Back in 1997, Iowa had some talent. The Hawkeyes had Tavian Banks in the backfield and Tim Dwight at receiver, with Matt Sherman under center and Jared Devries on defense. On October 18, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 15 and traveling to Ann Arbor for a date with the then-undefeated Wolverines, and a Dwight punt return late in the first half put the Hawks ahead 21-7 at halftime.
And then the wheels came off. Michigan tied the game 12 minutes into the third quarter, and a late pass interference call kept the eventual game-winning drive going, as the Wolverines won 28-24. Iowa had already lost to Ohio State the previous week, and the Big Ten title dream was effectively over. Michigan went on to win the national championship. Iowa lost November road games at Wisconsin and Northwestern, falling out of the top 25 entirely. That team arrived at the Sun Bowl against Arizona State and went through the motions in a 17-7 loss.
Hayden Fry's once-vaunted offense had sputtered to a halt in the second half of the year; Iowa averaged just 15 points per game in its final four contests. As his health had worsened, his recruiting had become increasingly reliant on local talent and 'projects,' and his core of top-tier talent -- Banks, Dwight, Sherman, Devries -- left or graduated during the offseason. Fry's 1998 team, devoid of those top guys, went 3-8, and Fry announced his retirement in late November.
Iowa was curbstomped Friday in the Taxslayer Bowl, limping to a 45-28 defeat against a far faster, stronger and more talented Tennessee Volunteers squad in Jacksonville. The Vols jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the game's first 18 minutes and coasted to the finish, and Iowa scored 21 fourth quarter points to narrow an otherwise-embarrassing margin.
The coaching staff's decision to rotate quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Jake Rudock left the Hawkeyes looking even more discombobulated than usual; the Iowa quarterbacks combined to go 14/30 for 159 yards, two late touchdowns and an interception thrown by Beathard. Junior halfback Jordan Canzeri was a bright spot, running for 120 yards after taking over for Mark Weisman, who piled up just ten yards on seven carries. Defensively, Iowa had no response for the power running of Jalen Hurd, who ran for 122 yards, or the dual threat of quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who racked up 205 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.
The talent gap between Iowa and Tennessee was staggering. In a January where fellow Big Ten members Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska went up against opponents rich in recruiting stars and played them to an effective draw, Iowa looked comically slow on both sides of the ball. Again, Iowa continued to run the outside zone. Again, an ESPN announcer -- this time Rod Gilmore, filling in for Chris Spielman and Joey Galloway before him -- asked why Iowa was playing to the perimeter with such a lack of speed. Again, Iowa just kept doing it.
All the talent in the world could not make up for Iowa's dysfunction on Friday, though. Kick returner Jonathan Parker fielded a bouncing kickoff in the corner, tiptoed along the sideline, then attempted a forward pass. The play was genius and more than a little illegal.
A short, illegal forward pass on a kickoff return has Greg Davis' name all over it.
— Ace Anbender (@AceAnbender) January 2, 2015
Later, a tipped pass fell to three Iowa players, who tackled each other and watched the ball drop to the ground.
That play included two seniors, one a multiple-year starter.
The national media, which has largely been able to ignore Iowa for the last few years, finally got a good look at what it has become and turned it into a punch line.
Iowa doesn't deserve such shabby treatment. There. I said it.
— Chris Dobbertean (@ChrisDobbertean) January 2, 2015
Well, that KO return explains it: All along, Iowa believed it was playing a different sport.
— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) January 2, 2015
Iowa football. https://t.co/CTBxUBLxXI
— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) January 2, 2015
Current state of Iowa football pic.twitter.com/U4j3F7Vf0K
— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) January 2, 2015
I'm a human piñata in the ESPN newsroom, right now. Thanks, Kirk. pic.twitter.com/2nLl2jyUSo
— Chris Hassel (@hasselESPN) January 2, 2015
Has had 1 winning season in BigTen play in last 5 yrs RT @darrenrovell: Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz is due a $525,000 longevity bonus in 29 days
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) January 2, 2015
The locals weren't much more complimentary.
Butch Jones is red-faced yelling at dudes on the sideline. Iowa is trying to catch butterflies. AND THEN THAT THING PARKER JUST DID.
— marcmorehouse (@marcmorehouse) January 2, 2015
And so ends the 2014 season, not with a bang but with LOLZ.
The Hawkeyes finish 7-6, with a 4-4 record in the Big Ten despite not playing the two conference teams that participated in Big 6 bowls. They graduate an Outland Trophy winner, three other players that should get serious attention from the NFL, a four-year starter at wide receiver that set the program record for receptions on Friday, a three-year starter at halfback and potentially a quarterback. There are not obvious answers at any of those positions, just as there are question marks at free safety, middle linebacker, outside linebacker, and the interior line. Barring a January miracle, there will be exactly two consensus four-star recruits on the 2015 roster, and neither of them has ever started a game at Iowa. The places where Ferentz made coaching changes two and three years ago -- offensive coordinator, linebackers, running backs, special teams -- are markedly worse than they were under their predecessors, another string of poor decisions by a head coach who hasn't been challenged since Joe Philbin left. This is the dumpster fire, people. There is nothing good here.
At the beginning of the season, we hoped that this season would be the beginning of the upswing toward a third Ferentz revival. With the level of NFL talent spattered across the roster, it wasn't inconceivable. But any hope of a turnaround with this roster, a roster devoid of top talent that is now clearly being coached to fail, is effectively dead. It died with the Iowa State loss, the Minnesota debacle, the Nebraska implosion. It died with 2013, where Iowa posted eight wins but was clearly behind the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan State, programs it used to dominate. It publicly died in 2012, when Penn State so clearly showed that the game had moved on and left Iowa behind.
Coaches and athletic directors get fired for what you saw Friday, but Ferentz is not simply a coach. The man is an institution, and so we likely have to live through another year of this. We're not reliving 2009-2010. We're reliving 1997-98, and it's not over yet.