Perhaps the only thing more startling than the rise of the Iowa football program under Kirk Ferentz has been its fall from glory the past two seasons. The same program that won 31 of 38 games and two Big Ten titles from 2002-04 has combined to finish just 13–12 over the past two seasons.
Fans figured that Iowa’s 7–5 record in 2005 was an aberration until last year’s team lost six of its last seven games to finish 6–7. You could argue that Iowa, with losses to Indiana, Northwestern and Minnesota, was the worst team in the Big Ten by the end of the 2006 regular season. The players redeemed themselves by nearly upsetting Texas in the Alamo Bowl, but the Iowa program is supposedly above accepting moral victories.
Ferentz is one of the highest-paid college coaches in the country, earning nearly $3 million a year. He is still immensely popular with the fans and the media, but some of the glow has rubbed off.
Ferentz said after last season that all the starting positions would be open during spring practice. And while that might have been the case at the beginning of spring practice, it was clear by the end that sophomore lefthander Jake Christensen would replace three-year starter Drew Tate at quarterback.
It was also clear that many questions still had to be answered. Iowa returns eight starters on defense and seven on offense, but that isn’t necessarily good news. None of the 15 returning starters made first-team All-Big Ten and only one, senior linebacker Mike Klinkenborg, made second-team.
Christensen is expected to replace Tate behind center. Christensen only played in five games last season, but he did start against Northern Illinois when Tate was injured and led Iowa to a 24–14 victory. Christensen is the son of a former NFL quarterback and was considered one of the top high school QBs in the country in 2004 coming out of Chicago. He doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, but he can make a variety of throws.
What he needs more than anything is game experience and for the offensive line to come together. Three starters return on the line, but nobody has really distinguished themselves yet.
Christensen should benefit from Iowa’s one-two punch at running back. Seniors Albert Young and Damian Sims combined to rush for 1,443 yards and 13 touchdowns last season.
The Hawkeyes are deep and talented at receiver, but outside of starters Dominique Douglas and Andy Brodell and top reserve Trey Stross, there isn’t much experience. Douglas led all true freshmen nationally with 49 catches last season, whereas Brodell led Iowa with 724 receiving yards.
One of the biggest mysteries about last season was the fall of the defensive line. The unit came on strong at the end of the 2005 season with four underclassmen starting, so hopes were high heading into last season. But instead of becoming a strength, the defensive line was a liability for much of last season. The inability to pressure the quarterback affected the entire defense, especially the secondary. All four starters return, which could be good or bad. Senior end Ken Iwebema made first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore in 2005 but was injured for much of last season. Big things are expected from him now that he is healthy.
Two of the three starting linebackers return, led by Klinkenborg. He was second-team All-Big Ten last season and finished second in the conference with 129 tackles.
Iowa has to replace both starting safeties, but the experience at cornerback should help ease the transition. Senior Charles Godfrey started all 13 games there, and fellow senior Adam Shada returns after making honorable mention All-Big Ten last season.
Special teams used to be a strength under Ferentz, but that changed the last two seasons. Iowa did a poor job of returning kicks and defending them last season. Redshirt freshman Ryan Donahue is expected to take over the punting duties while Austin Signor will likely edge Daniel Murray to become Iowa’s new placekicker. There are plenty of candidates to return kicks and punts, but most of them lack experience.
Hawkeyes fans don’t know what to think after their disasterous finish last season. They’d like to think it was an aberration, but Iowa also struggled in 2005, finishing just 7–5 overall. Some of the glow has rubbed off Ferentz’s program, but there is still plenty of talent on the roster and stability.
Iowa also has the luxury of avoiding both Ohio State and Michigan on the schedule for the next two seasons.
This year’s team has enough talent and experience with 15 starters returning to finish near the top of the Big Ten standings. That was also thought to be the case in each of the past two seasons, but it didn’t happen.