After the Hawkeyes' one-point loss to Central Michigan, Iowa fans are wondering if it can get any worse.
They came into the season knowing it would be a rebuilding year.
The Hawks had only five full-time returning starters on defense and six returning starters on offense to go along with a new punter.
This didn't even paint the full picture of the Hawkeyes' inexperience.
Football guru Phil Steele put together a number of preseason statistics detailing teams' returning experience as judged from a number of different angles.
He had Iowa 101st in the country in terms of percentage of returning lettermen. The Hawks were 80th in percentage of returning offensive yardage. They were 96th in percentage of returning tackles and 92nd in career returning offensive line starts.
Finally, Iowa was No. 100 on his combined experience chart.
Making matters worse, the Hawks had a green defensive line—always trouble on a Kirk Ferentz-coached defense—and what had been the Hawkeyes' greatest asset under Ferentz—coaching stability—was no longer an asset, as Iowa had to replace both coordinators and a position coach.
Still, Iowa had a cakewalk schedule, a returning quarterback and most of its winnable games were in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium.
Consequently, what was accepted as a "rebuilding" year did not have to be a catastrophe.
The out-of-conference portion of the schedule is now over, and Iowa is 2-2, having dropped two home games, one of which was to an unquestionably inferior—talent-wise—team. The Hawkeyes also looked lackluster in their two victories, squeaking out 18 points against a Northern Illinois team that allowed 40 points to Army.
This follows certain other realities within the program.
Firstly, the Hawks underachieved in both 2010 and 2011, with 2010 being an egregious letdown. Secondly, Iowa's trophy case is currently empty.
Thirdly, since 2006, Kirk Ferentz's record in games decided by a field goal or less has been 7-15. However, that record is misleading. When one takes out the miracle 2009 season, in which Iowa went 4-1 in such close games—two of which were to college football juggernauts (FCS) Northern Iowa and Arkansas State—the Hawks are 3-14 in games decided by a field goal or less.
In other words, excepting 2009, they are 3-14 in games that are generally decided by the better in-game coach.
Fourthly, part of the reason for Iowa's issues this year is severe attrition due to transfers, disciplinary problems, etc., particularly at running back and along the defensive line. There are no available statistics to compare Iowa to other programs in this regard. Nevertheless, this should not be such a problem for a program with the fourth longest-tenured coach in college football.
Quite the contrary, in this regard, the Hawks should be at an advantage over other programs. It is for that reason that coaching stability is a top priority at a program like Iowa. At a program like Florida, where there is never a shortage of talent, four head coaches in 12 years hardly matters.
Fifthly, as Cedar Rapids Gazette's Mike Hlas pointed out following last season's collapse against Minnesota, Iowa had nine losses as double-digit favorites since 2006. This was easily the worst in the Big Ten. Now, Iowa has 10 such losses, as some lines in Vegas had the Hawks giving away 14 points to CMU.
Finally, Iowa's record between 2005-2011 is tied with Cal for 35th best in college football. Over the last two years, during which the Hawks put a Big Ten-best 12 players into the NFL draft, the Hawks are tied for 43rd.
That would be acceptable for a coach in the nascent part of his program—and certainly for a coach working in a program like Indiana, which needs to be systematically rebuilt.
On the other hand, Kirk Ferentz is the $3.8 million man (per Businessweek). According to Phil Steele, as of March 2012, that salary made him the fifth highest-paid coach in college football, behind Mack Brown, Nick Saban, Bob Stoops and Les Miles.
That list is no longer entirely accurate, and Ferentz is currently No. 6, but he's still in lofty space.
In all fairness, most Iowa fans recognize that Ferentz is not paid based on his most recent body of work but on what he did in 2008-2009 and 2002-2004. That is the way such things work, and nobody blames Ferentz for that.
Moreover, most Hawkeye fans recognize that Iowa faces much tougher inherent challenges than programs like Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma or LSU. Nobody expects Ferentz to regularly compete with those programs on a national or even local stage.
But they do expect wins over programs like Central Michigan. Or Minnesota in 2010 and 2011. Or Northwestern in 2009 (even without Ricky Stanzi). Or Iowa State in 2007.
Which brings on the key question: Can the Hawkeyes salvage the season after the loss to Central Michigan?
It is possible, though unlikely, that Iowa could manage to squeak out four conference wins, thereby achieving bowl eligibility. At this point, it is hard to imagine that Iowa will be favored in any more games, outside of possibly Indiana and Penn State.
If Iowa does manage six wins, it would be Iowa's third underachieving season in a row, but it would also avoid catastrophe.
On the other hand, it doesn't address the overarching question that plagues the Iowa program: Is Ferentz the man to turn the program around for the third time under his watch?
Based on all the available evidence, it has reached a point where the answer is "no."
I write that with a heavy heart, as I, an Iowa fan, think highly of Ferentz, avidly remember his "high" points, appreciate all he's done for the program and would rather suffer losses to CMU than see some blowhard embarrass himself and the program.
Nevertheless, over the past few years, Ferentz has repeatedly made the same mistakes in common-sense situations, repeatedly failed to show up against teams that have no business being on the field with his Hawks and, most importantly, repeatedly failed to make the changes and adjustments—both in-game and systematically—that could have righted the ship.
The Central Michigan game indicates that the future will be more of the same.
Certainly, sometime within the next five years, the stars will line up with just the right combination of schedule, upperclassmen and fortunate bounces, and Iowa will pull out another 10-win season.
But until that season, it will be more losses to teams that Iowa should beat, even in a down year.
Can the Hawkeyes pull out four more wins and salvage this season? It's unlikely, but yes, they can.
That doesn't address the bigger issue.
Kirk Ferentz refused and refuses to implement the changes he needs to make in order to avoid implosions like the one that occurred against CMU.
In effect, unless losses of that magnitude are acceptable simply because Ferentz is a noble guy, it's time for a change.