KIRK FERENTZ WAS ASKED IF A BOWL GAME THIS SEASON COULD SERVE AS A LAUNCHING PAD FOR 2014. He gave a typical Ferentz response, "I'm not thinking much about next season." It's one game at a time, which isn't an unusual response from any coach. This week and the next two (or three) games are important for more than just the 2013 season. The 2014 resume building has already begun and let's discuss why.
RANKINGS. We touched on this a little bit in INP a couple of weeks back. Looking at the latest Football Outsiders F/+ rankings, we see Iowa at 37th. That may be a tad high but let's consider Iowa a Top 50 team good enough to be ranked somewhere in the 40s (Iowa did receive 1 vote twice this season in the Coaches Top 25). It's not Top 25 but close to the fringe and certainly an improvement over 2012.
Still using the F/+ rankings, Iowa plays Purdue, a team ranked in the 100s and considered one of the worst BCS conference teams in the country. They also play Michigan, a team that's slightly ranked higher than Iowa and will visit Kinnick for the match-up. Nebraska is the final game and FO has them in the 40s. Nebraska and Michigan compete this weekend and Michigan is a seven point favorite over the Huskers. It's possible, with wins this weekend, both Iowa and Michigan could be ranked in the Top 35 according to Football Outsiders. Iowa will be an underdog against the Wolverines but they could be a slight favorite over Nebraska which still has to play Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
IT'S AS MUCH HOW YOU FINISH AS WHERE YOU FINISH. Rankings are neat and all but when we get deep into the nine months of the football off-season, the last game the team played becomes the most important. Adam Jacobi already talked about Iowa's bowl prospects. Let's save some time and not dig too deep into that. I believe the Big Ten will get two teams into the BCS. Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin all have a realistic shot of playing in one of the BCS Bowls moving Iowa up a slot in the Big Ten bowl pecking order.
At (6-6), Iowa is likely heading to the Texas Bowl to play another average team in a game that people outside of Iowa, Kansas or North Texas will likely forget. A step up to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and Iowa plays a top tier Big 12 team where they'll be underdogs but the game is winnable. If Iowa can find two wins in their next three games (Purdue and Nebraska would be ideal), they could head to Florida to play an Ole Miss, South Carolina, Auburn or even Georgia. There's a gradual ladder there in terms of clout. Of course, significance is related to the outcome. If a (6-6) Iowa team loses in the Texas Bowl they're easily forgotten heading into 2014. A (7-5) Iowa team that beats an SEC team in a game they'll surely be underdogs means they head into 2014 with (allow me to create this phrase) subjectivity momentum.
WHAT OTHER FACTORS CONTRIBUTE TO SUBJECTIVITY MOMENTUM? When college football previews get rolling next summer, writers and television personalities use a predictable formula for basing their analysis. The magic in college football lies in the unknown but readers don't want that, they want answers. The formula to predict the future relies heavily on what we've already covered above: where teams were ranked to finish the previous season and how they finished in their bowl game. The formula also includes returning players.
Iowa's defense loses all three linebackers. That's the big story next off-season as they were three-year starters. The Hawks have a senior waiting his turn in Quinton Alston, next year's leader at middle linebacker. Reggie Spearman will likely play outside linebacker with Travis Perry at the other side. The depth is thin with Cole Fisher, Laron Taylor and David Kenny to fill the second unit.
The secondary loses B.J. Lowery and Tanner Miller. Johnny Lowdermilk will likely slide to free safety and Anthony Gair and Nico Law will fight it out for the strong safety spot. Iowa returns Desmond King at one corner and Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and Maurice Fleming will compete for the other corner position.
The defensive line will be Iowa' strength. Dominic Alvis departs but Drew Ott, Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat all return. There's depth building too as Nate Meier, Mike Hardy (who's replaced Alvis since his injury) and Darian Cooper have played several snaps this season. Iowa's defensive success begins up front and Iowa will be stout.
On the other side, Iowa loses just two skill position players. Of the 3,470 total yards thus far this season, seniors Jordan Cotton and C.J. Fiedorowicz account for 227 yards (Cotton 2 rec 58 yards, CJF 18 rec 169 yards). Iowa will miss CJF's size in the red zone and blocking along the line but they'll return 90+% (currently 93% but there are games to go) of the offensive production. The Hawks return the QBs, RBs, TEs, and WRs. The biggest losses will be along the offensive line.
