Iowa Football: What to Make of Herbstreit's Hawkeye Big Ten Title Game Selection
At this time last year, Iowa was one week away from what was supposed to be a dream season.
The Hawkeyes were ranked No. 9 in the preseason polls and returned their most talented, experienced and senior-laden team of the Kirk Ferentz era.
Of course, the rest is history—a forgettable history, at that, for Hawkeye fans—as Iowa lost five close games, landing at 7-5 and ending the season with a trip to the Insight Bowl, just a few miles down the road from where Hawkeye fans had hoped to spend the holidays—the national championship game.
So close, but yet so far.
This season, following a mediocre year and with very few returning starters, Iowa has been largely forgotten on the national stage.
But as anyone who follows the Iowa football program would say, Kirk Ferentz has them right where he wants them.
And if history is any teacher, that may well be the case.
Iowa started its trend of defying expectations in 2001, reaching and winning the Alamo Bowl following two seasons in the Big Ten's cellar. That season helped solidify Kirk Ferentz's reputation as a top head coach and spring-bolted Iowa into a decade full of success.
Despite the 2001 campaign, the Hawkeyes were expected to be average in 2002, but thanks to the extraordinary play of Heisman runner-up Brad Banks, Iowa went undefeated in conference play, shared the Big Ten Championship and played in the Orange Bowl en route to a No. 8 finish in the polls.
And despite falling short in preseason hype, Iowa placed No. 8 in each of the following two preseason polls.
However, after gaining respect following the 2004 campaign, the Hawkeyes fell short of expectations the following three years, including a bowl-less season and an under-.500 season.
Then, in 2008, the Hawkeyes fell off the radar and surprised everyone with a late-season surge and Outback Bowl win.
The 2009 Iowa team was ranked No. 22 in the preseason but fell out of the polls after it needed two blocked field goals to beat Northern Iowa. However, that team upset No. 5 Penn State in Happy Valley and went on to win the Orange Bowl and finish No. 7 in the final polls.
Then came 2010.
On paper, Iowa shouldn't compete for a Big Ten title in 2011, and that's why it's largely an afterthought in the national discussion. However, it's also why a few analysts, such as ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, are picking the Hawkeyes to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Herbstreit released his pick on ESPN's College Gameday preview last week, reasoning that Iowa will step up because it always does when it's out of the spotlight.
While Herbstreit clearly has a point, does Iowa succeed solely because it is out of the spotlight? The answer requires some more examination.
The Iowa teams that succeeded all had something in common—they had players who had a chip on their shoulders. These players had been written off by the national media and had very few major offers.
So when they came out of high school, Ferentz did what he does best—he motivated them to prove the doubters wrong.
While Ferentz is outstanding at coaching up his players, he doesn't work well with talent. Many people, including myself, have said, "Look what Ferentz does at Iowa. Imagine what he could do somewhere like Florida or Ohio State."
However, that likely wouldn't work. Ferentz can't be handed talent; he has to develop it. And if he were to be handed 5-star recruits, those schools could end up with a string of seasons like Iowa's 2010.
But if he's handed a team full of walk-ons and 2-stars, he has a chance to do something special.
The 2011 Iowa team fits the mold of the other successful Ferentz teams in addition to the low expectations. There are veteran players who are finally getting their chance to start and a number of players that other FBS schools didn't want (i.e. Mike Daniels, Collin Sleeper, etc.).
The schedule also sets up fairly well, with no Wisconsin or Ohio State.
So while Ricky Stanzi, Adrian Clayborn, Karl Klug, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and so many others are gone, this Iowa team has a chance to shock the world, and not just because of the low expectations.
But as we're learned with Iowa, it's best to not try and predict anything. Because come September 3, you never know what you're going to get.
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