Even though Iowa fell short of the upset bid against LSU in the Outback Bowl, the season should be viewed as an overwhelming success for a program (and a coach) that desperately needed it.
Kirk Ferentz makes a lot of money. You probably know this by now. In fact, his salary is typically a popular topic of conversation each time Iowa loses or underperforms.
Last season was the low point of his tenure. After making (and winning) the Orange Bowl following the 2009 season—followed by respectable eight- and seven-win seasons—Ferentz’s team won just four games.
The offense struggled mightily, averaging under 20 points per game for the entire season. Defensively the team wasn’t awful, although it wasn’t good enough to take over games, either. The end result was a four-win season, the first losing season for Iowa since the year 2000.
In turn, expectations heading into 2013 were lower than they’d been in quite some time. “Make a bowl” served as an acceptable goal coming in.
Iowa did much more than that.
After losing a heartbreaker to Northern Illinois in the opener, the Hawkeyes won their next four. After battling against Michigan State and Ohio State in losses, Iowa closed out the regular season by winning four of its last five.
Making a New Year’s Day bowl was not in the cards before the season began. And while Iowa fell to LSU 21-14—unable to slow down Tigers running back Jeremy Hill and overcome early offensive woes of their own—there are plenty of positives to take away from both the game and the season.
For one, Iowa battled. This was a theme throughout the entire year, and this fight was on display yet again against the Tigers. These moral victories can often be over-hyped, but this team should be commended for the second-half surge. At halftime, it looked like it could get ugly.
Iowa responded with a takeaway, however, as safety John Lowdermilk picked off young Anthony Jennings and took it the other way. He didn’t take it back all the way, though.
In one of the strangest plays you’ll see all season—and one that the sport is somehow familiar with—Lowdermilk dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
Thankfully, no one picked up the “loose” ball, and Iowa got it back on the 1-yard line. Running back Mark Weisman punched it in, making the blunder a moot point.
Despite a late touchdown to make things interesting—especially for those invested in the point spread—Iowa could not recover the onside kick. The game effort and comeback attempt fell just short.
While the loss should sting, Ferentz delivered in a critical year. Following the game, Ferentz was emotional when talking about the path to get there:
Coach Ferentz very emotional when talking about this team and where it's come the last 13 months.— Rick Brown (@ByRickBrown) January 1, 2014
"This group, especially our older guys, they've shown the younger guys how to do things," Ferentz said via the Associated Press. "How to work. How to act. How to think. I just hope everybody's paying attention. I think we've got a group right underneath them that will impose their will, too."
Some will say that this kind of performance should be the floor, given Ferentz's salary, and perhaps that’s difficult to argue against. The improvement in this team—particularly the offense—was noteworthy, however, and suddenly Iowa can again feel good about where it is.
More importantly, it can feel better about where it's headed.
Does this mean that it will be Rose Bowl or bust for the Hawkeyes next year? Unlikely. But the offense and the defense will get some nice pieces back.
At the very least, the storied program has stability. Ferentz will continue to make a large sum of money and will be expected to deliver. Given the improvements on display this season, there’s no reason to expect otherwise.