Mel Kiper recently added Brandon Scherff to his first round projections (#24 on the latest Big Board). Let's assume he joins Riley Reiff and Bryan Bulaga as the latest terrific Iowa lineman to leave school early to become an NFL first round draft pick. Iowa also loses Connor Boffeli, Brett Van Sloten and Nolan MacMillan. Austin Blythe, Andrew Donnal and Jordan Walsh are your lone returning OL with experience. Donnal likely takes a tackle spot and Iowa breaks in a newbie: Ryan Ward, Ike Boettger, Cole Croston or Mitch Keppy on the other side. One of those listed, Croston could likely end up at guard too. (There's also Eric Simmons who will battle for a guard spot.) The line will be a question mark heading into the season unless Scherff returns and there's only one guard spot up for grabs.
So, Iowa loses 11 starters (Mike Meyer included). The strength lies along the defensive line and the offensive skill position players. The Hawks return their quarterback and Jake Rudock could be considered one of the league's best next year.
MOVING ON TO THE FINAL PIECE OF THE FORMULA: THE SCHEDULE. Prognosticators will take the above factors into consideration and then take a look at this:
THE BIG TEN'S EAST AND WEST DIVISIONS BEGIN NEXT YEAR. There it is, your new Big Ten. No Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on Iowa's schedule. Sticking with Football Outsiders rankings, to be consistent, Iowa plays (in order) FCS, #50, #82, #57, #112, #46, #68, #44, #51, #65, #10 and the 47th ranked team according to this week's poll. Remember, Iowa is currently ranked #37.
This week isn't next year so let's look at each of team's current record, predicted 2013 record (minus the bowl season) and guess if Iowa would be favored in these match-ups.
NORTHERN IOWA (CURRENTLY 4-5, PREDICTED 6-6). UNI had all summer to prepare for Iowa State and it paid off with a win at Jack Trice Stadium. They'll spend next summer with an upset at Iowa on their minds. They'll have plenty of time to prepare as it looks like UNI will miss the FCS Playoffs. This isn't the same program that was a near automatic for the FCS playoffs. UNI finished 2012 (5-6) and are heading towards a similar finish this season.
UNI will be a test for Iowa's inexperience on the offensive line. Still, Iowa's defense will be too much and the Hawks should better their 27-16 win over the Panthers in 2012.
BALL STATE (CURRENTLY 9-1, PREDICTED 10-2, BOWL TEAM). Ball State is currently the second best team in the MAC conference. Unfortunately for them, they are in the same division as Northern Illinois and will play next week to decide the MAC West. They could be the best team on Iowa's non-conference schedule but they'll graduate 10 senior starters off of this year's squad. They lose three defensive linemen, one linebacker and a corner off of a defense that's currently ranked 101st in the country in rush defense.
The biggest loss comes on the offensive side of the ball where they lose tight end Zane Fakes, wide receiver Jamill Smith and the school's multiple record holding quarterback Keith Wenning.
Unlike 2013, where Iowa opened the season with their toughest non-conference opponent, Northern Illinois, Iowa has a week to learn about who and what they are. Wenning is a big time player and Ball State will drop off without him under center.
IOWA STATE (CURRENTLY 1-7, PREDICTED 2-10). Like this season, Iowa State opens 2014 with a tough FCS match-up. Instead of in-state rival UNI it's North Dakota State that's coming to Ames. NDSU has back-to-back FCS National titles and are the favorite to win it again this year. The Bison opened 2013 at Kansas State and came away with a win. Iowa State hosts NDSU and after a bye week, come to Iowa City.
The Cyclones are a young team. They'll lose Willie Scott and Jeremiah George plus three defensive backs off of a defense that's currently ranked 116th of 123 teams in scoring defense (39.9 ppg). They have quarterback issues and have moved from Sam Richardson to freshman Grant Rohach. The Cyclones should improve in 2014 but it's doubtful it's a significant leap. The Clones will take on Toledo after Iowa, currently a 6-3 team, and you have to look real hard at their 2014 schedule to find more than two wins.
AT PITTSBURGH (CURRENTLY 4-4, PREDICTED 5-7). This will serve as Iowa's first road test and it's not a bad place to do it. Heinz Field is hardly the Horsehoe as many Pitt fans dress as yellow seats. The last time Iowa visited in 2007, Kirk Ferentz was rotating quarterbacks. Iowa should be set this time with Jake Rudock's experience playing on the road in Big Ten stadiums.
