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Iowa Football Is a Program at a Crossroads

Can Iowa make the changes needed to stay competitive in a changing sport without losing its core identity?

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Iowa v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Iowa’s Big Ten title hopes ended with a whimper last Friday night as the heavily favored Hawkeyes lost to the hapless Nebraska Cornhuskers 24-17. Iowa’s defeat was shocking given how poorly Nebraska has played this season, the Huskers’ recent record of futility against Iowa, and the stakes at play for Iowa entering this game. Yet somehow Iowa missing the Big Ten Championship due to such a loss seemed almost fitting—after all, as elite as the Hawkeye defense has been in 2022, there is no reason an offense as atrocious as Iowa’s should be able to win a divisional championship, even in a division as weak as the Big Ten West was this season. Given the mediocrity of so many of Iowa’s divisional rivals this year, Iowa’s fans and coaches may look back on the team’s failure to muster an offense competent enough to win the West as a glaring missed opportunity.

Iowa has experienced several disappointments like this during head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 24 years running the program, but they have never kept the team down for long. The Hawkeyes have been nothing if not steady under Ferentz’s leadership. Iowa has seen sustained periods of both success and mediocrity during Ferentz’s tenure, but they never seem to last as long as fans think they should or fear they might. Just when it seems that Ferentz has finally cracked the code to sustained greatness or that his house of cards is about to collapse, the Hawkeyes manage to revert to what they’ve always been under his leadership: a team that is consistently good, occasionally great, and frustrating to watch even when they’re winning.

Yet at the end of the 2022 regular season, Iowa football finds itself at a crossroads which could determine whether the program is bound for another run of success or a serious bout of decline. While this statement could seemingly apply to any offseason for any team, there are specific factors at play for Iowa which will make the next handful of months particularly important for the program’s trajectory. Kirk Ferentz, athletic director Gary Barta, and the entire football program must fully commit to doing what it takes to put together an offense built for the 21st century, lest the Hawkeyes risk being left behind in amidst the seismic changes taking place in both the Big Ten and college football at large.

Iowa’s offensive futility has been covered extensively, but the facts bear repeating here. A year after winning the Big Ten West despite having one of the worst offenses in the country, the Hawkeyes doubled down on their existing coaching staff, personnel, and offensive philosophy only for the offense to become even worse. Iowa is ranked 123rd of 131 teams in scoring offense at 17.4 points per game and is behind only the 2-10 New Mexico Lobos in in yards per game with 255.4. The Hawkeyes have the Big Ten’s worst rushing offense as measured by yards per carry (2.92) and per game (97.25), are ahead of only Rutgers in passing yards per game (158.2), and have given up more tackles for loss (83) and sacks (37) than nearly any team in the conference. Despite being so complex that underclassmen regularly struggle to master its concepts, Iowa’s offense is so eminently predictable that opposing teams can accurately predict the Hawkeyes’ plays. Aside from tight end Sam LaPorta, the Hawkeye offense does not have a single player that will sniff First Team All-Big Ten honors this year. The offense spent much of the year as a national punchline, and its futility helped toxify Iowa’s brand while spurring significant negative recruiting against the team’s offensive targets.

Amidst this offensive decline, Iowa football faces changing landscapes both nationally and in their own backyard. 2023 will be the final year of the current East/West divisional split, and while it is unclear how the Big Ten will handle scheduling once USC and UCLA join the conference in 2024, Iowa probably won’t be able to benefit from playing the West’s bottom-feeders every year. While West division is usually stronger than national pundits give it credit for, Iowa has undoubtedly benefitted from avoiding playing the heavyweights of the East on a yearly basis. The Hawkeyes have played Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State in a combined four regular season games since 2018. While Iowa may have been able to regularly win nine games using WWII-era offensive tactics against Big Ten West teams who employ similar play styles, the Hawkeyes may find themselves needing to score more points to keep up with offenses led by coaches like Ryan Day, Lincoln Riley, and Chip Kelly. Iowa’s recent losses to Michigan and Ohio State are proof positive that the program cannot win championships with defense alone, and the program is at risk of experiencing more games like these should matchups against the Wolverines and Buckeyes become more common occurrences.

