Philadelphia, PA – Kirk Ferentz is arguably one of the top coaches in all of college football, but for fans of the Iowa Hawkeyes, it has become every bit of a, "What have you done for me lately?" proposition.
And the honest truth is ... the Hawkeyes haven't been among the top teams in the Big Ten Conference since 2009 when they went 11-2 overall, 6-2 in league play, which included a 24-14 win over Georgia Tech in the 2010 Orange Bowl -- Iowa's first major bowl win since the 1959 Rose Bowl when it defeated California, 38-12, to earn its one and only national championship designation (Grantland Rice Trophy).
Iowa won three straight bowl games following the 2008, '09 and '10 seasons, and appeared in four straight postseason gatherings when factoring in a 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in the second of two consecutive Insight Bowls in 2011. But the Hawkeyes stumbled through a 4-8 campaign in 2012, and it's now been nearly a decade since Ferentz led Iowa to the Big Ten title (2004), and even that was shared. The Hawkeyes' last outright conference crown was way back in 1985.
In an age where double-digit wins and BCS bowl bids are the ultimate measuring stick at the FBS level, Ferentz has just three of the former and one of the latter since taking the reins in Iowa City back in December of 1998 when he succeeded retiring legend Hayden Fry.
Hoping to put the debacle of last season behind them, the spring has brought about a renewed sense of purpose for the Hawkeyes, but questions abound as to just how well they'll perform come the season opener versus visiting Northern Illinois on Aug. 31.
Ferentz spoke recently about the fan reaction to last season, and the expectations for this coming year.
"I realize everybody was disappointed last year. I think disappointed and probably at times frustrated. And I would emphasize nobody more so than the players. They're the ones who work harder than anybody and coaches, as well. So our goal is never to be 4-8 here."
He went on to say, "The one thing I told the guys we got going there in November after the last ball game, you flip the calendar, it's a new year, a new opportunity. That's how we're looking at it. I don't think it's anything magical that's going to take us to where we want to go. It's just a matter of doing the work that you have to do and doing it better and obviously the end result is playing better on Saturdays. That is going to be our goal."
Finding a reliable replacement for departed quarterback James Vandenberg (223- of-389, 2,249 yards, 7 TDs, 8 interceptions) is paramount to any success the Hawkeyes achieve this season, and Ferentz believes that one of the three guys currently vying for the job has what it takes to get it done. Jake Rudock, Cody Sokol and C.J. Beathard each have the ability to lead the team, and the final decision on who will be the starter likely won't occur until later in the summer, but Ferentz is pleased with what he has seen thus far.
"All three are doing good things and have things to work on. We'll try to address those things moving forward," He continued, "At some point, we have to make a decision. We have to make a call, and if it is dead even, you do what you have to do. At some point, you have to get the team ready and there has to be flow and continuity. We'll make the call when it's appropriate and go from there."
Getting more production out of the running game is imperative as well, the team averaging a mere 3.7 yards per attempt in 2012. The return of juniors Mark Weisman (159 carries, 815 yards, 8 TDs) and Damon Bullock (135 carries, 513 yards, 3 TDs) should help, as should a veteran offensive line, with health and continued development being keys to their overall success.
On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa is fortunate to have senior linebackers Anthony Hitchens (Big Ten-best 124 tackles, 5.5 TFL), James Morris (113 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 1 interception) and Christian Kirksey (95 tackles, 4 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions) upon which to rely. The trio should be among the best groups in the country, but having logged a mere 13 sacks as a team last season, getting pressure on the quarterback will be a priority for the UI defense, as will finding someone to take over for All-Big Ten defensive back Micah Hyde (78 tackles, 14 PBU, 1 interception), who was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.
Ferentz, who is the longest tenured coach in the Big Ten at the moment, has won 100 games while at Iowa, but he is just a tad over .500 in conference play. Challenging for the top spot in the Legends Division this fall won't be easy, as Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State will likely be at the top of the heap once again, but finishing ahead of Northwestern and Minnesota is certainly a possibility, and doing that will likely garner the Hawkeyes bowl eligibility for the 12th time in the last 13 years.
Still, a date in lower-tier bowl, while rewarding to a certain extent to the players, is a far cry from battling for league and national supremacy, and with a fan base clamoring for a consistent winner, the writing could be on the wall for Ferentz if his Hawkeyes don't up the ante in a hurry.