Pitt still has three games to play in their first season in the ACC Football conference. The Panthers have a game with Notre Dame this week and three conference games left on their schedule. Their match-up at Syracuse will likely be for a bowl invitation. Both Pitt and Cuse sit at 4-4 and Pitt has a game with division leader Miami (Fl.) still on the schedule.
Pittsburgh's offense has been terrible in 2013. The rank 70th in passing and 100th in rushing. They lose senior quarterback Tom Savage, wide receiver Devin Street and one lineman, guard Cory King. Red shirt freshman Chad Voytik is listed as second string at quarterback and next year this could be his team.
Defensively, Pitt is better. They currently rank 61st in rush defense and 17th in pass defense. They'll lose five starters from this defense. Two along the DLine, linebacker Shane Gordon and two defensive backs.
AT PURDUE (CURRENTLY 1-7, PREDICTED 1-11). We'll be more familiar with Purdue after Saturday. First year coach Darrell Hazell has had a rough go thus far but expect Purdue to improve next season. The Boilers made the switch from quarterback Rob Henry to true freshman Danny Etling four weeks ago. Etling's stats aren't great but he's gaining valuable experience and will be a solid starting quarterback in the Big Ten for the next three years.
The bad news for Purdue, they currently count on four seniors on the offensive line. They also start three seniors on the defensive line and Ricardo Allen is gone. Hazell's building project with this program is going to take awhile as it's a complete overhaul.
INDIANA (CURRENTLY 3-5, PREDICTED 5-7). Iowa lost the last time these two teams met in 2012. Indiana was thought to be on the up and up and some predicted a bowl game this year for the Hoosiers. Their losses off of the 2012 defense is too much and the Hoosiers can't stop anybody. Iowa State currently has the 116th ranked scoring defense, Indiana's is 113th. They are favored at home this week versus Illinois and should beat Purdue. They will have to upset Ohio State or Wisconsin to get that sixth win and earn a bowl berth.
Indiana returns a majority of their offense, losing only starters wide receiver Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bosler. On defense, the Hoosiers start only one senior, safety Greg Heban.
Kevin Wilson has a young team and has recruited well during his tenure. The Hoosiers will be improved next year and could lose only one of their four non-conference games against Indiana State, Bowling Green, Missouri and North Texas. (North Texas is no slouch though as they earned a bowl game this season.) They get an open date in week two and will play four games in a row before heading to Iowa City to take on the Hawks. Indiana opens Big Ten play with Maryland and could come to Iowa City at (3-2).
AT MARYLAND (CURRENTLY 5-3, PREDICTED 7-5, BOWL TEAM). Maryland got off the a hot start this year that peaked with a week at #25 before a 63-0 thrashing by Florida State. The Terrapins have had their share of injuries, particularly at wide receiver, and have dropped three of their last four games. Still, they're one win away from bowl eligibility and should get a win over Syracuse, Boston College or NC State.
The Terps depend on throwing the ball and they'll have to replace quarterback C.J. Brown. They only lose three players from the offense and three from the defense. They will have a bye week before entertaining Iowa and this will be the toughest test for the Hawkeyes on the first half of their schedule.
Maryland has an easy start to their 2014 non-conference schedule with FCS James Madison and South Florida. They will then host West Virginia and visit Syracuse as their first real tests before their first season of Big Ten play. They get a gift opener at Indiana but host Ohio State the following week. Without a slip-up in the non-conference portion, Maryland could be (5-1) when Iowa comes to town. It doesn't get easy after the Hawks leave. Maryland then plays Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State.
FAVORITE: Pick em
NORTHWESTERN (CURRENTLY 4-5, PREDICTED 5-7). Northwestern was everybody's sleeper pick to win the Big Ten Legends Division this year. They started (4-0) and haven't won a game since. Northwestern has a well earned bye this week before finishing their season with Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. The Cats have had back-to-back heart breaking weeks and need to win two of their last three to get a bowl trip.
Kain Colter will graduate. Venric Mark is a senior but may apply for an additional season of eligibility due to this year's injuries. They lose only three other senior starters from this team but safety Ibraheim Campbell could leave early for the NFL.
