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Kirk Ferentz, Iowa Football, and the Burden of Preseason Expectations

Does the Hawkeye football team really perform better when expectations are low?

Iowa v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

After a successful 2019 season and a victory over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl, the Iowa football program has received its fair share of hype during the offseason. Multiple publications have the Hawkeyes ranked in preseason Top 25 polls based largely on the strength of returning standouts such as Nate Stanley, AJ Epenesa, Tristan Wirfs, and Alaric Jackson. Iowa is no stranger to preseason rankings, as the Hawkeyes have been included in six preseason AP Top 25 polls during the Kirk Ferentz era, in addition to ten such rankings under Hayden Fry.

The renewed hype surrounding Iowa football provides an excellent opportunity to examine one of the most enduring and deeply held beliefs regarding the program. Many Iowa fans contend that, during the Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes tend to underperform in seasons in which they are saddled with the burden of preseason expectations. On the other hand, Iowa teams frequently outperform expectations when the national pundits project them as an average team, resulting in Top Ten finishes in 2002, 2003, and 2015 which caught the college football media completely off-guard. Ferentz’s problem, therefore, lies in his inability to properly manage his team’s preseason expectations. After all, if his teams can win 10 games when they are only projected to win seven, why else do they regularly win seven games when they are expected to win ten?

Do Kirk Ferentz’s teams really perform better when they aren’t forced to bear the weight of high preseason expectations, or is this perception rooted more in myth than reality? The answer is more complicated than one might think.

Looking back at Ferentz’s twenty years at the helm of the Iowa football program, one can certainly see how this perception emerged. Of the six Hawkeye teams ranked in the AP preseason Top 25 during the Ferentz era, only two of these squads finished the year ranked (2004 and 2009). Conversely, five of Ferentz’s teams that started the year unranked finished in the AP Top 25 by the end of the season (2002, 2003, 2008, 2015, 2018), and while the 2001 and 2013 teams failed to crack the Top 25, both were significant surprises and marked huge turnarounds after uncharacteristically poor seasons one year prior. Only two of Ferentz’s twenty Iowa squads have ever started and finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25 (2004 and 2009).

Iowa Football Rankings from Pre to Postseason

Year AP Pre AP High AP Post
Year AP Pre AP High AP Post
1999 X X X
2000 X X X
2001 X X X
2002 X 3 8
2003 X 8 8
2004 19 8 8
2005 11 8 X
2006 16 13 X
2007 X X X
2008 X 20 20
2009 22 7 7
2010 9 9 X
2011 X X X
2012 X X X
2013 X X X
2014 X X X
2015 X 3 9
2016 17 13 X
2017 X 25 X
2018 X 18 25

Although the data certainly supports the case that Ferentz’s teams often struggle to meet high preseason expectations, it also provides evidence to the contrary. First, the 2004 and 2009 teams that started and finished the season ranked not only outperformed their preseason expectations but produced two of the most successful seasons in the Ferentz era. If Ferentz’s teams truly were weighed down by preseason hype, one would have expected these squads to flounder rather than flourish as they did. Furthermore, low expectations alone are clearly not an indicator that Iowa is primed to overachieve or immune from underachieving. The 2012 Hawkeyes were generally predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Legends division in the wake of two consecutive disappointing seasons, yet they managed to underperform even these middling expectations and finish a woeful 4-8.

An alternative explanation for this phenomenon lies not in Ferentz’s coaching, but instead with the national college football media which frequently struggles to properly predict how well Iowa’s football team will perform in any given year. Based on an analysis of programs’ performance relative to their cumulative preseason rankings, Iowa has had eight seasons since 2002 in which it finished ten or more spots away from its original ranking (with all unranked teams being listed as tied for the ranking of 26th). With the exception of USC, no team has had as many divergent performances as the Hawkeyes during this timeframe.

