It feels ancient now, but 2005 was supposed to be THE YEAR, the culmination of Ferentz's first great run. Iowa was coming off its most improbable season-to-date, a ridiculous 10-2 record on a string of one-possession victories (7 points over Iowa State, 2 points over Purdue, Penn State -- the 6-4 game -- and Minnesota, and the Hail Mary win over LSU in the Capital One Bowl) accomplished largely without a serviceable halfback. It was a smoke and mirrors season, though it was Iowa's second improbable 10-win season in three years. The best part, though, was that remarkably few players were set to leave before 2005. For the first time under Ferentz, Iowa returned a seasoned starter at quarterback, junior Drew Tate. His top two targets, Ed Hinkel and Clinton Solomon, also returned, as did three top offensive linemen. Linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway, both looking like top draft picks at the end of 2004, were seniors, and Jovon Johnson and Antwaan Allen gave Iowa more secondary stability than it had ever had. The national media joined in the parade of praise; CBS Sportsline ranked Iowa #2 in its preseason poll, Athlon #3, and Iowa was a near-unanimous top 15 pick.
The season never met those lofty expectations. Tate was banged up early on, and backup Jason Manson proved ineffective in a shocking loss to Iowa State. That was followed by a 25-point drubbing in Columbus to open conference play. With a Big Ten title still to play for in mid-October, the Hawkeyes dropped a heartbreaker to Michigan, and followed that with the first in a run of improbable losses to Northwestern. Iowa picked up a pair of wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota to get to seven wins and land a surprise invite to the Outback Bowl, but the season was certainly a disappointment.
Kirk Ferentz's ability to turn water into wine remained dogma even after the 2005 debacle, but a massive amount of experienced, pro-level talent was leaving via graduation, mostly on defense. Replacing Abdul Hodge's three years of experience at middle linebacker was untested junior Mike Klinkenborg. Replacing first-round draft pick Chad Greenway at the weakside linebacker was the similarly unknown junior Mike Humpal. Jovon Johnson was gone; junior Adam Shada was in. The defense had become a parade of upperclassmen who had failed to break through all that talent. On offense, Tate was back under center and Albert Young returned in the backfield, but it was a different center and new cast of characters on the offensive line. At receiver, the Hawkeyes went young; Hinkel and Solomon were replaced by a rotation of underclassmen: Andy Brodell, Dominique Douglass, Scott Chandler, Trey Stross. Nevertheless, Iowa again entered the season in the preseason top 20.
If 2005 was a disappointment, 2006 was a borderline disaster. Iowa started with four wins before being throttled in Kinnick by #1 OSU. The Hawkeyes then dropped one of the most inexplicable losses of the Ferentz era, a three-point defeat at Indiana. The wheels came off after that; Iowa picked up a win over Northern Illinois with Jake Christensen filling in for an injured Drew Tate, but Tate would never again win a game. Iowa finished 6-6, then lost as a huge underdog against Texas in the Alamo Bowl. The 2006 offseason was a mess, as well, as transfers and disciplinary issues further thinned an already bare-bones team down to nothing.
Iowa opened 2007 with a three-year starter gone to graduation at quarterback, its most promising receiver lost to an offseason scandal, a virtually unknown set of players across the offensive line, and extreme youth and inexperience everywhere but the defensive front seven. In retrospect, it's amazing the team won six; it beat the eventual Big Ten Rose Bowl representative in a ridiculous game at Kinnick where Ron Zook's curious clock management strategy had as much to do with Iowa's success as the Hawkeyes' own play. Iowa also beat Michigan State on an afternoon where it completed five passes for 53 yards. Nevertheless, Iowa's offense was a mess; the offensive line couldn't protect the quarterback against even the most modest of opposition, the quarterback became justifiably jumpy in the pocket and focused more on the rush than the receivers. Iowa's offense, predicated on Al Young and Damian Sims, bogged down against nine-man fronts daring Jake Christensen to throw. The season ended with an uncompetitive loss to Western Michigan and no bowl trip.
By 2008, the offensive line had twelve starts under its belt and a new quarterback (and a monster halfback) to protect. It delivered, and Ricky Stanzi did enough beyond "hand the ball to Shonn Greene" to make it the most successful Iowa offense since 2003. It didn't hurt that his receivers also had a year of experience, or that the inexperienced defensive front of late 2007 -- Clayborn, King, Kroul, and Ballard -- was rounding into division-killer form at the same time. After a handful of close losses in September and October, Iowa solved the equation, beat previously-undefeated Penn State in early November, and won its last four.