Northwestern will have a senior-heavy team next year but Trevor Siemian is not Kain Colter. The Cats open the season hosting Cal and a Jordan Lynch-less Northern Illinois team the next week. Like Maryland, Northwestern has a bye week prior to playing Iowa. The Big Ten slate isn't easy leading up to the bye as jNW heads to Penn State, hosts Wisconsin, heads to Minnesota and hosts Nebraska. Because of the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, jNW will again travel to Iowa City to face Iowa next season.
AT MINNESOTA (CURRENTLY 7-2, PREDICTED 8-4, BOWL TEAM). The Gophers have won three consecutive conference games for the first time since 2008 and if they can beat Penn State this Saturday would have their first four game conference win streak since 1973. The Gophers are playing inspired football in the wake of head coach Jerry Kill's health complications.
They have a bye following this week's game and close the season with Wisconsin and Michigan State. As nice as their story is it's unlikely they win either of those last two games but still finish a very respectable (8-4). The Gophers will head to Florida to face a tough SEC opponent. If you replace "Iowa" with "Minnesota" in this piece the same would hold true.
Like Iowa, Minnesota will return a majority of their skill position players. Derrick Engel is the lone loss on the offense. Defensively, the Gophers lose Ra'Shede Hageman to the NFL. They'll also lose two linebackers and safety Brock Vereen.
Iowa controlled the line of scrimmage at Minnesota in Iowa's 23-7 win this season. The Hawks return the defensive line that contained the Gopher rushing attack but they'll lose the offensive road graders that pushed Minnesota's defense around.
This Gopher team is learning how to win and return enough starters to be considered a candidate to challenge to for the Big Ten West Division. Iowa, again because of the scheduling quirk, will head to Minnesota for the second consecutive season. Minnesota, like about every other team we've mentioned, will have a bye week prior to playing Iowa.
Minnesota has a three game stretch of Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois before that bye week. Their non-conference schedule includes a winnable game against TCU, a couple of cupcakes and a trip to San Jose. They'll open with Michigan, take their first bye week and then begin the three game conference stretch previously mentioned. The final stretch that starts with Iowa is followed by games with Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. They'll be rested and ready for the Hawks and likely (5-3) or better going into the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale.
FAVORITE: Pick em
AT ILLINOIS (CURRENTLY 3-5, PREDICTED 4-8). Tim Beckman had only one year at Illinois and radio hosts were already starting rumors on Twitter that he would be fired. He wasn't and he is still looking for his first conference win as Illinois' coach. The Illini head to Indiana this week where they are a 10 point underdog. They also have Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern on the schedule. Purdue is winnable. If it's a loss, Beckman is gone and they start over.
If Beckman stays he'll be without Nate Scheelhaase at quarterback. He'll also lose two senior starting wide receivers and offensive linemen. Defensively, the Illini lose eight of their current eleven starters.
In what seems to be a running theme, Illinois too, will have a bye the week prior to playing Iowa. Illinois has a tricky non-conference schedule with FCS power Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State on the schedule. They also take a trip out to Washington which will surely be an embarrassing loss.
Illinois opens Big Ten play with Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin before their first bye. They then have Minnesota at home and head to Ohio State before their second bye and eventually Iowa.
WISCONSIN (CURRENTLY 6-2, PREDICTED 10-2, BOWL TEAM). If not for poor officiating at the end of Wisconsin's game at Arizona State, the Badgers would have had a chance at kicking a field goal to win the game and sit at (7-1) and in the Top 15 of the BCS standings. It's water under the bridge now and because it's college football, we can't assume that Wisconsin's kicker, who has since left the team, would have made the field goal.
The Badgers host a good BYU team this week at Camp Randall and are a touchdown favorite. After the mid-season non-conference game it's three very winnable conference games with Indiana, Minnesota and Penn State. The Badgers have a shot at yet another BCS Bowl. That's if Michigan State loses another game and the conference championship game. Or if Ohio State loses a couple of games before the end of their regular season.
Wisconsin will likely begin 2014 ranked in the Top 25 and the odds on favorite to win the Big Ten West Division. They return quarterback Joel Stave and superstar running back Melvin Gordon. Gone from the offense is running back James White, all-Big Ten wide receiver Jarred Abbrederis, tight end Jacob Peterson and offensive guard Ryan Groy. The loss of Abberderis hurts but Wisconsin will have plenty of fire power in the run game with Heisman candidate Gordon at running back.
