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Iowa Football and the Must-Win Season Opener

On important games, tipping points, and referendums.

Iowa football and Kirk Ferentz are at a crossroads.
Iowa football and Kirk Ferentz are at a crossroads.
David Banks

My initial reaction, upon seeing this tweet, and thinking about the the issues it raised (which I'd been doing myself for a few days before I saw said tweet) was that this year's opener is Iowa's most important season opening game ever under Kirk Ferentz. That feels a little hyperbolic to me... but it also feels kind of true. Because this is a big game, no? It truly does seem like a game fraught with a great deal of meaning for Kirk Ferentz's Iowa tenure.

On the heels of a 4-8 season that included a 6-game losing streak to end the year, the mood around Hawkeye football seems a bit dour. And if the mood among Hawkeye fans is a bit dour, the mood among outside observers is downright macabre. The clichéd sentiment among Iowa fans has always been that Ferentz's Iowa teams are at their best when they're under the radar, but this year's Iowa team is not just under the radar when it comes to pundits and analysts -- it's under the ground, in a pine box, pushing up daisies. Iowa is a consensus pick for 5th or 6th in the Legends Division (alongside Minnesota) and several analysts are forecasting another losing season for Iowa. This is not terribly surprising: Iowa went 4-8 a year ago, returns no true star players, will be starting a quarterback who's never attempted a snap before at this level, and added no game-changing transfers or 5* recruits. There are ample reasons to be skeptical of Iowa this season.

Confidence in the Iowa football program has been badly shaken by recent events. Confidence in Kirk Ferentz and his abilities as a head coach has been shaken, among both national observers and Hawkeye fans. Confidence in Greg Davis' offense at Iowa, never very strong to begin with among many Iowa fans and outside observers, is even more tenuous after the dumpster fire display a year ago. Ferentz engineered not one, but two turnarounds for Iowa football, highlighted by a pair of trips to the Orange Bowl seven years apart. But doubt lingers about his ability to engineer one more turnaround. Kirk Ferentz is in this third (and likely final) act at Iowa -- is there a happy ending coming, or are we looking at a long, painful, and expensive slide into irrelevance and obsolescence?

Given the circumstances surrounding this particular Iowa team, this game would be critical for this Iowa team, regardless of the opponent. Iowa needs a win. Iowa lost their last six games a year ago. They last won a game on October 13, 2012. By the time they take the field on Saturday, it will have been 322 days since Iowa last won a football game. It's the longest losing streak for Ferentz at Iowa since 99-00, when Iowa lost 13 straight games (the final 8 games of the 1999 season and the first 5 games of the 2000 season). It's hard to argue that, from an on-field standpoint, this is the lowest point for Iowa football since those grim early days of Ferentz's tenure.

The fact that the opponent is Northern Illinois, a team coming off a 12-2 season and an appearance (and loss) in the Orange Bowl adds yet another layer of intrigue to the proceedings. This is not an FCS punching bag showing up to snatch its paycheck and take its beating. This is a good team, a dangerous team. This is also not just a talented team, but a team with a chip on its shoulder -- they want to avenge their only regular season loss from a year ago. They're decidedly not the sort of team that you'd draw up if you were in charge of scheduling for a team that desperately needs to get a win in this game. (In that scenario, you'd probably pick a team like Missouri State... Iowa's Week 2 opponent.)

This is also a game packed with meaning for not just Kirk Ferentz, but for several other coaches and players on Iowa. As I noted earlier, confidence in Greg Davis and his offensive schemes is not particularly high among many fans and observers. (Personally, I'm trying to retain optimistic that new coaches and players more equipped to his system will help, but... I need to see something, you know?) This game is his first chance to prove that last year's offensive problems were not systemic, but rather that they were the result of a general lack of buy-in, comprehension among, and suitability for Iowa's players and coaches.

This game is meaningful for Jake Rudock, named Iowa's new starting quarterback last week. After last year's QB nightmare, the tolerance for any QB's struggles this year is going to be pretty low -- perhaps even moreso for a player that some are already skeptical of since he (for whatever reason; at this point it doesn't really matter) wasn't able to earn any playing time last year, even as James Vandenberg fell to pieces. If he struggles, the calls for a backup will be deafening. (If he impresses, fans will probably still gripe, but mainly about why Iowa didn't play him at all last year; that's a problem I wouldn't mind dealing with this year since it would mean that we'd be seeing actual good quarterback play).

This game is also meaningful for Iowa's defense, particularly the defensive line. The defense wasn't lambasted as much as the offense last year (mostly because, for the most part, they were simply mediocre rather than putrid), but the defensive line was a significant weak point, and that's a crippling problem for a defensive scheme that relies as heavily on the defensive line as Iowa's does. Iowa's success (or failure) in 2013 may depend as much on the defensive line's ability to improve as it does on the quarterback's ability to run Iowa's offense with something approaching competence. But, again, Northern Illinois is hardly the team you'd draw up as a first-game opponent for a defense that needs to prove itself.

