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THE PROLOGUE 2015: SUPERSTRING THEORY

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Has Iowa found its Theory of Everything in C.J. Beathard?

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At the heart of physics* are two theories: Relativity, developed by Einstein a century ago, and quantum mechanics, which has been built over the last 60 years.  Both theories are, in and of themselves, perfect.  Every experiment run with either of them has confirmed their findings.  Were it not for the existence of the other, there would be no question of their effectiveness.  And yet, they are theoretically incompatible.  Simply put, relativity requires a version of space that quantum mechanics cannot allow.  There's also something about black holes, which is cool because black holes are cool.

Because the two theories are perfect in practice, there is no desire to discard either of them.  Rather, for decades, physicists have searched for a theory that would allow the two to coexist, a Theory of Everything that would allow the old Einsteinian view of the universe to remain unchanged in the face of subatomic evidence to the contrary.  The answer, in theory, is known as Superstring Theory, and I can't begin to tell you what that means.  All I know is that, if it is finally found and proven, 100 years of theorizing, testing and proving the laws of the universe will finally be complete and successful.

And so it is late August, and Iowa football needs Superstring Theory.

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When Ken O'Keefe left for Miami after the 2011 season, Kirk Ferentz genuinely went in search of a new style of his old offense.  He hired Greg Davis, who had been successful with a variety of offenses (all with excellent talent, to be sure) at Texas.  He added his son, who had just spent two years observing the NFL's most innovative attack at New England.  There was talk of "blending" running and passing games and "elements" of up-tempo football and "fooling around with" modern concepts.  It was, in essence, a search for the theory to tie together Kirk Ferentz Manball and the modern game.

For a variety of reasons, the experiment crashed on the launchpad in 2012.  The next two years, with a bevy of new assistants and players, have not been significantly better.  Iowa was seventh in the Big Ten in scoring offense in 2014 and fifth in yards per game, not a terrible showing but miles behind the would-be signposts of this program.  I 2013, Iowa was ninth in both categories; in 2012, eleventh.  These are improving figures, but they are not good.  They are certainly not perfect.

The heart of the problem, like the heart of so many problems in this program, is a contradiction: Iowa's running attack is simply incompatible with the passing game that Davis is attempting to run.  It is true to the point that the two systems don't even utilize the same formations, a basic of deception needed for any effective offense to run properly.  They might be perfect independent of each other (if you ask the principals, I think you might get something close to that, honestly) but they are not perfect together.  They are missing a link, a theory of everything.

Superstring theory in Iowa's offensive meeting room rests with "execution" by its players; this year, they hope, the  theory is embodied by C.J. Beathard.  Iowa's new quarterback has the arm strength to make Davis' horizontal game slightly more effective -- those two-yard outs aren't getting to receivers as they are stepping out of bounds -- and now the knowledge from immersion in the system to run it without much difficulty.  If Iowa can spread the field through the ability of Beathard and his receivers, the running game (now headed by a wholly different person) could be more effective.  And if both are working better, the offense could trend toward respectability again.  But Beathard is only one man -- a man with just a handful of starts, at that -- and is still beholden to the systems he is supposed to join.  He can't change formations.  He won't take the handoffs or make the blocks.  He might not be able to stay upright, if last week's showing is any indication.  Beathard could make the passing game work, but that alone won't make the running game work as well, and without the two, it's back to the drawing board.

Yet the reliance on Beathard and his teammates to "execute" their way out of the contradiction remains the best hope of this program.  The same goes for every other contradiction in a program full of them.  A philosophy predicated on winning games in the margins and hidden yards of special teams that fields one of the worst special teams' units in the country, a dedication to making yards on punting undone by the application of incorrect tactics that lose yards on every exchange?  It's up to the execution of the players.  A philosophy built on keeping games close and committing fewer mistakes applied by a coach proven to be sub-par at winning close games?  Again, it's an issue of execution.  But the execution of two contradictory theories cannot, in and of itself, make those theories compatible.  The experiment has now been run enough times that simple margin of error is insufficient to explain away the mistakes.  Saying that execution is the problem with the program is the equivalent of blaming the contradiction between quantum mechanics and relativity on a faulty Bunsen burner.

Ferentz and Davis have announced to the world that little will change this year, finally admitting what has become obvious through four years of false starts down a new road.  And so, with the buyout dipping south of $10 million, a stadium full of empty seats, and an obligatory contract extension looming this offseason, Iowa's principals have elected to simply run the same experiment again and hope for different results.  

*Before you start, Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Everything I know about physics I learned from TV shows, and so I certainly understand the risk of wholly missing on this explanation of quantum physics.