Defense is a different story. The Badgers lose seven of eleven starters. Gone is linebacker Chris Borland, 2013 Big Ten DPOY candidate. Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly make three of the four starting linebackers gone to graduation. All three starting defensive linemen will need to be replaced and they also lose one in the secondary.
They'll open their season in Houston, Texas, with a neutral field match-up with LSU. After that match-up, the schedule is similar to Iowa's. They play Western Illinois and then get some MACtion with Bowling Green. They'll play South Florida and then begin Big Ten play with Northwestern and Illinois before a bye week. Following the bye, the Badgers take on Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue and Nebraska before heading to Iowa City.
It was that defense that handled Iowa easily last week at Kinnick. The scheduling quirk works in Iowa's favor and Wisconsin will again travel to Iowa City for this rivalry game. The Badgers could be (8-2) or even (9-1) and looking to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship game.
NEBRASKA (CURRENTLY 6-2, PREDICTED 7-5, BOWL TEAM). Nebraska is the hardest team to predict. Bo Pelini asked of the Mother Mary and he received a miracle when they beat Northwestern on a last second pass last week. Consecutive losses to Minnesota and Northwestern would have been the nail in the coffin for the Huskers' coach. The nail may not be hammered home but it could be set in place. Nebraska sits at (6-2) but travels to Michigan this week as a seven point underdog. Following Michigan, Nebraska plays Michigan State, Penn State and close with Iowa.
If Nebraska losses even two of these next four, Bo Pelini may be on the way out. If that happens you have a complete wildcard team that could be a re-builder or a contender next season.
Win these games or lose, Taylor Martinez is gone from the program. The Huskers also lose four senior starters on the offensive line and starting tight end Jake Long. Fortunately, there's only three senior starters lost on defense. The coaching situation remains the caveat. If Pelini goes, does Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell test the NFL Draft? The Huskers would need a big hire to keep the guys around and not a clean house kind of guy.
That's potentially five 2013 bowl teams. Three on Iowa's November schedule. Wisconsin may be the only ranked team Iowa will play and that will be in Kinnick Stadium. Using the same formula laid out above, (previous results, returning starters) we end up with Iowa favored in potentially all but a couple of games next season. Iowa's finish in 2013 will determine their ranking, if any, in the early part of 2014.This schedule isn't strong enough to move Iowa quickly up the polls (there's no "big" wins).
I see it as similar to Northwestern's run in the polls in the early part of 2013. Everywhere you looked over the last summer, people were picking Northwestern as their "dark horse" to win the Big Ten Legends Division. The Wildcats finished off a strong 2012 campaign beating Michigan State, Illinois and Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to finish 10-3. Iowa won't finish anywhere near 10-3 but they could win the Gator Bowl over an SEC team.
Northwestern ended 2012 ranked 17th in the AP and 16th in the Coaches Poll. They started 2013 ranked 22nd in both. After starting the season 4-0 against a weak non-conference schedule, Northwestern reached #17 in the AP and #16 in the Coaches Poll and then the wheels fell off. As you can see, Northwestern's climb was a slow one and you can bet Iowa's would be too.
Wisconsin will be the pick to win the Big Ten West. Still, Iowa may be considered a contender and possibly a favorite by some that see this schedule. Minnesota will have something to say about it too and you can't rule out Northwestern or Nebraska. It's likely that the Big Ten West winner would need to 1.) Have one loss or less and 2.) Beat a top ranked Big Ten East division winner to get considered for the first NCAA Football Playoffs. Under the current plan, four teams make the playoffs and there are no conference tie-ins (there's no cap on the number of teams from a conference). It's a playoff but it still relies on polls, computers and humans.
The current perception is that the Big Ten is "down." With Michigan and Michigan State moving east to join Ohio State in the same division, Big Ten teams in the West Division will be perceived as inferior. There's only one way to shake that label, just win baby.
TL;DR. A win this week over Purdue and a strong finish to the 2013 football season puts Iowa in a position to begin 2014 ranked or on the fringe of the Top 25. With a cupcake 2014 schedule Iowa could have pundits talking Iowa and playoffs. It's likely that Iowa won't play a ranked team in 2014 until the November 22nd game with Wisconsin and that game could be for the Big Ten West title. Momentum from a strong 2013 finish, key returning players at skill positions and an easy schedule would make Iowa a sexy pick as the "dark horse" to compete for the Big Ten Championship. For consideration for the 2014 NCAA Football Playoffs Iowa would need to start a winning streak this Saturday.