Iowa’s Holiday Bowl win over USC changed the narrative around the 2019 season. Entering Friday’s matchup with the Trojans, it’s safe to say the fanbase was fairly split. A good portion felt a 9-win season with all three losses coming by a single score to top-15 opponents qualified as a good season. Others felt the season left much on the table with major offensive struggles in those three losses and opportunities for big wins and a return to Indianapolis squandered.
The win on Friday night unified the fanbase on the back of an offensive outburst and thorough thrashing of one of college football’s bluebloods. It was precisely what the doctor ordered in terms of creativity, utilization of key weapons and execution across the board from players and coaches.
The question now is where this team goes from here. After a season in which the offense was the leading cause for consternation among the fanbase, failing to convert when in opposing territory and rarely pressuring defenses to its fullest potential, should fans expect more of the same in 2020 or was Friday’s performance a sign of things to come? History tells us not to put too much stock in offensive changes, but next season could be the perfect storm.
Iowa will return 9 of 11 starters in all likelihood next year. The two departures will be big ones with the Hawkeyes likely losing a top-15 pick in their right tackle Tristan Wirfs and breaking in a new QB after losing one of the best in school history, statistically, to graduation. But that’s mitigated in part by the news that left tackle Alaric Jackson will be back for his senior season. And that new QB to break in is one of the most heralded recruits in the Ferentz era, breaking records at the high school level set by fellow alum Jared Goff.
Barring transfers, and those are still a real possibility, Iowa will be returning its top six rushers and top eight receivers next year. The offensive line will return four of five starters and thanks to the abundance of injuries this year, will have multiple backups will game experience.
If ever there were a time to see the full picture of what Brian Ferentz truly wants his offense to be, it’s next season. Based on what we saw in the Holiday Bowl, that could be really exciting. It could also be that Brian, like his father, would rather refrain from pressuring the defense unless he feels he has to in order to have a chance. We’ve seen that with both the USC and most recent Ohio State (who Iowa deferrals 55-24 - people often forget that) matchups, despite a history under Kirk of playing more clock management than score management against opponents with superior athletes. With such positive results, fans have to be hoping that brand of offense can simply become the norm, rather than the necessity against top flight opponents.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out the offensive outburst came against a less than stellar defense. Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s offensive woes this season, like almost every other team, came against the best defenses they faced. In the three losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes managed only 37 total points. That’s not going to cut it, even if you do have one of the best defenses in the country.
That should again be the case next year for the Hawkeyes, though there is sure to be some big drop offs at some key positions. For starters, it’s all but a lock A.J. Epenesa departs for the NFL. He’s also likely to be a top-20 guy and that comes with several million reasons to get a degree later in life. Replacing his pass rush off the edge simply isn’t possible for Iowa. But Phil Parker has been quietly stock-piling recruits to plug in along the defensive line. The interior should prove stout and it’s time to see if Chauncey Golston can become the star of the show.
AJE became the second Hawkeye under Kirk Ferentz to record 10.0+ sacks in back-to-back seasons (Matt Roth in 2002-03).— Matt Benson (@mbenson6) December 28, 2019
Safety Geno Stone is also mulling his options. While his draft stock isn’t in the same stratosphere as Wirfs of Epenesa, there are questions over just how much another year would raise it. Should he leave, their would be a sizable void in the secondary, where the Hawkeyes will also be looking to replace senior corner Michael Ojemudia. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years it’s to trust Phil Parker. Much like the defensive line, the secondary is riddled with a combination of high caliber recruits and stereotypical Iowa walk-ons ready time burst into the scene.
Perhaps the biggest question is how things shake out in the middle. Freshman safety Dane Belton seems to have locked down the “cash” position, but Iowa is losing middle linebacker Kristian Welch, the team’s leading tackler. That’s a spot not unlike the quarterback position which is critical to the team’s success. However, whereas the QB room will be stocked with former 4-star recruits, the linebacker room will be looking to reload with more typical under the radar recruits. How they step up will say a lot about Iowa’s potential to build on this season’s success in 2020.
That’s what this all comes down to. The level of success achieved this season is a blip on the radar for this program and what Kirk Ferentz has built. It marks the sixth time under Ferentz the Hawkeyes have won ten or more games and caps a five year window where Iowa averaged more than nine wins a year. That’s the most in any five year window in program history.
As we turn the calendar to 2020, can Ferentz and his staff build on that success to raise the bar for this program? Can Holiday and Outback Bowls turn into Rose Bowls? Can five straight wins against teams like Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa State turn into five straight against Wisconsin? Can one division championship in that five year window turn into a conference championship?
It would be a major step forward and certainly a welcome one for this fanbase. The defense has shown time and again they are good enough to take the next step. With the weapons returning and the glimpses we’ve seen, it’s time for the offense to show they can propel this program forward without costing Parker’s defense. Until then, Hawkeye fans will continue to enjoy the successes of seasons like 2019, with portions of the fanbase questioning missed opportunities rather than relishing the rivalry wins and perceptions hanging on the outcome of bowl games.
Happy Monday y’all. Enjoy the Holiday Bowl win and the success this program has achieved not only this season but the last several. Let’s take that next step forward as we move into the new year and continue to do the Hawkeye Hokey Pokey.