The Iowa Hawkeyes and head coach Kirk Ferentz are at a crossroads.
Things may be ready to turn around much as they were following what seemed to be the bottom in 2007. On the other hand, the bottom may not yet have been reached.
In the previous half of this foray into reading tea leaves, the possibilities of the Hawkeyes coming back in 2013 were considered. Now, it is worth considering the other direction.
What if the moribund 2012 offense wasn't an obstacle on the way to bigger things? What if it was the first in a slew of offensive embarrassments?
What if the bend-don't-break defense has seen its day, and modern offenses are apt to tear the Hawkeye defense up, no matter how talented it is?
In the following slides, the "signs" in question concern elements currently in the program that may point to ugly times ahead.
And the flopping of the Hawkeyes is a distinct possibility when considering the long-term and immediate future of the Iowa football program under Kirk Ferentz.
As I pointed out in the first of this pair of articles, the raw materials are there for Iowa to have one of the most dominant rushing games in the Big Ten.
There are only two problems.
Firstly, it's a long way until August. Eight months out from the 2010 season, some fool posited the opinion that Iowa had a "logjam" at the tailback position.
Nine months later, Brandon Wegher failed to show up to camp, Jewel Hampton was lost for the year with his second torn ACL and Adam Robinson was all that was left of the "logjam." Three months after that, Robinson was kicked off the team and Hampton and Iowa decided to part ways.
Where it concerns the tailback position, Hawkeye fans are all too aware not to count their running backs before they suit up. NBC Sports recently pointed out as much following the departure of former Iowa running back Greg Garmon.
Secondly, as was noted on Hawkeyenation, despite having a reputation as a run-first team, despite having a reasonable amount of talent at running back and substantial talent on the line:
In eight of the 14 Ferentz era years, Iowa has finished 9th or worse in the league in rushing and up until 2010 it was an 11 team conference.
Just to be clear, this is a program that, as of the 2012 draft, had put more offensive linemen into the draft in the previous 10 years than any other program in the country.
The talent is there for Iowa to have a successful running game, and by extension, a successful offense.
That doesn't mean it's going to happen.
...was a mess. Hawkeye fans know that.
And that was with a returning senior quarterback, three experienced pass catchers and a solid offensive line. It was also out of a pro set, unlike the three Academy offenses that employ the triple option and regularly inhabit the bottom of the passing stat sheet.
The question that Hawkeye fans are eager to have answered concerns whether the offensive ills were a natural, if excessive, product of transition, or whether it was a matter of a bad idea that will never work.
Consider the offense in question.
The running game still employs Kirk Ferentz's zone scheme. For the previous 13 years, the rushing scheme was offset by a passing attack that was heavy on play-action and downfield throws. This forced the safeties out of the box for fear of getting burned deep.
However, as Jon Miller of Hawkeyenation pointed out, the current scheme that Greg Davis has installed features a vertical passing game that rarely takes any downfield shots.
This, in turn, allows safeties to creep into the box to take away the run game.
This allows cornerbacks to sit on routes, which makes it difficult for receivers to get off the line. This leaves the quarterback waiting for his receivers, which invites blitzes. The quarterback then has to get the ball out faster. This leaves the opposing secondary with no fear of getting burned deep.
In effect, the safeties can creep into the box and the cornerbacks can sit on routes.
It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of making things harder on the offense than it has to be.
What if the problem with the 2012 passing game wasn't a problem of transition or fielding players who were bad fits for the system? What if it was a matter of combining a running game with an uncomplementary passing system?
If that is the problem, it is unlikely to be fixed, or even improved upon, next year or at any point in the future.
This is not what one would call proper tackling technique
Historically, Kirk Ferentz has rarely if ever fielded bad defenses.
2012's defense had its face shoved in the dirt by Northwestern's running game, Indiana's passing game and both ways by Michigan and Penn State. Despite that, it still finished the year having let up 22.9 points per game, which was a respectable 33rd nationally.
Nonetheless, the difference between so-so Iowa defenses and great Iowa defenses is usually talent, as Hawkeye fans are aware that Ferentz isn't going to adjust his defense to the talent he has.
Will next year's defense have the talent to be like 2008's defense, which started seven NFL draftees, or 2009's defense, which fielded eight draftees and one key reserve who was drafted?
