Can the 2020 season represent one of KF’s best coaching jobs and simultaneously be a little disappointing as well? Insert James Earl Jones’ baritone: Yes, yes it can.
First, the negative because, well, I couldn’t yell at Brian Ferentz myself. The Hawkeyes were locked and loaded at every position this year, with the notable exception of quarterback. Iowa boasted electric playmakers at the skill positions, stout line play, Phil Parker’s typical punishing defense, and reliable specialists. The linebackers, a preseason question mark, progressed throughout the season (in a KF pantheon compliment, he compared Jack Campbell to Chad Greenway). Other than the Spencer Petras experience, there were no identifiable weaknesses on Iowa’s roster this year. The talent was there for a Big Ten West championship, at the very least. Instead, Brian Ferentz did his best Air Raid impression against jNW (we got the “Spencer Penis” experience, lucky us) and our Hawkeyes were effectively eliminated from West contention in week two. Within the Go Iowa Awesome Slack channel, there were rumblings about whether the jNW loss presaged a Hayden-esque ending for KF.
And then KF did what KF always does, particularly when our Hawkeyes appear on the verge of imminent collapse. In all too predictable Ferentz fashion (why am I still surprised after two plus decades?), he uncorked one of his tenure’s most impressive win streaks, dispensing with those pesky retirement questions in the process. During Iowa’s six game win streak, the Hawkeyes ripped through the conference like, ahem, a derecho. It was complementary football at its best, even allowing for Petras’ quota of one ghastly interception per week. By season’s end, Iowa was the conference’s second best team (while, sigh, second in the West).
And while I lament Iowa’s bridesmaid finish (I mean, 50 passes against jNW? With a hyperventilating quarterback?), KF and company deserve credit for successfully navigating this challenging season. Following the jNW defeat and Smith-Marsette arrest, I wondered whether KF was losing his team. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots—program defining turmoil this summer, a forced staff shake-up, two gut-punch losses to West rivals, and now a Halloween night mug shot featuring your star WR. With Sparty rolling into Iowa City following its impressive (at the time) Michigan takedown, I thought 0-3 was a real possibility (and if I am being completely honest, I thought 0-5 was on the table). And while part of me considers this season a once a century write-off, an 0-for-November would have prompted the inevitable screaming headlines—Has KF Lost His Team? What Does This Lost Season Mean For Ferentz’s Future?
Instead, in an impressive display of coaching and player buy-in (particularly after the substantiated allegations of bullying/racial turmoil), Iowa barnstormed its way through the BIG following its sputtering start. Iowa was second in the league in points per game (yes, look it up) while Phil Parker’s defense was its typical Scrooge self, particularly against all opponents not named Purdue. And even without Keith Duncan blowing kisses (perhaps a timely clap will do) to Scott Frost, the special teams were, indeed, special.
Buttressing the Hawkeyes’ impressive turnaround, there was a level of player buy-in, suggesting that Iowa’s culture is healthier than you, or I, thought. Iowa’s NFL prospects opted in for every game (contrast that with Northwestern’s Rashwan Slater, Penn State’s Micah Parsons, and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman). And Iowa, unlike most of its conference brethren, completed its entire regular season without a COVID cancellation. In a year where COVID prompted the postponement/cancellation of hundreds of college football games, the Hawkeyes avoided the type of COVID outbreak that felled countless football teams, suggesting a level of discipline, cohesion, and leadership within the program. Hawkeyes coaches and players deserve plaudits for getting through the season mostly COVID unscathed.
The ingredients—a worsening pandemic, lingering program dissension, and extinguished division hopes—were there for a 2-6 clunker. And following the latest dispiriting loss to jNW, I was mentally preparing myself to slog through the latest Hawkeye football season. But KF and company pulled the ultimate exotic, resurrecting what looked like a dismal campaign into a top-15 season. And while this season can’t be considered an unqualified season because, well, jNW, this year’s squad could have mailed it in, particularly after its division hopes were dashed. Instead, the Hawkeyes Eurostepped and backflipped their way into one of Kirk’s most memorable and, dare I say it, impressive teams.