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Overreaction Monday: Iowa’s Elite NFL Draft Production Hasn’t Yielded Elite Win Totals

Iowa is among the nation’s best at producing NFL talent. They have just two conference titles and no NCAA Championships to show for it. Yet.

Miami Ohio v Iowa
Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes look to be on the rise.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes are an NFL factory. There’s no longer any debate about that. The Hawkeyes has five players selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, marking the 42nd straight year at least one Hawkeye has been drafted. They also had a first round draft choice when Tristan Wirfs went #13 overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s the second straight year Iowa has had a first rounder - the fourth longest streak in the nation.

In the 20 years under head coach Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has had 75 players drafted. That’s an average of 3.75 players per year. Ten of those 75 have been first round picks. The Hawkeyes have also sent 114 undrafted free agents on to the NFL, an average of 5.7 players per year. That’s a total of 189 players, or roughly 9.5 per year, who have gotten a shot at the NFL under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. Put simply, if you play football at Iowa for your entire career, you’re almost certain to be given an opportunity to play at the next level.

*Note: this graphic predates this year’s draft.

Despite the tremendous success putting players into the NFL, there remains constant consternation around Iowa’s annual win totals. Ferentz has won 162 games in his 20 season, just over 8 wins per season. While most schools would give anything to lock in eight wins per year, they would also do anything to send nearly four players to the NFL every year. There would seem to be some disconnect between the success in churning out players ready for the next level and using those same players to win more games.

There is. Iowa is 18th nationally with those 75 draft picks over the last 20 years. That’s right behind Penn State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Auburn, just ahead of Stanford, Nebraska, Texas and Oregon. Really good company. Despite that, the Hawkeyes are well outside the top-20 in wins over that time. Perhaps more importantly, they have just two conference titles and haven’t sniffed a national championship in that same time period. Elite NFL production from the staff has not translated to elite win production.

Iowa’s not alone in this, however. Since 2000, only ten teams have won a national championship.

  • Alabama (2017, 2015, 2012, 2011, 2009)
  • LSU (2019, 2007, 2003)
  • Ohio State (2014, 2002)
  • Clemson (2018, 2016)
  • Florida (2008, 2006)
  • Florida State (2013)
  • Auburn (2010)
  • Texas (2005)
  • USC (2004)
  • Miami (2001)
  • Oklahoma (2000)

It’s a virtual who’s who of college football. It’s also nearly entirely made of of teams from the south. The Big Ten is represented just once, as are the PAC-12 and Big 12, while the ACC has three winners and the SEC has four.

Perhaps even more telling is the dispersion of Big Ten titles. While seven different schools have won a conference championship since 2000, only one has won more than three: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won nine titles in 20 seasons. That’s as many as the next three teams, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State (with 3 each), have won combined. The Hawkeyes’ two titles ties them with Michigan while Illinois has the other.

Put simply, there are the haves and the have nots of college football. The haves have a lot. The have nots do not. The haves win conference and national titles. The have nots do not. The haves send a ton of guys to the NFL. The have nots do not. The haves get the top recruits. The have nots do not.

Except that Iowa, Wisconsin and a handful of other programs buck the trend. They don’t win the national titles. They don’t have top recruiting classes. Yet they still churn out top NFL talent. The common thread is quite evident: they’re have nots who have shaped their identity around player development. Iowa and Wisconsin are perennially among the top programs in terms of wins per recruiting ranking.

The wins are there, just not at an elite level. And as much as it may seem like the sheer volume of NFL players produced by Iowa should make them elite in the win column, there’s more to the story. Despite producing a lot of NFL draft picks and undrafted free agents, Iowa isn’t putting out a ton of top end picks. The Hawkeyes have had just 10 first rounders in 20 years. Ohio State, by contrast, has had 31. The average round for Iowa’s 75 draftees has been 3.81, or late third round.

That context changes the narrative. It fits with everything else we know about Iowa. The Hawkeyes are tremendous at finding under the radar recruits who fit their program and developing them into NFL-ready players. That’s precisely what the numbers on wins per recruiting ranking tell us.

Those players are typically not being drafted at the top of drafts, but more Hawkeyes are getting chances because NFL GMs know Iowa guys are NFL-ready. They’ve been in a pro system. They’ve practiced in an efficient, NFL-style practice. They understand fundamentals and technique. They’ve had too. They’ve always been smaller, slower and less athletic. That’s why they ended up at Iowa in the first place.

But what if that changed? What if Iowa’s reputation as an NFL factory was able to get them access to more of those athletes on the recruiting trail? We saw with players like Tristan Wirfs and Noah Fant what the Iowa system can do to true athletes who put in the work: they become 1st rounders who make millions of dollars.

Since the updated recruiting calendar with a December signing date, Iowa’s national recruiting rankings have been on the rise from the mid- to upper-50s historically, to the low-40s and up to 35th nationally according to Rivals in 2020. Now in 2021, Iowa is working on a top-10 class. It’s far from over, but this group is almost certain to finish higher than a season ago and may be the best since the 2005 group.

Recruiting isn’t everything in college football, but for a program like Iowa which has managed to do everything else needed to overcome recruiting struggles, it’s easy to see the benefits of an uptick in that realm. Developing more athletic, higher-rated players for 3-4 years rather than spending two years shaping bodies into 4-star athletes first gives programs like Ohio State an incredible advantage. That will never fully go away, but if Iowa is ever going to have a chance at turning their strong history of winning into an site one, they’ve got to level the playing field a little. If not, the NFL talent will continue to yield only good NCAA results. But what we’re seeing in the class of 2021 appears to provide hope Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes could reach new heights.