Why is the national media doing such a poor job of properly rating Iowa before each season? The answer likely lies in Iowa’s status as a developmental football program. Unlike the bluebloods of college football which annually compile Top 25 recruiting classes, the Hawkeyes rely on finding diamonds in the rough in high school players that are lightly recruited, but that the coaching staff identifies as having the potential to develop into Big Ten-caliber players. While no program has a 100% success rate in identifying such players, developmental programs like Iowa have significantly less margin for error than most of their Power Five peers, as a few injuries, early departures, or misses in identifying talent can leave such a team dangerously short-handed. On the other hand, a few players who defy national expectations by becoming stars can dramatically change a team’s fortunes for the better.

Does this theory explain why pundits might have a difficult time properly rating Iowa teams during the preseason? To test this, let’s briefly look back at each of the seasons in which Kirk Ferentz’s teams were included in either the pre or postseason AP Top 25 rankings and evaluate why their preseason rankings differed so starkly from their final place in the polls:

2002: (Preseason- NR, Season High- 3rd, Postseason- 8th)

It’s tough to blame the college football media for not seeing this one coming. Yes, the Hawkeyes had made a huge jump from three to seven wins the year before, and Ferentz had landed a few top-tier recruits in Matt Roth and Jermelle Lewis. But nobody could have predicted that Brad Banks would go from virtual unknown to Heisman runner-up, that Dallas Clark was capable of winning the Mackey Award, and that the Hawkeyes would assemble what was arguably the greatest offensive line in program history composed largely of unheralded and under-recruited upperclassmen. This is one of the few seasons in which Ferentz arguably did benefit from low expectations, as opposing coaches could be forgiven for not perceiving the perennially underachieving Hawkeyes as a legitimate threat to win the conference.

2003: (Preseason- NR, Season High- 8th, Postseason- 8th)

Ferentz may have been named the AP’s Coach of the Year one season prior, but its voters clearly had questions about whether he could repeat his performance from 2002 after losing Banks, Clark, and the bulk of his offensive line. The media underestimated the impact returning stars such as Bob Sanders, Robert Gallery, and Fred Russell would have on the team, as well as how quickly Ferentz and his staff could develop young former role players like Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge into full-fledged stars.

2004: Preseason- 19th, Season High- 8th, Postseason- 8th)

Iowa probably would have started more highly ranked had Gallery and Russell returned for their senior seasons. Instead, the Hawkeyes confounded expectations once again, this time by developing a dynamic passing game built around Iowa’s third first-year starting quarterback in as many seasons. Iowa might have met expectations instead of exceeding them had Drew Tate, Clinton Solomon, and Ed Hinkel not all developed into breakout players this season.

2005: Preseason- 11th, Season High- 8th, Postseason- NR)

Iowa had the talent of a double-digit win team in 05, but a defensive line composed entirely of freshmen and sophomores caused early season struggles, while an unfortunate bounce on an onside kick against Northwestern and some…creative officiating in games against Michigan and Florida resulted in three close losses in otherwise winnable games.

2006: Preseason- 16th, Season High, 13th, Postseason- NR)

National pundits clearly saw Iowa’s 2005 season as an anomaly and expected the Hawkeyes to reemerge as a contender in the Big Ten behind Drew Tate, Albert Young, and a more mature defensive line. These predictions not only overlooked the impact of losing top end talent at linebacker, wide receiver, and cornerback, but also failed to account for Iowa’s lack of depth at key positions. Injuries to Tate and Young hampered the offense, while the defense proved unable to reload after losing two All-American linebackers to the NFL.

2008: Preseason- NR, Season High- 20th, Postseason- 20th)

While close observers might have been able to foresee Ricky Stanzi supplanting Jake Christensen at quarterback, no pundit in their right mind could have predicted that Shonn Greene would go from loading furniture trucks to winning the Doak Walker Award in the span of one year. Significant growth by defensive mainstays like Bradley Fletcher and AJ Edds, as well as the unexpected emergence of a star middle linebacker in Pat Angerer, produced one of the best defenses of the Ferentz era from a unit that was full of question marks during the preseason.

