Note: I apologize for the length of this post, but at minimum, check out the numbers regarding Iowa's margin of victory compared to historical five-loss teams (check out the pretty chart).
Okay, maybe he doesn't say it exactly like that, but it's not an unreasonable portrayal. Coach Ferentz continually make this point. But what's he trying to communicate here?
People in general (and football fans in particular) have a tremendous propensity to engage in results-oriented thinking. That is, once we have access to the results or outcome of a certain event, we look back at the things that led to that outcome and believe that things could have gone no other way.
I used to play poker very seriously. In that game, it is especially important to resist results-oriented thinking. I was not always successful. After winning sessions, I would be extremely self-satisfied and have an almost euphoric sense that I could do no wrong. After losing sessions, I would be hyper-critical of myself and my play. The reality is, sometimes I played very well and lost. Other times I played very poorly and won.
Football fans engage in the same sort of behavior in evaluating their teams. We call it Monday-morning quarterbacking. If only we'd called run-plays more often! If only we had a decent two-minute offense! We look back and notice a similar pattern to our losses (and near-loss) and feel sure that we can diagnose the inputs that would have created more favorable outcomes. [As a great example of how we are deluded in this, consider the Wide Receiver end-around we've run a bunch this year. I read many frustrated comments about the play here and elsewhere. Actually I wasn't a fan. We're calling it in the wrong situations! It's always obvious when we're going to run it and therefore it's easy to defend! But as was pointed out here (by someone who's actually taken the time to analyze the information), we've run that play for more than 7 yard per play on average. That's extraordinary!]
In the face of our disillusion, Ferentz tries to tug us back toward reality. (Admittedly, sometimes his claims are a little tone-deaf and unfair towards a fanbase 90% of coaches would kill for. Yes, Kirk, we're aware you didn't drop the pass. We're aware that fortune is a part of football.)
The result is that on one side you have Ferentz and his most fervent supporters claiming that, if we'd only executed a little better we'd have have a much better record -- that the difference between this year's team and last year's is minuscule. On the other side you have people who insist that a mediocre seasons was predetermined by poor late-game management, stubborn personnel decision, myopic play-calling, and a lack of passion.
Both sides can't be right. But there are a few things we know to be true:
1) Variance plays a huge part in college football. Random dropped passes that kill series happen to teams and often mean the difference between a win or a loss. Sometimes the perfect play doesn't work because the opposing defensive coordinator made a lucky guess on coverage. Football works with a very limited set of data in determining which teams truly are great and which are not. Auburn has taken a lot of games to the wire this year and is 12-0. Iowa would be 11-1 at worst if games were only 57 minutes long. We had Wisconsin and Ohio State facing fourth-and-long where a stop meant a win. Arizona needed a 90-yard+ drive in the final minutes. In every loss this year, we had a chance at a two-minute drive for the win where we dropped or overthrew a number of balls. Maybe 12-0 isn't that far from 7-5 after all. (This is why serious gamblers think not in absolute terms of "who is the better team?" but in terms of "in 100 games on a neutral field, which team would win most often?".)
2) We also know that Iowa had enough talent this year that luck shouldn't have played a factor in two of our losses and one of our near-losses. Northwestern, Minnesota, and Indiana were all teams that should not have been in the game against us and yet they were. Being in close games against these teams probably reflects on our coaching philosophy to some extent. In evaluating this season, it's almost certainly helpful for us to separate these three games from the three losses against solid-to-great teams (Arizona, OSU, and Wisconsin).
So what's the definitive answer? Does this season represent one of the great squandered opportunities in the history of Iowa football or is it just that last year's good team had some lucky breaks and went 10-2 and this year's good team had some unlucky breaks and went 7-5?
If you ask me, the evidence is on Ferentz' side here (though his critics make some important points). Consider this: our margin of defeat through 5 losses is 18 points. To put that number in perspective, I compared it to the margins of defeat for the other 5-loss teams from this season:
2010 5-loss teams Total Margin of Defeat:
Iowa has lost by far fewer points than any other five-loss team in the nation. Actually, going back, only one other five-loss team has been so close to a perfect season since 2000 (Connecticut in 2009). The average 5-loss team has about a 60-point total margin of defeat.
The rejoinder to this is that good teams find a way to win, and therefore Iowa was not a good team. After all, games go for 60 minutes, not 57. But obviously there are ways of being a five-loss team where that was your ceiling and ways where that was near your floor. Iowa clearly fits into the latter category this year.
One last thought that may help you feel a little better about our coaching style: College teams have a ridiculously limited amount of time to practice together. Some coaches devote some practice time every day to the two-minute drill or to inserting stunt-plays and lots of different offensive looks. Our coaches clearly instead place the emphasis on blocking drills, tackling drills, and working our basic play set so that we execute well. This year we weren't as great as those things as most Ferentz teams are. But to install a lot of what people are calling for would mean taking some of our focus off of the basic and fundamental skills that we normally emphasize. Is that a trade-off worth making?
Do I think that the college game is an ever-evolving beast and that successful coaches must adapt to survive? Absolutely. Do I think that Ferentz is loyal to a fault (to both players and coaches)? Yep. But I also think that Iowa's coaching staff is as good at identifying under-valued prospects and at player-development as any other staff in the nation. What they do with the players they identify, recruit, and develop could maybe be a little more ideal (this is more clear in the games against Northwestern, Indiana, and Minnesota than those against Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Arizona). But we're getting our money's worth, people. Ferentz has responded appropriately in the past to disappointment. I wouldn't bet against him rising to the occassion again.