By this point, the cycle had come full-circle: Iowa had thrived on an experienced group of juniors in 2004, floundered when those same players became seniors for whatever reason in 2005, cycled through the underlying upperclassmen who couldn't break through in prior seasons in 2006 to underwhelming effect, went young in the trenches (almost immediately on the offensive line; by November on the defensive front) in 2007 and built those players through 2007 and 2008. Sure enough, come 2009, Iowa fielded a second-year starter at quarterback, a veteran junior-led group on the offensive line, a killer defensive line and linebacker corps, and enough experience in the defensive secondary to win consistently. And win they did.
The point to this story is, Iowa football is now quite clearly working on a five-year cycle. Iowa has built its program on a policy of turning tight ends and linebackers into cogs of the machine and then fully expecting those cogs to do exactly as they are supposed to do and be exactly where they are supposed to be at all times from the moment they're plugged in that machine. You can build athletes in the weight room from whatever raw material your recruiters bring in, but those athletes don't become football players -- at least not in the Kirk Ferentz sense of the word -- until ten, twenty, maybe thirty games of experience are under their belts. For Iowa to win in the future, youth must be served in the present.
And yet, 2011 was not a "youth movement" year at Iowa. Only six underclassmen -- three on offense, three on defense -- started the Hawkeyes' final game, and three of those -- Coker at halfback, Miller at free safety, Rogers at fullback -- were at positions where game experience has, in the past, had the lowest correlation with player success. On the offensive and defensive lines, where anecdotal evidence from the recent past here and statistical evidence from around the country indicates experience is most important to overall success, this season wasn't marked by a youth movement but rather by career backup upperclassmen. Iowa's offensive line featured one bona fide top-notch NFL talent (junior Riley Reiff), one solid returning contributor (junior James Ferentz), one underwhelming second-year starter (senior Markus Zusevics) and two perennial backup guards (junior Matt Tobin, and senior Adam Gettis). On the defensive side, the only underclassman consistently in the two-deep was Dominic Alvis, who tore his ACL in early November. Otherwise, it was senior Mike Daniels, the enigmatic Broderick Binns, and career second-stringers like Joe Forgy, Steve Bigach, Lebron Daniel, Tom Nardo, and Joe Gaglione. Cumulated statistics for those five players, all listed in Iowa's Insight Bowl two-deep, prior to 2011: Eighteen non-redshirt seasons, zero starts, fourteen tackles. The lines weren't the only place where this happened, either. The quarterback was a redshirt junior who had never seriously pushed his predecessor. Keenan Davis, starting opposite McNutt, had done little of consequence in his first two seasons. Tyler Nielsen cemented his status as the rich man's Mike Klinkenborg. And the secondary featured a man who might be the most prominent senior season-only contributor in Ferentz's twelve years on the job, Jordan Bernstine.
This was not a rebuilding year, at least not in the common sense of the term. A rebuild doesn't feature sixteen upperclassmen starters, especially not sixteen upperclassmen with a stark lack of on-field experience typically commensurate with their class. This was not a rebuild as much as a brush clearing, a bonfire of undergrowth necessary to clear the path for the next rebuild. We know it, because we have seen it before. This was 2006 redux.
The bad news is that, of course, 2006 led to 2007, a year of pain neither seen nor felt at Iowa in years. The good news is, Iowa's hand is forced. Iowa has to replace three -- and, let's face it, four, because Matt Tobin isn't an answer for anything -- starters on the offensive line. When they did the same in 2007, they turned to Bryan Bulaga, Julian Vandervelde, Kyle Calloway, Seth Olsen, Rafael Eubanks, and Rob Bruggemann. The growning pains were obvious, but also paid off in spades the next two seasons. Likewise, by the middle of 2007, Iowa was rotating Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard in at defensive end and Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds, and Jeremiha Hunter at linebacker, laying the foundation for the defense that was the bedrock of Iowa's later resurgence. We'll get to the players who could feature in these spots later this week (and in greater detail after spring practice), but there are signs of life in the trenches and elsewhere. We survived 2011, and if history proves correct, we'll experience and survive the misery of 2012. We got through the bonfire. Let the rebuild begin.