There is a great half-truth at the heart of the Kirk Ferentz story: That Iowa teams might not be great at the beginning of the season -- they almost universally are not, actually -- but they improve over the course of the year and emerge in November as world-beaters. The "improvement" story was true, at least early in Ferentz's tenure. The 1999 team was hideous in September and nearly won a couple of Big Ten games in November. The September 2000 Iowa Hawkeyes are my pick for worst team of my lifetime, but by late October they were knocking off ranked opponents and winning in Happy Valley. 2001 showed nominal improvement, and 2002 through 2004 showed absolute team advancement.
Like so many things about the Ferentz tenure, it changed in 2005. That team had its nation-leading home winning streak (those were the days, right?) broken in late October and dropped a horrible loss to Northwestern in the first week of November. There was no outward sign of improvement, though there was also no real regression, either. They saved that for 2006, when Drew Tate's meltdown led to a near-mutiny and a winless November and December. That team imploded from internal pressures, personality conflicts, and external anger that were largely outside the control of the coaches. But that team also didn't show the typical marked Ferentz advance.
Anyone who has read anything I have written here in the last ten months knows my theory: We are living through the second incarnation of the 2007 season (and third version of 1999, if you take it back to the source). From our recap of last season:
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.
You could play Mad Libs with the names right now and recap the first two months of 2012 with no further adjustments, right down to the Directional Michigan loss, the MSU win where the passing game was completely abandoned, and the quarterback who struggled mightily and completely but retained the job due solely to a lack of viable options beneath him.
And here's the thing: 2007 wasn't a "November improvement" team, either. Sure, they arrested their fall and turned around a 2-4 start into a 6-5 record, with two smoke-and-mirrors wins. But that team also played a 3-5 Northwestern squad and Tim Brewster's first one-win Minnesota team to near-draws down the stretch and lost to Western Michigan in a game it needed to make a bowl trip. It was a young team, and it was a flawed team, and it simply ran out of gas.
That improvement that everyone expected didn't come in November. It came that winter, when the team was back in the weight room. It came in September 2008, when the Hawkeyes finally replaced Christensen's bruised psyche and let a big, healthy, now-experienced offensive line block for a big, healthy, experienced halfback. And it really came the next November, when Ferentz's second 1999 blossomed into his second 2002.
What I'm saying is, this is the plan. It's why you don't see panic, or even outward acknowledgement of problem, from the coaching staff. It's why James Vandenberg can say that Greg Davis "acts like nothing is wrong" and mean it as a good thing. It's why Ferentz can walk out to the assembled press, say "execution" twenty-seven times, and come back the next week with the same thing we just saw, with the same results as before, and not be considered clinically insane. They're playing a long game here, and they're confident it will work.
There's always the possibility that we're ahead of schedule, I suppose. The 2008 team was 5-4 by the second week of November, but that team was clearly and unequivocally closer to breaking through than this one. It simply does not appear likely that there will be a breakthrough in 2012, or at least not one perceptible to us. Those expecting miracles will scream in barely-coherent late-night ramblings, but the fact is that we simply must set those emotions aside and reduce what we are expecting this year.
Iowa could well win tomorrow against Indiana, itself a program going through an Iowa 2000-like season, and much like when the Hawkeyes beat Northwestern in 2007, we can all take that as a sign of improvement, of that November surprise that we all now expect. It's just one game, and it will be followed by another three, and maybe one more after that. This is painful. We know. We've been here before.
Just remember that we'll get there. Enjoy the ride as best you can.