CHICAGO — In the penultimate question asked to Kirk Ferentz at Big Ten Media Days a year ago, a member of the media whose name has not been preserved for posterity had the audacity to suggest that the Iowa Hawkeyes, coming off a five-year stretch over which they’d averaged 6.8 wins, might not be too exciting in 2015.
At the time, Ferentz was about to begin his 17th season in Iowa City, his winning percentage a perfectly acceptable—although maybe not exciting—.575. The coach took the question in stride, issuing a stream of banalities. We’ve been competing for Big Ten championships almost every year, we’ve got to develop, we’re very excited, we’ve got to take each step along the way. The exchange was hardly noteworthy.
Until, of course, the Hawkeyes won their first four games, all nonconference. Next came an excruciating 10–6 victory over then No. 19 Wisconsin. Maybe that was exciting. Or maybe it took a 40–10 walloping of Northwestern two weeks later. Or maybe it was the next five wins, which made 12 in total at the end of November and sent Iowa to the Big Ten championship game. O.K., yes, that’s exciting, even if you’d never heard of a single player on the Hawkeyes’ roster at the time, even if their schedule might have been a smidge easy—even though they went on to lose the conference title game and Rose Bowl. Give them exciting, O.K.?
So when Ferentz and company arrived in Chicago this year, there was no suggestion that the 2016 Hawkeyes would bore. Instead, there were questions of who last year’s team really was—the 12–0 squad or the one that collapsed in December and on New Year’s Day—and who it could be once it’s no longer a surprise.
“It’s not about [being] the hunter; we’re [not] sneaking up on people and things like that,” senior cornerback Desmond King said Tuesday. “Now we’re the team that’s being hunted. People want to play us. People want to beat us. The four trophy games that we have—Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska—they have empty trophy cases over there.”
Although it lost 22 seniors from a year ago, Iowa does bring back its quarterback, senior C.J. Beathard, and King, an All-America who considered departing for the NFL in January after a season in which he logged eight interceptions and 13 passes defended. It didn’t take King long to make his decision, though—he announced his intention four days after the Rose Bowl—and Beathard also gave the Hawkeyes good news this winter, recovering from a sports hernia and torn groin that plagued him for much of last fall.
Beathard and King have assumed leadership roles on a team that’s irked by how it went out a year ago. After playing in—and winning—five one-possession games in the regular season, there’s a sense among some Iowa players that the group got a touch complacent in the Big Ten championship, which it lost to Michigan State by—you got it—one possession, 16–13. Thus ended its run, except of course that there was still the Rose Bowl to be played—although it’s debatable to what extent Iowa really participated in the 45–16 disaster at the hands of Stanford.
“What we did last year, we get zero credit for,” Ferentz said. “Nobody really cares at this point. … It was historic in that we won 12 games, but we also lost two. We’ve got ownership to both of those games.”
And so for six months, Iowa has been the undefeated underdog and the postseason bust. Players and coaches have wondered what they could have done differently, be it a play or a philosophy. Ferentz admits that in the future, he’ll consider pushing the team’s departure up from nine days before its bowl to closer to game day. Beathard refuses to think of anything beyond winning a postseason game—the Hawkeyes have gone 0–4 since winning the Insight Bowl in 2010—not the combine, not the NFL, not how he’ll spend winter vacation. The focus of the off-season has been to look forward; coaches didn’t want players to be haunted by the losses or the few seconds that separated them from a playoff berth and a shot at perfection.
“The fact is, we were one play away,” Ferentz says. “If we can get back in that arena again, can we come up with that play? … I certainly have never been 14–0, never associated with a team that [was]. If I ever get that honor, certainly there will be things to learn from that, too.”
There’s no denying it: Iowa is still a sort of upstart, without the polish, swagger or pedigree of a Michigan or an Ohio State. Players don’t boast about how the system will keep rolling with new, inexperienced players. They don’t look you in the eye and tell you they’re contenders. But that’s because there is no proven, successful system, and they’re not much for boasting. They simply take credit. What they will tell you is that they built this. They looked at a stretch of mediocrity and they vowed to change the culture.
“Last year, the success that we had, it was the team,” King said. “The team made that happen. We didn’t have anybody tell us anything. The team felt that we needed a change in the atmosphere, that we had to come together as a team and lead.”
King committed to play for a school that had gone 4–8 the year before. Beathard was a last-minute pickup for a program coming off a 7–6 season. The faces of the 2016 Hawkeyes weren’t just cogs in a machine; they bought into a coach and an upswing, and they’re not there yet. It’s bowl win or bust in Iowa City, and if you’ll notice, no one had the gall to suggest to Ferentz this year that his team might be anything less than its own brand of exciting.