Why 2010 Will Define Kirk Ferentz's Career at Iowa
Since the decade began, Iowa has been known as the team that exceeds low expectations.
During the early part of the decade, the Hawkeyes reached three consecutive January bowls - the Orange, Outback, and Capital One - in 2002, 2003, and 2004, respectively.
The team flew under the radar during the 2003 and 2004 offseasons, as many figured "they can't do it again."
But after an impressive 2004 campaign and a stunning last-second victory against LSU in the 2005 Capital One Bowl, the rest of the country realized what only Iowans had known the previous few years; Iowa is a legitimate national contender.
So in 2005, Iowa emerged from under the radar to a team filled with preseason hype. And why not? Quarterback Drew Tate was returning after a stellar sophomore campaign in 2004 and Iowa had proven itself three years in a row.
For the first time in his career, Kirk Ferentz's team had to handle high expectations. And in the end, the Hawkeyes failed miserably.
Iowa finished a measly 7-5 in 2005, including a loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl.
While 7-5 is far from a failure for most teams, it's an utter disappointment for a team coming off a 10-2 season - especially for a team with as much preseason hype as the 2005 Hawkeyes.
The down year in 2005 led to two more disappointing seasons, as Iowa finished with a combined 12-13 record over the next two seasons. Ferentz even failed to make a bowl game in 2007; his first time spending the holidays at home since 2000.
But in 2008, Iowa began to rebound. After a shaky start, Iowa finished 9-4, including an upset win against No. 3 Penn State that reversed the Hawkeyes' trend of dropping close games. Plus, a year removed from any sort of bowl, Iowa handily defeated South Carolina 31-10 in the Outback Bowl.
After largely flying under the radar in the 2009 offseason, the Hawkeyes exceeded expectations again, finishing 2009 with an 11-2 record, including a solid 24-14 win against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Now, with an experienced offense and possibly the nation's best defense returning, high expectations and preseason hype return to Iowa City.
And this time, Ferentz needs to live up to the hype.
As much as Iowa fans love their coach, Ferentz has yet to bring his team to greatness. Don't get me wrong, he has been a solid coach for Iowa. But he hasn't been able to win under the microscope.
It's easy to be good when you have low expectations, but the truly great coaches can win when they are the team to beat.
So how can Ferentz avoid another 2005?
First, he can't afford an early season letdown.
Iowa had problems with starting slow during its good seasons as well. This year, the Hawkeyes must travel to Arizona in a potential trap game, one that is eerily similar to Iowa's last visit to the desert - a 44-7 thrashing to Arizona State.
Don't expect the same kind of letdown in 2010, as this year's team is much more experienced. But Ferentz can't allow his team to look past a night game in Tuscon.
As a whole, the 2010 schedule sets up nice for Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State all on the road last season, and this year's more experienced team should be fine, as all of those teams come to Kinnick.
But one conference game looks the most daunting for Ferentz and company.
Just like in 2005, Ohio State visits Iowa City. And just like 2005, there is a possibility that the Buckeyes could be No. 1 in the country heading into Nov. 20. Iowa, too, could be ranked very high for this game; possibly undefeated and higher than its No. 15 ranking in 2005.
But unlike 2005, Ferentz needs to find a way to win for his legacy to be complete.
My colleague Bret Feddern suggested that OSU coach Jim Tressel is Ferentz's arch-nemesis, considering Iowa has defeated Ohio State only once since Ferentz became head coach.
This game will be the most important of Ferentz's career, not only because a win could mean a Big Ten Championship and a National Championship or Rose Bowl berth, but because a win would prove that Iowa can beat the best under high expectations.
A loss wouldn't be the end of the world. In fact, it could still lead to a Rose Bowl berth. But for Ferentz to solidify himself as the best coach in Iowa history and one of the top coaches in college football, he needs to put together the best performance of his coaching career.
Iowa fans - unrealistic as they may be - expect nothing less than a National Championship.
If Ferentz can produce his program's first national title since 1959, then he has solidified his legacy in Iowa City. But if not, he may become the solid coach who couldn't quite achieve greatness.
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