likewise, some of our more pedestrian seasons were ridiculously close to being great ones (this season is shaping up to be one of those, though a bit above 'pedestrian'). Consider the 2008 season. The four losses in that season's 9-4 record were for a combined total of 12 points, including back-to-back-to-back losses early of 20-21 @Pitt, 17-22 to jNWU (damn!) and 13-16 @Mich. St. Three weeks after that we lost by 3 @Illinois. On the other hand, that team beat #3 Penn State by 1 and the next week Purdue by just 5. In the 2001-present era, Iowa has played in 120 games, 39 of which were decided by 6 points or less, or in overtime. That's 1 out of every 3 games we play in decided by a single score. In those games we are 21-18. And THAT, my friends, is the source of fan frustration.
If that number were considerably more lopsided in favor of wins, I don't think folks would be quite as upset as we so frequently are, despite basically overachieving (for a team in the state of Iowa) year in and year out. We feel like our players are too often being held back by some sort of football ideology who's virtue our close-game record doesn't really bear out.
So, it is with this in mind that I implore the God of Ferentz, KOK and all things that are good and right in this world to unleash our offense and put the Fighting Dobie Gillises down by a margin of 50 this weekend!