We all know the story of the 2009 Hawkeye Football Team by now. Dominant defense. Shaky offense. Underperformed against the weaker teams on the schedule. Showed up and played their best against the better teams.
While the above is certainly true, it is a bit of a simplification and has lead to a few posts and long discussions in the comments lately that have touched on a couple themes: 1) Was the 2009 Iowa team "lucky"? and 2) Was the 2009 Iowa team really not that good since their offense wasn't very good?
The truth is that the answer to these questions intersect somewhat.
As we know, the football is shaped in a funny way and it can bounce in unpredictable ways. The bounces of the ball certainly can be chalked up to luck, such as when Clayborn's blocked punt @PSU bounced up perfectly into his hands, or when Iowa's first blocked field goal vs. UNI bounced in such a way as to leave 1 second on the clock, giving UNI another chance to win the game. These types of bounces, as well as other forms of "luck", (including fun things like Pythagorean expectation) are discussed in detail here.
But there is one type of "luck" that is not mentioned at all - and that is the luck of injuries. And in many ways, that partly explains Iowa's success on defense and struggles on offense last season.
As we all know, injuries are a part of the game of football. If you added up all of the injuries suffered by all of the teams, and divided by the number of teams, you would have the average number of injuries that a team can expect to suffer in a given season. Any team that exceeds the expected number of injuries would be considered "unlucky", while a team that suffered fewer injuries would be "lucky".
Football Outsiders has done some pretty in depth studies on this issue for the NFL and factors it into their team projections from year to year. I'm not aware of any similar studies for college football, so I don't know exactly how many injuries a team should expect to sustain in a given year. But if you follow football long enough, you should be able to get a sense of where a team falls by simply adding up the missed playing time from key contributors (i.e.:starters) to see what conclusions can be drawn regarding the teams "luck" on the injury front.
In 2009, the following Iowa starters missed games due to injury on Offense:
Jewel Hampton (season)
Brian Bulaga: 3 games (plus he wasn't himself for a few more games)
Tony Moeaki: 3 games
DJK: 1 game (plus last half of Orange Bowl)
Ricky Stanzi: 2 games (plus 3/4 vs. Northwestern)
Dace Richardson: 4 games (plus 2nd half vs. MSU)
The running back position as a whole was hit hard by injuries in 2009, with spring #2 RB Jeff Brinson out for most of the season, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson both missing games with injuries and playing others injured. Julian Vandervelde missed all of camp and the first few games with injuries, and Kyle Calloway was suspended for the first game.
Compare that with Defense:
Prater missed the first two games with a suspension and the Arkansas state game with an injury.
Greenwood: 2 games (plus 2nd half vs. MSU when they mounted their comeback)
Hunter: 1 game (plus 2nd half vs OSU when they ran the ball well)
And that was it! Jordan Bernstein was out for the season, but he was the #3 CB probably only would have played nickel and started when Prater was out.
The 2009 Iowa defense was almost completely healthy last year, while the offense regularly dealt with injuries to key players at key positions in key games.
Now, of course we know that the 2009 Iowa Hawkeyes had a top 10 defense and the "89th ranked" offense. But looking closer, they actually had a great defense that had good luck on the injury front. And the offense? It certainly appears their injury "luck" was very poor. We may never know how good they were or would have been if they were all healthy. Or would we?
In fact, there was a game last year where the entire offense was healthy - where Moeaki and Bulaga and the running backs (sans Hampton and Brinson) were at full strength, and had been practicing at full strength for some time - the Orange Bowl where the Hawks put up 403 yards of total offense against the ACC champs.
The bottom line is that Iowa's defense in 2009 was solid, but also rather fortunate to avoid injury. And while Iowa's offense in 2009 was rather shaky, it was also hit very hard by injuries. Any discussion of the 2009 Iowa team, especially regarding luck and their "anemic" offense, has to take their relative luck on the injury front into account.