In Jordan Lynch, NIU has a talented QB who can make plays with his arms and his feet; a year ago he completed 60% of his passes and threw for 3138 yards and 25 TDs against 6 INTs; he also ran for a staggering 1815 yards and 19 TDs. Against Iowa a year ago, making his first start, Lynch went 6/16 for 54 yards and ran for 119 yards and a touchdown (with much of that coming on a 73-yard TD run). He improved considerably from that point, especially through the air and bears a disturbing resemblance to the types of quarterbacks at Indiana and Northwestern that have bedeviled Ferentz-led Iowa teams for years. Lynch also benefits from operating behind a big, experienced offensive line (it returns all five starters from a year ago), which isn't going to help Iowa's young, inexperienced defensive line too much. Philosophically, NIU isn't a team that plays to Iowa's strengths, either; they're not among the fastest-paced team in the NCAA, but they move at a good clip (41st in the nation, per Football Study Hall) and they use a lot of no huddle; these are things Iowa's defense has struggled against in the past.

Historically, Iowa teams under Ferentz are slow starters. He fully embraces a developmental model, wherein his teams are better at the end of November than they are at the beginning of September (although that hasn't really been true of any Iowa team in practice since 2008). Iowa has a 12-game winning streak in season openers at the moment, but they've been able to accomplish that streak while still being slow starters by not challenging themselves much in season openers. They haven't played a team from a BCS conference since 2000 and any legitimate threats they've had to deal with have been surprises (Miami (OH) 2003, UNI 2009, Northern Illinois 2012); it wasn't until weeks later that we grasped the notion that those Miami (OH) and Northern Illinois teams weren't the usual MAC pushovers. This year's Northern Illinois team is not a surprise, though. They're fresh off a 12-win season and a trip to the Orange Bowl, they return several players from that team (including Lynch, their most important player), and they're a known quantity to fans and pundits (NIU isn't ranked, but they are in the "others receiving votes" category of both the AP and USA Today/Coaches Polls). Iowa can't afford to start too slowly this year; NIU is certainly good enough to exploit Iowa's mistakes.

The last time Iowa missed a bowl game (2007), they came out the next year with their proverbial hair on fire -- they beat Maine and Florida International by a combined score of 88-3. All due respect to Maine and Florida International... but this year's Northern Illinois team ain't them. They're a much more experienced, much more talented squad than those teams. Those teams were the perfect opponents for a team that needed to gain confidence and learn how to win. (That was also an Iowa team that looks a bit more talented than this 2013 team; not many people are likely to mistake Mark Weisman, Dominic Alvis, Drew Ott, and John Lowdermilk for Shonn Greene, Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, and Tyler Sash.)

In many ways, this game feels like a referendum on Iowa football at the moment -- on its coaches, on its players, on its schemes. Obviously, win or lose, this game alone isn't going to decide Iowa's season. Win or lose, Iowa will still have 11 games remaining on the schedule and ample opportunities to prove itself (for better or worse). By itself this game isn't going to decide Jake Rudock's fate at Iowa. It isn't going to decide Greg Davis' fate at Iowa. And it isn't going to decide Kirk Ferentz's fate at Iowa, either. And it's also true that a win here probably means less than a loss would; if Iowa wins this game but loses a third straight to Iowa State, any grumbles that are quieted by this game will probably return even louder.

But a loss could be a tipping point, both for this particular season and for Ferentz's tenure at Iowa. If a loss in this game snowballs into another dismal season (and given the way the schedule is laid out, that isn't inconceivable), things could get messy -- for Ferentz and for Iowa. Most plausible paths for an Iowa return to bowl eligibility in 2013 involve Iowa ending September with at least 4 wins; losing this game would reduce Iowa's margin of error to zero and would make both the Iowa State game and the Minnesota games must-wins in order to hit that 4-win target. Fail to do that and Iowa's going to need to pull out more than one upset in B1G play to get to six wins; in the past, Ferentz-led teams have usually been good for one solid upset in league play, but getting multiple upsets could be a tough ask for this team.

And, again, a loss here isn't going to cost Ferentz his job -- not directly, anyway. But Ferentz's job security is tied both to his massive buyout and the fact that, despite several years of underachievement and mounting losses, Iowa fans have been slow to turn on the football product. For years, tickets continued to sell briskly and so long as that was the case, there was little incentive for Gary Barta to contemplate change. But cracks have begun to show this year: ticket sales haven't been bad, but they've been more sluggish than normal -- this is the first season in years where so many single game tickets for Big Ten games have been available this late in the process. Another ugly season could easily exacerbate that problem and at some point the decline in ticket revenues in Iowa's biggest cash cow could force Barta's hand (just as the decline in ticket revenue for Iowa's second-biggest cash cow forced him to take drastic measures there). I don't know when exactly we might hit that point, but we may find out sooner rather than later if Iowa has another miserable season. But even if Ferentz is able to survive another bad season this year, the pressure will be heaped up even higher on him to turn things around in 2014.

So yeah -- it feels like there's a lot riding on this game. In five years, when we're writing about the third act of Kirk Ferentz's Iowa football tenure, I think there's a very good chance that we'll look at this game as a harbinger of things to come. If Ferentz is able to turn around Iowa's fortunes (again) and lead Iowa to one more run of success, there's a decent chance that we'll point to this game as the one that set that turnaround in motion. And if Ferentz continues to stumble and Iowa falters to a few more losing seasons, there's a good shot that we'll point to this game as one where the slide became almost impossible to stop. Iowa's won 12 season openers in a row -- but getting lucky #13 looks like the most important one yet.