Iowa Football is a program at a crossroads

Iowa’s Big Ten title hopes ended on a whimper last Friday night when the heavily favored Hawkeyes lost to the hapless Nebraska Cornhuskers 24-17. Iowa’s loss was shocking considering how poorly Nebraska has played this season, the Huskers’ recent record of losing against Iowa and the stakes at stake for Iowa in that game. Somehow it seemed almost fitting that Iowa miss out on the Big Ten championship because of such a loss — after all, there’s no reason an offensive as ferocious as Iowa’s should be able to win a division championship, so elitist the Hawkeye- Defense in 2022 was. even in a league as weak as the Big Ten West this season. Given the mediocrity of so many of Iowa’s division rivals this year, Iowa fans and coaches can look back on the team’s failure to muster an offense competent enough to win the West as a glaring missed opportunity.

Iowa has endured several disappointments like this in the 24 years that head coach Kirk Ferentz has led the program, but they never held the team down for long. The Hawkeyes have been rock solid under Ferentz’s leadership. Iowa has seen sustained periods of success and mediocrity during Ferentz’s tenure, but they never seem to last as long as fans think they should or fear they could. Just when it looks like Ferentz has finally cracked the code to sustained greatness, or his house of cards about to collapse, the Hawkeyes manage to return to what they always were under his leadership: a team that’s consistently good, occasionally great is , and frustrating to watch even when they win.

But as the 2022 regular season concludes, Iowa football is at a crossroads that could determine whether the program faces another winning streak or serious decline. While that statement could seemingly apply to any offseason for any team, Iowa has certain factors at play that will make the next few months particularly important to the program’s progression. Kirk Ferentz, athletic director Gary Barta and the entire football program must be fully committed to doing what is necessary to build offense for the 21St Century so the Hawkeyes wouldn’t risk being left behind amid the seismic changes happening in both the Big Ten and college football in general.

Iowa’s offensive futility has been covered at length, but the facts must be repeated here. A year after winning the Big Ten West, despite having one of the worst offenses in the country, the Hawkeyes redoubled their existing coaching staff, staff and offensive philosophy, only for the offense to get even worse. Iowa is ranked 123rdapprox of 131 teams on offense with 17.4 points per game and is behind only the 2-10 New Mexico Lobos in yards per game with 255.4. The Hawkeyes have the worst rushing offense in the Big Ten in yards per carry (2.92) and yards per game (97.25), ahead only of Rutgers in passing yards per game (158.2) and have more tackles for Losses given up (83). and Sacks (37) than almost every team in the conference. Though Iowa’s offense is so complex that underclass students regularly struggle to master its concepts, it is so highly predictable that opposing teams can accurately predict the Hawkeyes’ plays. Aside from tight end Sam LaPorta, the Hawkeye offense doesn’t have a single player set to sniff First Team All-Big Ten honors this year. The offense spent much of the year as a national punchline, and its futility helped poison Iowa’s brand while resulting in significant negative recruitment against the team’s offensive goals.

Amidst this offensive decline, Iowa football faces changing landscapes both nationally and in its own backyard. 2023 will be the final year of the current East/West division split, and while it’s unclear how the Big Ten will handle planning once USC and UCLA join the conference in 2024, Iowa likely won’t benefit to play against the west eaters every year. While the West Division is usually stronger than national pundits believe, Iowa has undoubtedly benefited from avoiding playing the East heavyweights annually. The Hawkeyes have played Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in a total of four regular season games since 2018. While Iowa may have regularly won nine games using WWII-era offensive tactics against Big Ten West teams that employ similar playing styles, the Hawkeyes may need to score more to compete with those of coaches like Ryan Day, Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly to keep pace with the crimes cited. Iowa’s recent losses to Michigan and Ohio State are positive evidence that the program cannot win championships on defense alone, and the program risks seeing more games like these should matchups against the Wolverines and Buckeyes become more frequent happen.

Meanwhile, many of the programs in the immediate neighborhood of Iowa appear to be on the rise. Nebraska and Wisconsin appear to be hiring strong head coaches in Matt Rhule and Luke Fickell, Illinois has returned to a competent program under Brett Bielema, and Purdue and Minnesota will remain competitive as long as Jeff Brohm and PJ Fleck remain on the sidelines. Not only could the Hawkeyes find fewer easy wins in the years to come, but Iowa could face a tougher regional recruiting landscape with these programs on the upswing, let alone a competent Iowa State program. Iowa has put together excellent recruiting courses over the past few years, but will they be able to attract the talent needed if their offense continues to struggle compared to nearby programs?

NIL and the transfer portal have reshaped the face of college football recruitment, giving players and recruits unprecedented leverage and mobility, giving them more freedom to direct their own athletic careers. That spring, Iowa lost wide receivers Charlie Jones and Tyrone Tracy Jr. to division rivals Purdue on the transfer portal due to concerns about using those players on offense. Jones instantly became one of the country’s most prolific threats, while Iowa’s terrible passing game was made worse in his absence. On the other hand, Iowa was the least active Big Ten team on the transfer portal in 2022. The Hawkeyes’ only transfer was Steven Stilianos, a tight end (hardly a demand position) from an FCS school who has been used largely as a blocker this season and was replaced by a true freshman on the depth chart by the end of the year. Meanwhile, it remains unclear how the Hawkeyes plan to compete with schools that can offer big-money NIL deals to valuable recruits, although fans may soon find the answer to that question thanks to rumors of Oregon being the 5* Kadyn Proctor Iowa sniffs. With Iowa’s urgent need to improve its offense, it’s crucial for the Hawkeyes to find a way to retain their current talent while also using NIL and the transfer portal to attract new players, even if it means that the sports department and coaching staff overcame their declared skepticism and fully embraced these tools to do so.

To be clear, none of these factors necessarily signal the demise of Iowa or the end of the Kirk Ferentz era. Ferentz has shown remarkable resilience in the face of adversity: rebuilding the program from the post-Hayden Fry depths, weathering the City Boyz, Inc. and rhabdomyolysis scandals, fan confidence in the program with a 12-0 2015 regular season recovering and handling the twin storms of COVID-19 and racial prejudice investigations in 2020. He has seen countless new “Flavour of the Month” coaches threaten to invade the Big Ten and has outlasted them all. Iowa’s consistency and commitment to his core identity were arguably his greatest assets during Ferentz’s tenure, giving the program a deep institutional memory and allowing it to leverage its stability as a recruiting ground. If Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes spend the next three years as serious contenders for the Big Ten title, it certainly wouldn’t be without precedent.

However, the Iowa football program must also acknowledge the precarious nature of its current situation. Iowa’s offense needs the kind of repair that only a cleansing fire can provide, which can result in Kirk breaking up with his son/offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, rethinking the fundamentals of his offense and embracing the pitfalls of modern recruiting and roster building too quickly follow the reconstruction process. Iowa is on a favorable schedule next season and should have another championship-caliber defense in tow. With so much uncertainty ahead for the next several years, it would be criminal if the coaching staff didn’t do everything it could to build an offense good enough to make one last shot at a division title. For all his perceived stubbornness, Kirk Ferentz has also proven his ability to change his approach when the situation calls for it, such as when the situation calls for it. and make much-needed cultural shifts in conversations about racial prejudice. If Iowa is to win the West next season and set the program up for another continued success, its leadership must prove it’s willing to evolve, even if it means stepping out of its comfort zone.