Meanwhile, many of the programs in Iowa’s immediate neighborhood appear to be on the upswing. Nebraska and Wisconsin appear to be making strong head coaching hires in Matt Rhule and Luke Fickell, Illinois has become a competent program once again under Brett Bielema, and Purdue and Minnesota will remain competitive as long as Jeff Brohm and PJ Fleck are on the sidelines. Not only could the Hawkeyes find fewer easy wins in the years to come, but Iowa may face a more challenging regional recruiting landscape with these programs on the upswing, to say nothing of a competent Iowa State program. Iowa has assembled excellent recruiting classes over the past few years, but will they be able to attract the necessary skill talent if their offense continues to struggle relative to nearby programs?

NIL and the transfer portal have reshaped the face of college football recruiting and given players and recruits unprecedented leverage and mobility, allowing them greater freedom to control their own athletic careers. This Spring, Iowa lost wide receivers Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy Jr. to divisional rival Purdue in the transfer portal due to concerns surrounding how those players were being utilized in the offense. Jones immediately blossomed into one of the country’s most productive receiving threats while Iowa’s horrendous passing game became even worse in his absence. On the other hand, Iowa was the least active Big Ten team in the transfer portal in 2022. The Hawkeyes’ sole transfer was Steven Stilianos, a tight end (hardly a position of need) from an FCS school who was largely used as a blocker this season and was supplanted on the depth chart by a true freshman by year’s end. Meanwhile, it remains unclear how the Hawkeyes plan to compete with schools who can offer prized recruits big money NIL deals, though fans may find the answer to that question soon thanks to rumors of Oregon sniffing around 5* Iowa commit Kadyn Proctor. Given Iowa’s urgent need to upgrade its offense, it is critical for the Hawkeyes to find a way to retain their current skill talent while also using NIL and the transfer portal to attract new players, even if it means the athletic department and coaching staff overcoming their stated skepticism and fully embracing these tools to do so.

To be clear, none of these factors necessarily signal Iowa’s demise or the end of the Kirk Ferentz era. Ferentz has shown remarkable resilience in the face of adversity: rebuilding the program from the post-Hayden Fry depths, weathering the City Boyz, Inc. and rhabdomyolysis scandals, restoring fan trust in the program with a 12-0 regular season in 2015, and handling the twin storms of COVID-19 and investigations into racial bias in 2020. He has seen countless new “flavor of the month” coaches threaten to conquer the Big Ten and has outlasted them all. Iowa’s consistency and commitment to its core identity have arguably been its greatest assets during Ferentz’s tenure, imbuing the program with deep institutional memory and allowing it to use its stability as a recruiting pitch. If Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes spend the next three years as serious Big Ten title contenders, it certainly would not be without precedent.

However, the Iowa football program must also recognize the precarious nature of its current situation. Iowa’s offense needs the kind of fixing only a cleansing fire can provide, which may require Kirk to part ways with his son/offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, rethink the fundamentals of his offense, and embrace the trappings of modern recruitment and roster-building to fast track the rebuilding process. Iowa has a favorable schedule next season and should have another championship-caliber defense in tow. Given the massive uncertainty surrounding the next few years, it would be criminal for the coaching staff not to do everything it can to assemble an offense good enough to make one final push for a divisional title. For all his perceived stubbornness, Kirk Ferentz has also proven capable of altering his approach when the situation calls for it, such as embracing “New Kirk” and abandoning some of his more conservative coaching tendencies, adopting the 4-2-5 base defense, and making much-needed cultural changes in the wake of conversations surrounding racial bias. If Iowa wants to win the West next season and set the program up for another bout of sustained success, its leadership must prove that it is willing to continue evolving, even if doing so means stepping outside their comfort zone.