Eight college football coaching changes have already occured before November for a variety of reasons, ensuring that this December's coaching carousel will be among the most active ever.
It is at this point where the typical college football hot seat analysis might turn toward Iowa, and toward Kirk Ferentz's sizable buyout, as part of the massive contract extension he signed in September 2010 on the heels of an 11-2 Orange Bowl season, one that goes through 2020. Just about everyone became bored with Ferentz-coached Iowa teams three years ago, and that boredom has bred skepticism, which has bred hostility regarding one of the nation's highest-paid coaches. Wondering if Ferentz's buyout is still too big has become an annual tradition.
Until now, that is. Now, the Iowa Hawkeyes are 7-0 and ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, in position to be Big Ten contenders and even playoff contenders, and nobody has any idea what to believe. That includes Ferentz.
"Bottom line is all this talk is really premature," Ferentz told reporters this week. "We have a lot of football left in conference, and I think we've witnessed that in the last three, four weeks -- there's been four weeks of conference play. It's really hard to predict what's going to happen, so all the talk, that comes with winning, and nobody's against that. I'm not poopooing that by any stretch.
"But for the people that have to compete, you need to be mindful of what's really important, and that's the trick. We've been down that road before. It gets a little trickier the more success you have. So how well can you focus on what's really important, and really the thing that's important to us right now is playing Maryland."
Eight weeks into the season, Iowa might be the safest bet in college football to win its division. The Hawkeyes are 3-0 in the Big Ten. Everyone else but Wisconsin in the lackluster West Division has two or more losses, and the Hawkeyes already won on the road in Madison, 10-6, meaning they hold the tiebreaker. Iowa's lead would feel more tenuous if the Hawkeyes had to play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State, but instead they get Maryland and Indiana from the East, two teams that are a combined 0-7 in Big Ten play. In fact, when you add those two to the Hawkeyes' other three remaining opponents -- Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska -- the rest of Iowa's schedule is a combined 2-15 in the Big Ten and 14-23 overall. In other words, Iowa currently has one more Big Ten win than the total of the five teams left on its schedule.
Of the 12 remaining undefeated teams following last week's losses by Florida State and Utah, nobody has an easier path to an undefeated regular season than Iowa, thereby creating one of the most baffling situations in college football. Iowa's undefeated record does not feel real, and therefore everyone is waiting for Iowa to stumble. But if Iowa stumbles, it's going to be against a team that currently sits in the bottom half of the Big Ten, setting the Hawkeyes up for embarrassment and "I told you so" responses. Ferentz is well aware of this.
"I know we're ranked right now because I drive in the car and I have the radio on. I listen to stuff," Ferentz told reporters this week. "In fact, I heard something Friday morning that was really interesting, about the conference and how it pertained to us or where we stood in their eyes, which I can just tell you this. It was like we're already -- they got it written in permanent ink, so if we do lose, we'll be the class clowns, all that stuff."
Iowa finds itself in a strange position. It is much better than expected, already matching last season's win total. Unlike the other undefeated teams, it doesn't have another undefeated team on the rest of the schedule, at least until the Big Ten title game. And yet nobody believes the Hawkeyes have beat anyone either, because their schedule can be spun however you'd like … to this point.
The teams @HawkeyeFootball has beat this year have combined to win 59% of their games. This is the highest % of any undefeated team.— SportSourceAnalytics (@SportSourceA) October 27, 2015
This is technically true. Among Iowa's wins are Pittsburgh, whose only loss was to Iowa on a 57-yard field goal as time expired; Wisconsin, whose only other loss was to Alabama; and Northwestern, who beat Stanford and has only one other loss, to Michigan. But Iowa also beat North Texas -- arguably the nation's worst team -- a downtrodden Iowa State that just fired its offensive coordinator, an FCS team (a good one, but still an FCS team) and a mediocre Illinois. That's fine and all … but the best remaining team on Iowa's schedule is Nebraska or Minnesota, both of whom are firmly on the bowl bubble. If Pitt stumbles down the stretch and Wisconsin and Northwestern drop another game, there's a chance that Iowa will go through the regular season having played zero teams that finish in the top 25. (Northwestern and Wisconsin were both ranked at the time of their games.)
So where does Iowa actually stand in the Big Ten race, and in the race for a major bowl, or, really, the College Football Playoff?"
"My message there is none of this stuff really matters," Ferentz said. "It's October. We haven't even hit November, and all you're trying to do is advance. That's all it is. And college football, it's a one-game playoff every week for everybody, whether it's championship race or a bowl game or a better bowl game. You only play 12 games, so you better take advantage of each week, because it's not like you get 162 of them."
Iowa has always operated with a slim margin for error. It's at a recruiting disadvantage, compared to the top of the Big Ten, and especially compared to the top teams nationally, and its style of play has traditionally favored a methodical, conservative approach that relies on grinding out tough yards, capitalizing on opponents' mistakes and winning field position battles -- a style that has achieved a wide-range of results and drawn the ire of many when it fails.
Given Iowa's sudden reversal of fortune, it's felt like Ferentz had to have made some sort of drastic change, seeing the light and opening up the playbook. It's true to a degree. Ferentz made the call right after the bowl embarrassment to roll with the more mobile and aggressive C.J. Beathard at quarterback, prompting two-year starter Jake Rudock -- who will forever be labeled as a "game manager" -- to transfer to Michigan. The Hawkeyes have shown more of an aggressive streak, with some fourth-down attempts, and fake field goals, and some more success throwing downfield.