2009: Preseason- 22nd, Season High- 7th, Postseason- 7th)

Expectations were depressed by the loss of Greene to the NFL and his capable backup Jewel Hampton to a preseason injury, but freshmen Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher showed they were ready to carry the load far earlier in their careers than pundits expected. Marvin McNutt, a converted quarterback, quickly developed into an instant impact player at wide receiver, Dace Richardson and Tony Moeaki were finally (mostly) healthy, and players who had been capable starters such as Adrian Clayborn, Tyler Sash, and Christian Ballard blossomed into stars.

2010: Preseason- 9th, Season High, 9th, Postseason- NR)

The biggest underachievers of the Ferentz era and a team that could beat anyone (#5 Michigan State, #14 Missouri, #22 Penn State) or lose to anyone (a 3-9 Minnesota team coached by Tim Brewster) on any given Saturday. While the pundits correctly accounted for Ricky Stanzi’s growth as a 3rd-year starting quarterback, Iowa saw its linebackers take a step back with the loss of Angerer and Edds and its offense hamstrung by suspensions to DJK and Adam Robinson late in the year. While the 2010 team had one of the most talented collection of starters in the Ferentz era, it suffered from a serious lack of depth that exposed itself in numerous special team miscues and the inability of tired starters to make plays at the end of close games.

2015: Preseason- NR, Season High- 3rd, Postseason- 9th)

After five consecutive seasons of mediocrity, national pundits almost universally missed the boat on Iowa’s potential in 2015. The Hawkeye linebackers made incredible strides led by the ascendant Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, while Desmond King shattered expectations en route to becoming arguably the greatest cornerback in program history. Boasting impressive (and as it turned out, necessary) depth at running back and along the defensive line, the Hawkeyes fielded an elite defense and a surprisingly competent offense led by CJ Beathard. A number of largely unknown seniors including Nate Meier, Cole Fisher, and Henry Krieger-Coble all unexpectedly developed into essential contributors.

2016: Preseason- 17th, Season High- 13th, Postseason- NR

Expectations were high after Iowa’s success a season earlier but were quickly dashed after a shocking home upset to North Dakota State. Pundits underrated the impact that losing Tevaun Smith’s field-stretching ability would have on the passing game and discounted the lack of depth and athleticism at wide receiver, which became a major concern after the injury of Matt Vandeberg. Iowa’s pass rush struggled to adjust to the loss of Drew Ott and Nate Meier, while new starters along the offensive line had difficulty protecting a less-mobile CJ Beathard.

2018: Preseason- NR, Season High- 18th, Postseason- 25th

AP voters may have seen Noah Fant coming, but they were certainly caught unaware by the development of TJ Hockenson from a capable backup into the nation’s top tight end. Iowa unexpectedly boasted arguably its deepest defensive line in the Ferentz era, greatly lessening the burden on the Hawkeyes’ inexperienced and injury-plagued linebackers and cornerbacks. Iowa’s young offensive tackles, often liabilities after being pressed into service as freshmen the year before, quickly developed into the strength of the offensive line.

Conclusion: Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa teams certainly have a history of underperforming with high expectations and over-performing with low ones, but the explanation for this arguably has as much to do with the media’s inability to properly gauge the win potential of developmental teams like Iowa as it does a flaw in Ferentz’s program. Iowa is one or two unexpected impact players away from a strong season in any given year, but the developmental nature of its program also means it is one or two key injuries away from a potentially transformative season giving way to mediocrity. Preseason polls, which tend to make projections based on players’ past performances rather than their potential for growth, often fail to account for how questions of depth and player development might positively or negatively impact Iowa in any given season. If Iowa manages to live up to or exceed its preseason expectations in 2019, it will likely have little to do with Ferentz’s ability to manage those expectations during the offseason and more to do with his ability to develop new talent and keep it on the field.