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THE PROLOGUE 2014: THE CAROUSEL

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After five years, the ride has come back to where it started. But can Iowa take advantage of the high point so soon after the low?

Ezra Shaw

"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."

-- This blog, January 2012

"This device isn't a space ship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called a wheel, it's called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and a round, and back home again."

-- Don Draper, Mad Men

Kirk Ferentz compares everything to older Kirk Ferentz things.  That's what Kirk Ferentz does.

Every year, the press asks Kirk Ferentz about an unheralded recruit and he compares that recruit to Dallas Clark or Chad Greenway or Marv Cook.  When he is asked a question about an upcoming season during preseason media appearances, Ferentz typically references a play from 2004 or a story about Hayden Fry in 1987.  It's not just that he is a student of his own history, but rather that he has a clear desire to repeat the good things and avoid the bad things from a 15-year stint as the head coach at Iowa and 20 years of coaching before that.  Kirk Ferentz's entire frame of reference is Kirk Ferentz's past, his view a slideshow of prior successes and failures.

The frame of reference becomes useful in understanding just what Iowa's coaching staff has tried to accomplish over 2012 and 2013.  This offense struggled to complete a pass two years ago and ran more than it ever had last year.  The defense burnt off some longtime backups and rebuilt from scratch.  What's left after the purge and rebuild is precisely the type of football team that Ferentz can win with.  The Hawkeyes start this season with a second-year starter under center who struggled at times during his first season but showed the ability to win big games late.  There is a caravan of halfbacks at their disposal.  There's an offensive line with a future first-rounder on the left flank and a third-year starter at center.  There's experience and depth across the defensive front, with another possible first-rounder as a true disruptive force.  There is a middle linebacker who has waited patiently for his turn at the helm.  There is a promising cornerback at the center of the secondary and questions at safety.  This is territory familiar enough to bring on déjà vu.

When Iowa opened 2009 with all of those things, we were focused on 2010.  The 2009 team looked promising, but questions at running back and in the defensive secondary combined with a difficult schedule meant that success would likely be in the form another eight-win season.  When that schedule flipped in 2010, so went the thought process, Iowa would return senior stars like Bryan Bulaga and Adrian Clayborn and contend for the national championship.

And then 2009, that team with all the same things that this year's team possesses, became the most successful Iowa season since 2002, and only further built the expectations for the improved schedule of 2010.  The 2010 campaign imploded under the weight of those expectations.  Morehouse has said that the 2010 season is Kirk Ferentz's great disappointment, a team with more talent than any other he'd coach that was paralyzed from the top down by that talent's mere presence.

Those two teams taught us important lessons.  The 2009 season taught us to not wait for roster perfection, that those things that are important to Ferentz-era Iowa success -- offensive line experience, defensive line talent, competence at quarterback and middle linebacker -- can overcome question marks elsewhere when the team has shown a simple ability to win.  This 2014 team has that.  It doesn't have something like the 2008 Penn State game as the catalyst that brought it to life, but it got its massive road rivalry win to close the regular season regardless.  The program is built for these seasons, the seasons where we shake our heads and tip our hats at Ferentz for pulling off another improbable resurrection.

The 2010 season taught us not to rely on the schedule as a source of optimism, because home games against the top teams in the Big Ten and road games against comparable BCS-conference opponents are still games against the best of the Big Ten and BCS conference opponents.  That 2010 team lost a road game at Arizona and home games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, mostly because those were good teams regardless of where they were playing.  That schedule can be a comfort in August, but it doesn't mean anything when Northwestern is onside kicking.

Don't do what everyone else has done this August.  Don't look at this as an eight-win team that could get to ten or eleven because Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Kinnick in November and the other heavyweights have been sent to the other side of the dance floor.  Don't get caught up in the talk of a sweep through September and October just because preseason punditry has discounted the opposition.  This is still Iowa.  If the team doesn't have the distinct, unique ability to win close games, they'll lose games to bad teams.  It's happened many, many times before.

Be excited not for the schedule, but because Ferentz 3.0 looks to be here.  All of the things that made the 2009 team (and the 2002 team, and the 2003 team) great are here.  Years of experience are force multipliers in this program, taking two-star recruits and forging NFL talent out of that raw material.  It might not look it, but this team is loaded and prepared and hungry for success that it hasn't seen since before it arrived in Iowa City.

This long ride on the carousel has not been particularly fun.  The disappointment of 2010 led to the malaise of 2011, the depression of 2012, and then, finally, the new hope of 2013.  But we have circled around, home again, to the place where 2009's old wounds still ache.  Somewhere in that new office, Kirk Ferentz is watching tape of this August's practice and seeing slides of Stanzi and Robinson and Bulaga and Clayborn and Sash.

If it's going to happen again, this is the year.  Let's pay another quarter.  Let's enjoy the ride.