But this is still very much Iowa football. They're just a little bit better, and when that happens, when the talent level rises a bit, a .500 Iowa team can rise to the status of Big Ten contender.
It's true in many facets of the game. The offense has more confidence with Beathard's improvisational skills at the helm. With Jordan Canzeri emerging as the top tailback, after an injury to LeShun Daniels and before getting hurt vs. Northwestern, and the offensive line playing well, Iowa has improved from 4.12 yards per rush to 4.95, after top tailback Mark Weisman was held to only 3.81 last year. Beathard's arm strength and mobility are better than Rudock's, meaning defenses have to respect more space on the field. Iowa hasn't fundamentally changed its DNA, but its current key players at least provide that threat and better accomplish what Iowa wants to accomplish. There's a bit more athleticism and a bit more explosiveness to work with, and that can go a long way. Iowa doesn't necessarily need to start being aggressive and unpredictable; it just needs to appear capable of that to keep defenses on their heels.
Because otherwise, Iowa looks similar to what it's been in the past. Matt VandeBerg is the leading receiver by a large margin, catching 41 passes, but he averages only 9.54 yards per catch. Last season, 6.1 percent of Iowa's offensive plays went for 20 or more yards, according to cfbstats.com data. This year, that number is nearly equal at 6.07 percent. Iowa has hit a few more deep shots thanks to Tevaun Smith, but he's missed two games and was not 100 percent for the 40-10 blowout of Northwestern, so he hasn't caught a pass since September.
The injuries are what made the game against Northwestern two weeks ago so stunning. It's not that we hadn't seen that happen to Northwestern before; despite their stingy defense, the Wildcats lost to Michigan 38-0 a week earlier. It's that Iowa was so injury-ravaged. With their slim margin for error, the Hawkeyes have been derailed by bad injury luck in past seasons -- particularly at running back. This year, they lost star defensive end Drew Ott to a torn ACL against Illinois, and against Northwestern they also played with a limited Smith and a banged-up Beathard, and without Daniels and offensive tackles Boone Myers and Ike Boettger. They've played most of the season without tight end Jake Duzey, who has been limited and doesn't have a catch. And early in the Northwestern game, Canzeri injured his ankle and exited. This should have spelled doom, or at least made for a close game.
Instead, little-known sophomore tailback Akrum Wadley -- who entered the game with 41 career carries -- trampled Northwestern for 204 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries as the Hawkeyes won by 30. The Iowa season appeared to be in danger of falling off a cliff thanks to bad injury luck, again, and yet instead the Hawkeyes cobbled together one of their most impressive wins in years.
(Note: All above numbers except records are national rankings, according to cfbstats.com, with the exception of Football Outsiders' FEI field position value rankings and Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS) rankings.)
Ferentz has changed a bit, sure, but it's all been mostly subtle improvements. The bad luck of 2010 -- a very good team that lost five games by a total of 18 points -- spiraled out of control for a few years, but Iowa has bounced back to what was expected of Ferentz and Iowa coaches in general: challenge for the Big Ten title and a major bowl bid every four-year recruiting cycle or so. The Iowa offense is less tentative, and while the Ott injury is huge, the pass rush has been better than it's been in a long time, as the Hawkeyes rank 12th in sacks per game -- their first time in the top 70 since 2009. The run defense has also made a surprising leap forward following the losses of touted defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. With a more potent ground attack -- despite the loss of All-America left tackle Brandon Scherff -- and the threat of big plays, Iowa is better capable of sustaining drives, meaning it doesn't have to rely solely on forcing mistakes and capitalizing on field position to win.
So, after a bye week, Iowa rolls on, still perfect, with everyone still waiting for its inevitable stumble, even though it has one of the easiest finishing schedules in the nation. It starts Saturday with the Terrapins. Iowa is 7-0. Maryland is 2-5 and already fired its coach. The Hawkeyes are 17-point favorites, and if they lose, people will laugh, chalk up the first half of the season as a fluke and forget that they were ever undefeated to begin with. And would a loss be that surprising? Maryland made a lot of plays the last two games against Ohio State and Penn State, embracing the running ability of Perry Hills. The Terps beat the Hawkeyes by a touchdown last year too. Iowa could lose, just as it could lose to Indiana or Minnesota or Nebraska (but, well, probably not Purdue).
Iowa could finish 12-0 and get blasted by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. Or maybe it could finish 12-0, stun the Buckeyes and go to the playoff. It could also see the injury problems linger, lose three of the final five and go to the Foster Farms Bowl. There's a reason Ferentz has been harping on the fact that Iowa still has 62.5 percent of its Big Ten schedule left. This is a team that typically ranks in the 40s or 50s in recruiting, making it tough to compete with the likes of a Ohio State and Michigan on a consistent basis.
But things couldn't set up better to run the table. Not only is the schedule easy, but beyond Ott, injuries should become less of a problem. Duzey is back on the depth chart, and Smith, Myers and Daniels are on track to play Saturday. It may feel like the wheels will come off at some point, but on the contrary, fortunes may be changing a bit in an even more positive direction.
We don't know what that means yet, or just how good Iowa truly is. But trying to figure that out is a whole lot more fun than trying to figure out contract buyouts. In a season in which so many other coaching arguments are going the other way, Ferentz gets credit for changing the conversation about himself and about Iowa football.