It's difficult to say, but if the performance of the returning starters from last year's defense is any indication, the answer is "no."
Based only on what players have done so far in their careers, cornerback B.J. Lowery and perhaps defensive lineman Darian Cooper have a shot of getting chosen in the draft when their times come.
Safety Nico Law, defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat and all three of the linebackers will have a chance, but only if they take palpable leaps forward. As the linebackers will all be seniors, those leaps forward will have to take place next year or never.
Walterfootball.com currently has James Morris, the middle linebacker and a three-year starter, slipping into the 2014 draft in the fifth round. The site goes on to describe him as "a solid player, but not a play maker." Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens are not listed on the site, which means Walterfootball does not feel they will get picked.
With next year's defense returning eight starters, it should be better, but if the talent isn't there, the ceiling is limited.
Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette accurately compared Phil Steele to E.F. Hutton. For those who didn't grow up watching '80s television, E.F. Hutton had a commercial of which the tag line was, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."
Phil Steele has developed that reputation among college football fans—he is the only guru worth listening to.
With that in mind, Steele has a theory called "turnovers equal turnaround." The theory is based on years of research and number crunching. It asserts that teams with a negative-11 turnover rating or worse have the same or better record over 80 percent of the time the following season.
The opposite is also true—a team that is plus-11 or better follows that season up with the same or worse record just over 80 percent of the time.
The bad news, on a number of fronts, is that Iowa finished 2012 at plus-12. As an aside, Iowa, along with New Mexico, were the only teams that didn't make a bowl of the 18 that finished plus-11 or better. Nine of the teams in question finished with double-digit wins. Four of them went to a BCS bowl.
What this means, at least according to Steele, is that there is just over an 80 percent chance that Iowa will finish 2013 with four wins or less.
By the way, in case you didn't click the hyperlink for the Hlas article, the title is "Phil Steele misses the mark on QB James Vandenberg." The premise is that Steele was wrong in leaving JVB off his preseason all-Big Ten teams (Steele has a first, second, third and fourth team, and Vandy wasn't on any of them).
I said the same thing as Hlas.
Needless to say, Steele was right.
How to describe Kirk Ferentz?
He is risk averse, stubborn, defense-minded and conservative. One could post links in which Ferentz is described as all of these things, but google "Ferentz" and any of these adjectives and a slew of articles from the likes of ESPN, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa blog blackheartgoldpants and USA Today will pop up.
In his best years, these qualities have won games for Ferentz. No other coach would have pulled out that 6-4 win over Penn State in 2004.
On the other hand, in his worst years, these qualities have left Iowa on the losing end of a slew of close games. 2012 serves as a prime example. Due to egregious clock mismanagement, awful play calls and inexplicable conservatism, Iowa lost five games by a touchdown or less and four games by a field goal or less.
Ferentz might make some adjustments going forward—one must admit, this season, he was much gutsier on fourth downs than he has been in the past—but he is not going to change.
The same Ferentz who Iowa fans have known for years has and will continue to ignore everything that happens on the field. After 14 years of Captain Kirk, through the plentiful good and the bad, why should 2013 be any different?
The 2012 Iowa Hawkeyes went 4-8.
Heading into the season, I predicted a worst-case scenario of 5-7, in which JVB failed to improve and Ferentz stubbornly employed a defense-dominant strategy for what should have been an offense-dominant team.
Who could have predicted an offensive collapse the likes of which Iowa underwent in 2012? Whoever did probably predicted a bottom of approximately four wins.
Unlike last season, where it seemed Ferentz had the ability to change or at least augment his basic outlook, it no longer seems possible.
Iowa can do as well as it will while employing Ferentz's philosophy. There will be no overarching commitment to change. That means that the best Iowa team will win with execution and talent; not with an altered or adjusted scheme that "scratches where it itches" as former Iowa coach Hayden Fry used to say.
At that point, the question concerns the talent and whether the perfect execution of Ferentz's game plan, in this age of lengthened, high-scoring games and spread-out fields is enough to win six games let alone nine or 10.
2012 should serve as a wake-up call to many Hawkeye fans, but it can get worse.
Next year, the worst it could get is 3-9, with one unexpected and unlikely win—Wisconsin seems the most likely—and a slew of painful losses.