IOWA CITY, Ia. – The Iowa football team doesn’t play Minnesota until Nov. 14, but the two teams already have been in competition against each other.
It occurred this spring while the editors of Athlon Sports debated over where the Big Ten football teams should be ranked for the 2015 season. Iowa was picked to finish fourth in the West Division, behind first-place Wisconsin, second-place Nebraska and third-place Minnesota. The Hawkeyes also were ranked 53rd nationally.
“We did talk about picking them third ahead of Minnesota,” said Steven Lassan, college football editor for Athlon Sports. “And there were a couple reasons for that; number one, I think the schedule really breaks in Iowa’s favor, not having to play Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan or Penn State is pretty big. And the fact they get Maryland and Indiana in crossover games, we think was a big advantage.
“But when we looked at the top three teams, we just thought that Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota were a step ahead of them. We looked at Iowa as having a lot of questions marks. And when you look at the other teams in the division, each team has their own share of questions marks. We just thought there were more question marks about Iowa, even with the favorable schedule.”
Iowa is coming off a disappointing 7-6 season that included a 51-14 loss to Minnesota in the ninth game in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes finished 4-4 in the Big Ten, marking the fourth time in the last five seasons under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz that Iowa has finished with a non-winning record in conference play.
Minnesota, on the other hand, is coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons under head coach Jerry Kill. Since 1906, Minnesota has won at least eight games in back-to-back seasons only five times.
“We just looked at Minnesota and Iowa and even the fact that Minnesota won last year, but also kind of the program trajectory,” Lassan said. “And I think Minnesota right now is on a little bit of an upswing with Jerry Kill as head coach.
“And I think it’s safe to say that Iowa right now is not necessarily going down. But I think the overall trajectory of the program is up in the air a little bit. So we just thought that Minnesota kind of going up under Jerry Kill kind of trumps the favorable schedule for Iowa right now.”
Ferentz, entering his 17th season as head coach, is faced with trying to lead yet another resurgence at Iowa, where ticket sales have dropped. The Hawkeyes have been average lately, combining for a 19-19 record over the past three seasons.
Ferentz is seventh on Athlon’s list of head coaches who are on the hot seat heading into the 2015 season. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is second on the list, while Indiana coach Kevin Wilson is sixth.
“I think for any coach whether it’s Kirk Ferentz or (Virginia Tech’s) Frank Beamer or somebody that’s been there for a long time, it’s just harder in this age of college football to be a coach and stay there for 15 or 20 years,” Lassan said. “It’s just harder to re-invent yourself in different ways.
“So I think right now, Iowa is kind of where Ferentz almost has to keep re-inventing himself after so many years. I think the Big Ten is getting better around Iowa. And then when you look at this team in 2015 there are just question marks I think really at each level.”
Lassan is intrigued by Iowa’s quarterback situation where junior C.J. Beathard is now the starter after passing Jake Rudock on the depth chart shortly after the 2014 season. Rudock has since transferred to Michigan, leaving Iowa with little game experience at quarterback.
Beathard is the only quarterback on Iowa’s 2015 roster with any game experience.
“The quarterback position I think for Iowa is one of the most interesting in college football this year just because Jake Rudock left and now he’s the starting quarterback at Michigan,” Lassan said. “And you could argue that he upgraded by going to Michigan to learn under Jim Harbaugh.
“But you have C.J. Beathard, a guy that a lot of Iowa fans that I know want to see more of. It’s a situation where it could work out great for Iowa. Beathard could be what they need to spark the offense and give them more big plays. But if he gets injured or has to miss any time, there is a gap in experience at quarterback. So it’s kind of a risky proposition.”
Lassan also has concerns about Iowa at other positions.
“It starts at quarterback, the offensive line and on defense, too,” Lassan said. “Normally, they produce good linebackers and defensive tackles. But both of those spots are a concern.
“So I just think Iowa has a lot of question marks in 2015. They underachieved, at least we thought they did in 2014. So it’s just hard for a program to stay on top.”
Unless that program is Ohio State.
Many expect the deep and talented Buckeyes to successfully defend their 2014 Big Ten and national titles this season.
“I think the gap between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten is pretty big this year,” Lassan said. “I think Michigan State is the only team that can threaten Ohio State. But even then, Michigan State has questions marks.”
Lassan said Iowa is fortunate to be in the Big Ten West Division because all seven the teams have perceived weaknesses, whereas the East Division is loaded with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.
“When you look at the West Division of the Big Ten right now, Iowa should be in the mix every year considering where Nebraska is and considering the turnover that Wisconsin has had," Lassan said. "So the program has potential. It’s just how do you reach that next step? And is Ferentz the guy to get them there?”
Big Ten West Division preseason standings