Back at our old stomping grounds on SB Nation, one of my favorite traditions was Bill Connelly's annual team-by-team breakdown of every single dang team in the FBS. It's a great way to learn more about teams in advance of the coming season -- and a heck of a way to kill time while we wait for the football season to return. It's also a herculean task that's only gotten more challenging as more teams have been added to the top division (128, at last count). He's back at it again this year and today his preview series hit our beloved Hawkeyes. So what does Bill have to say about Iowa in 2017?
We’ve had fun at SB Nation with the length of Ferentz’s contract extension(s), but there’s no questioning the relationship between steadiness in the administration and steadiness on the field. Fry and Ferentz have led Iowa to 30 bowls and 16 ranked finishes in 38 years. The program had undergone a nearly two-decade spiral since the fiery Forest Evashevski had moved from head coach to athletic director, and now it is the stablest entity in college football. Fry and Ferentz are living proof that you don’t have to fire a coach after a bad season or recruiting cycle, that coaches can find their way back to the path.
For better or worse, that “path” for Ferentz is an eight-win season. He drifts from them — three seasons of 10-plus wins from 2002-04, two six-win seasons in 2006-07, 11-2 in 2009, 4-8 in 2012, 12-2 in 2015 — but finds his way back. He has won either seven or eight games in five of the last seven years. At a different school, that could lead to Glen Mason Territory, in which you’re doing too well to fire but aren’t raising the bar enough to satisfy boosters. Iowa doesn’t do Glen Mason Territory.
If Ferentz does end up staying another 10 or so years, we’re going to have at least one more up cycle and one more down cycle. One way or the other, it appears a new cycle will begin this fall.
It's hard to argue much with that. Iowa has been an incredibly stable job over the last almost-40 (!) years and Ferentz has established a pretty high floor at Iowa -- he tends to hit 7-8 wins like clockwork. He's also been able to hit higher than that on several occasions; Iowa fans only tend to get too squirrelly about things when he goes too far in-between those higher-hitting seasons (see: 2012-2014) or when Iowa doesn't hit to the level they're "supposed" to hit or that they're "expected" to be at (see: 2015, 2010).
And 2016 definitely feels like the beginning of... something. We're hoping for something good, obviously, but time will tell on that front. There will be a lot of new faces in Iowa City this fall, though -- new coaches, new starting quarterback, lots of new skill position guys, and some new faces trying to fill some big shoes on defense (Jaleel Johnson, Desmond King).
Connelly's projections aren't particularly glowing for Iowa -- 48th overall in S&P+ and 5.9 projected wins. His model puts a fair amount of weight on returning production at QB, WR, and DB (where Iowa's returning production is ERROR: FILE NOT FOUND) as well as recruiting rankings, where Iowa rarely excels. But Bill notes the same thing that Pat noted in INP yesterday: this team should also fit the model of a lot of Ferentz's good Iowa teams.
Ferentz has won a lot through the years, however, with the combination of a strong running back, a good offensive line, excellent defensive ends and linebackers, and a stud safety. Iowa fits the Iowa profile, if nothing else.
Close games will again tell the tale. Even with a pessimistic S&P+, the Hawkeyes are given between a 39 and 56 percent chance of winning in five games, with four likely wins and three likely losses. If the passing game doesn’t crater and the new cornerbacks are as stable as I assume, they’ll probably overachieve and reach their seven- to eight-win comfort zone.
The difference between Iowa in 2015 and Iowa in 2016 was more or less close games. They were very very good in those games in 2015 (until the Big Ten Championship Game [sobs]) and less so in 2016. For Iowa to hit 8 or 9 (or more) wins, they're going to need to have success in close games again. Iowa is almost never built to blow teams away and they certainly won't be in 2017 with a strong running game and a question mark-filled passing game. If Iowa can find solid answers at QB and WR, force turnovers on defense, and get some margin-boosting performances in special teams, they should have a chance to exceed those 5.9 projected wins and put together a good season.
And it's worth noting that this model still gives Iowa a pretty decent chance to win every game except at Wisconsin and the home games versus Penn State and Ohio State. (Hopefully they can channel some of their 2016 Michigan mojo in at least one of those games.) Iowa also has a pretty decent track record of overachieving (albeit slightly in some cases) Bill's projections over the last five years. Last year Iowa was projected at 7.4 wins; they won 8 thanks to a furious closing stretch to the regular season. (Outback Bowl? What Outback Bowl?) In 2015 Iowa was projected between 6-7 wins; they obviously blew that out of the water with one of the most amazing regular seasons in program history. In 2014 Iowa was again projected around 6-7 wins; they scuffled to 7-5. The projections were very down on Iowa in 2013 (no surprise after the trash fire that was the 2012 season) and Iowa projected at between 5-6 wins; they bounced back strongly to finish with 8 wins. There wasn't a specific projection in 2012, but Bill did say "they would have to play quite poorly not to at least win six games and reach another bowl game." Challenge (sadly) accepted, sir. Still, that's four out of five years where Iowa exceeded the projected win total and twice they did it in emphatic fashion.
Anyway, take some time this weekend and give the preview a read -- it's worth your time.