IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kirk Ferentz always says the next game on the schedule is all that matters, and he’s right.
The Iowa football team’s 2015 season opener against Illinois State is without question the most important game on the schedule.
What the game lacks in national appeal it more than makes up for with local storylines, none bigger than the pressure on Ferentz to win.
Imagine the meltdown should the Hawkeyes lose to Illinois State knowing that Iowa State is next on the schedule a week later in Ames.
Ferentz can afford lots of things, but he can’t afford to start the 2015 season with back-to-back losses to an FCS opponent and to Iowa State for the fourth time in five years.
We were reminded of the precarious circumstances on Tuesday when Iowa issued a release that tried to put a positive spin on the sobering fact that general public season ticket sales are disturbingly low, down nearly 7,000 from last season.
The combination of mediocre football and a more restrictive tailgating experience has made Iowa a tough sell.
“We’re committed to regaining our momentum,” Iowa Director of Athletics Gary Barta said in the release. “Some of that is related to doing everything possible to make the game-day experience fun, entertaining, and memorable. Some of that, of course, is related to what happens on the playing field and, ultimately, winning.”
The hope is that Iowa will start the 2015 season on a high note in order to galvanize fans and spark ticket sales.
Hope would give way to anger and frustration should Iowa lose to Illinois State. Bouncing back against Iowa State would provide some relief, but it’s hard to see Iowa prevailing under that circumstance.
Iowa often seems to wilt under the pressure against Iowa State, even under the best circumstances. Trying to bounce against the Cyclones in Ames, and one week after losing to an FCS team would be flirting with disaster.
That’s why the season opener against Illinois State is so important. It’s a must win if there is such a thing for a season opener. It’s arguably the most important season opener during Kirk Ferentz’s coaching reign, which dates back to 1999.
Iowa’s late-season collapse in 2014, which included home losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska by a combined five points and a blowout loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, has sucked the spirit out of Hawkeye nation. Some fans are convinced that Ferentz’s ship has sailed and they’re bored with his style of football, a condition that’s now being called Ferentz Fatigue.
It’s hard to know for sure what percentage of the Iowa fans are fed up with the current state of affairs, but the number seems to be growing.
I rarely go a day on Twitter without somebody ripping Ferentz or the program or both to me, especially after writing something positive.
Ferentz’s margin for error is as thin as it’s ever been at Iowa. It isn’t razor thin like Tim Beckman’s situation at Illinois or like Kevin Wilson’s at Indiana, nor should it be.
But it’s thin.
Ferentz is under more pressure to win now than any other time as the Iowa coach.
In the early years under Ferentz, the program started to climb back to respectability before the situation had a chance to become critical.
It was nearing the critical stage three-fourths of the way through the 2000 season, when Iowa had lost 18 of its first 20 games under Ferentz. But then Iowa won two of its last three games to close the 2000 season with momentum despite a 3-9 record.
Iowa also rebounded in 2008 and 2013, but failed to sustain long-term success in both cases.
That brings us to where we are now with one of the greatest coaches in school history in a fight, not necessarily to keep his job, but to keep the program relevant and the fans engaged.
The only way to do that would be to accomplish something significant, like winning the Big Ten West Division for example.
Ferentz was under pressure to win in 2013 because the previous fall had been a disaster as Iowa stumbled to a 4-8 record in 2012. The Hawkeyes lost the 2013 season opener against a very good Northern Illinois squad, but then rebounded to finish 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten.
There also was pressure on Ferentz to win in 2008 with Iowa coming off back-to-back seasons of 6-6 and 6-7.
The pressure then is nothing like it is now, though.
Part of the reason for that is Ferentz’s longevity. Entering his 17th season, Ferentz is the dean of Big Ten coaches by a wide margin. The longer a coach stays in one place, the greater the risk is of wearing out your welcome.
Ferentz also has overhauled his coaching staff, but the results have been mediocre. Iowa has a 19-19 record since Greg Davis became the offensive coordinator in 2012. The offense has sputtered under Davis, while the defense has been okay under Phil Parker, although, it was a sieve in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The thought of Iowa losing to an FCS opponent, even an elite one, was hard to comprehend as recently 10 years ago.
But then Michigan lost at home to Appalachian State in 2007 and Iowa needed two blocked field goals to defeat Northern Iowa 17-16 in the 2009 season opener at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes went on to finish 11-2 that season, showing that even a good Iowa team was vulnerable against a quality FCS opponent.
That’s what is so scary about the Illinois State game.
The Redbirds finished runner-up in the FCS playoffs last season and feature two of the best offensive skill players in college football regardless of division. Indiana transfer Tre Roberson is the kind of dual-threat quarterback that has caused fits for Iowa over the years, while running back Marshaun Coprich is a force as evidenced by his FCS-high 2,274 rushing yards last season.
Illinois State is ranked second nationally by Athlon Sports in its preseason magazine behind four-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
Former Iowa defensive end Reggie Spearman also now plays for Illinois State. So it’s reasonable to think that his presence could provide an emotional lift.
As for the Hawkeyes, they look average on paper.
Iowa’s home-field advantage isn’t what it used to be, either. The Hawkeyes are 10-11 at Kinnick Stadium since 2012.
Iowa has a 13-3 record in season openers under Ferentz, with many of the victories lopsided.
That’s exactly what Ferentz needs now, a convincing victory against an over-matched FCS opponent.
He needs it more than anything else right now except for maybe seven or eight of Ohio State’s top recruits.
Season openers under Kirk Ferentz
Year, score, location
1999 – Nebraska 42, Iowa 7. Kinnick Stadium
2000 – Kansas State 27, Iowa 7, Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
2001 – Iowa 51, Kent State 0, Kinnick Stadium
2002 – Iowa 57, Akron 21, Kinnick Stadium
2003 – Iowa 21, Miami (Ohio) 3, Kinnick Stadium
2004 – Iowa 39, Kent State 7, Kinnick Stadium
2005 – Iowa 56, Ball State 0, Kinnick Stadium
2006 – Iowa 41, Montana 7, Kinnick Stadium
2007 – Iowa 16, Northern Illinois 3, Soldier Field, Chicago
2008 – Iowa 46, Maine 3, Kinnick Stadium
2009 – Iowa 17, Northern Iowa 16, Kinnick Stadium
2010 – Iowa 37, Eastern Illinoi 7, Kinnick Stadium
2011 – Iowa 34, Tennessee Tech 7, Kinnick Stadium
2012 – Iowa 18, Northern Illinois 17, Soldier Field, Chicago
2013 – Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27, Kinnick Stadium
2014 – Iowa 31, Northern Iowa 23, Kinnick Stadium