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40 Years of Iowa Offense: What Does It Mean to Succeed?

Diving into two score of Hawkeye statistics to see how current offenses compare to years past. Is Kirk Ferentz closer than we think?

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With the bye week upon us, I wanted to dive deeper into the Iowa Hawkeyes’ offense at large. Many here and elsewhere have been critical of what we’ve seen from Brian Ferentz in his 17 games as offensive coordinator.

But is it that far out of line with what we’ve seen from past Hawkeye offenses? I’m not just talking Kirk Ferentz offenses because the eye test says it is not. How does the Iowa offense of today compare, statistically, to all of those since the revival of the Hawkeyes by none other than Hayden Fry in 1979?

Fry vs. Ferentz

(all data from

There is no doubt the two coaches have contrasting styles, on and off the field. By all accounts, Hayden Fry was blustery and, as a former quarterback, focused on the offensive game. There is not much more to say about Kirk Ferentz which hasn’t already been said, but his offenses are built largely on line play, shortening the game, and above all balance.

In aggregate, though, the two are not so different in their offensive outputs.

The above dots in the chart represent each game’s scoring – so yes, defensive TDs are factored in here. But it is striking to see how the two have roughly the same scoring outputs. The chart style is something I’ve come to appreciate, as it shows large data in a clean setting.

The grey areas represent the middle 50% of data entries and, believe it or not, they are nearly identical for the two coaches. In fact, the 25th percentile for Ferentz is actually above Fry’s (17 points vs. 13). They share the same median at 24 points and Fry’s 75th percentile sneaks above Ferentz’s at 35 points to 34.5 point. Fry has the more volatile upper bound at 66 points vs. 59 and both have an outlier. Fry was also shut out more times (6 times in 6 different seasons vs. once in Ferentz’s second season).

When you look at games Iowa has won and lost over the last 40 years, it breaks down similarly as well.

Kirk and Hayden have identical 25th and 50th percentiles when it comes to scoring in wins (24 & 31 points) and Hayden edging out the 75th percentile (44 points vs 41). It’s basically the same view when you see conference only games.

Moral of the story, with Kirk AND Hayden: 24 points is normally enough to win a football game.

Games over 24 Points

Coach Win % (All Games) Win % (Conference Only)
Coach Win % (All Games) Win % (Conference Only)
Hayden Fry 88% (124 games/238) 86% (83 games/162)
Kirk Ferentz 80% (141 games/244) 76% (84 games/156)

However, it’s clear that the game is different by these metrics. With Kirk Ferentz-coached teams reaching 24 points in 58% of games (54% in conference) and Fry-coached teams reaching the threshold in 52% of games (51% in conference), points come easier in the 2000s. As such, 24 points meant more wins for Hayden.

Despite points coming easier now, there is a weird ceiling for 24 points with Kirk, as his teams have scored that many points exactly 25 times - 19 times in conference. A touchdown in each direction, 17 and 31 points, are the 2nd and 3rd most common scores for Ferentz, at 16 and 15 instances.

The winning percentages are stark at each of those three point totals. Iowa goes from winning 38% of their games at 17 points to 56% of their games at 24 points to 66% of their games at 31 points.

With the two Hawkeye head coaches stacking up in terms of offensive output, how does it translate as we look to each of Iowa’s six* offensive coordinators in that timespan?

* It is even more insane Iowa’s only had 6 coordinators in 40 years than 2 head coaches

Hawkeye Coordinators

It is no secret the men who resurrected Iowa football were offensively-gifted, something Bill Snyder continues to prove today. The standard they set in those early years has largely carried on throughout each of the following coordinator’s tenure.

On the whole, there isn’t much to differentiate amongst the group. Everyone’s floor, as defined by the 25th percentile is roughly the same. Somewhere in the 13 to 17 point range and unlikely to yield a victory in the examined eras.

What does stick out is Greg Davis’s numbers. 25% of his games fell between 27 and 31 points. It is by far the tightest quadrant of any coordinator. He rarely wowed with wild offensive outbursts (the highest scoring games of his tenure are against North Texas and special team-aided Western Michigan) but could hit that bullseye. His offenses yielded a better winning percentage than Ken O’Keefe within that range (72% vs 67%). Brian Ferentz, with a sample size of 2 has yet to be burned in such a game.

When looking at wins vs. losses, Iowa coordinators continue to look very similar in their mix.

And as it stands through 17 games, Iowa has the 2nd best winning percentage with Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator at 65%. Iowa went 66% in Carl Jackson’s 3 seasons and 64% with Snyder helming the offense. Greg Davis and Ken O’Keefe were around 60% while Patterson brings up the rear at 52%.

The concern, going forward, is the feast or famine we’ve seen in 10 conference games with Brian.

It is unfair to really attribute much to Brian’s graph, with a 4-6 record, but there is nothing between 19 points (PSU) and 45 points (Illinois).

It has to change.

There is limited success, even when points were hard to come by, when Iowa scores less than 20 points. The offensive coordinator with the best record in such games: Greg Davis, at 35%.


I thought it’d be best to close this with a maybe overwhelming look at the last 40 years:

The main takeaway: what we’ve seen under Kirk is not all that different than what was seen under Fry. There will be highs and there will be lows. Kirk-led teams live more in the 24-28 point range when they’re decent. 10 of 19 teams had a median score in that range.

With Fry, however, Iowa only had 4 such seasons. 7 had a median score under 20 (4 for Kirk), while 7 had a median score over 28 (4 for Kirk).

Ultimately, Kirk lives in this consistency and, when analysts say he has an old school offense, it’s because it is.

Hayden Fry was never afraid to run up scores and that’s seen in the above chart, as well as below - Iowa’s PPG ranking across the nation.

Fry had six scoring offenses in the top 20, including in his second to last year, in one of the most “What If” seasons of Iowa lore.

(Three of Iowa’s four road conference losses had a combined 8 point differential)

Kirk has had one, and it was 16 years ago. Think about that: Iowa’s best comparative scoring offense - and it’s not close - can drive this year.

While Iowa’s offense under Kirk has trended the wrong direction when compared against the college football landscape, it has largely continued along the points per game standard seen since two great offensive minds came to Iowa City.

After the first conference game of 2018 which mirrored the six underwhelming performances of 2017, there’s no question Iowa’s offense needs to be better. When looking at the last 40 years of Hawkeye offense, it’s fair to wonder if the ceiling isn’t lower than we might hope.