See, the last time this happened, it got … weird.
The Hawkeyes wound up dropping five games in the autumn of 2010 — with four of those defeats by a measly four points or fewer. If it wasn’t for bad luck, the Iowa football program wouldn’t have managed any stinking luck at all.
Bad breaks. Inconsistencies. Transfers. Scandals. Arrests. And that was just at running back, where from February 2010 through May 2011, five different University of Iowa ballcarriers either left the program by their own design or wound up getting the boot.
And then there was DJK. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s top wideout during a wild, 11-win ride in 2009, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos — Iowa’s all-time leader in receptions — saw his career end in December 2010 with an arrest on drug-related charges, a suspension, and a bridge seemingly burned forever:
Would u like it if u slaved for someone 4 5 yrs then when you arrived @ adversity they abandon you & tell potential employers not 2 hire u?
— DJK (@coachkoul) December 17, 2013
And that, friends, is why some folks can’t have nice things.
“I think if you look back, there are years where we’ve handled that well, like ’09 and maybe 2003 and 2004,” Ferentz said at Big Ten Football Media Days, “and then in (2010 that) you alluded to, that really gets down to just winning close games, doing little things right, those types of things.
“And I think it’s that way in college football in general. Certainly it’s been that way at the University of Iowa for a long time.”
For the first time in a long time, Ferentz and his reigning Big Ten West champions —12-2 in 2015, a Cinderella with fangs — are walking down the aisle with an old friend: Expectations.
Iowa holds its annual preseason media day Saturday, and will do so as a nationally ranked program, a distinction unseen along Melrose Avenue since the summer of 2010 — the calm before a storm that nobody quite saw coming.
The 2016 Hawkeyes have a core to cherish (eight starters back on defense, including the 2015 Jim Thorpe winner at cornerback); a veteran, savvy quarterback; and a schedule (no Ohio State, no Michigan State, three divisional rivals at home) to die for. The stars aren’t just aligned — they’re practically doing the Hokey Pokey, the dance of choice for beloved former Iowa coach Hayden Fry.
Of course, the stars have known to be wonky before. Late in the summer of 2010, Iowa was coming off a historical autumn, an 11-win season punctuated by a triumph over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the program’s most venerated postseason bounty since the 1959 Rose Bowl.
In the 10 months that followed, though, hell met handbasket after handbasket. A good Iowa team finished 7-5 in the regular season, closing out the Big Ten slate with three straight defeats, a trio of setbacks by an average margin of 3.3 points. The Hawkeyes won at Michigan but fell at Northwestern and Minnesota.
“Little things do matter,” Ferentz mused. “They are big things. And our ability to handle little details and do little things well on a consistent basis typically is a measure of our success.”
You live and you learn. Sometimes. The last time the Hawkeyes strung together back-to-back seasons of 10 wins or more was 2003 (10-3) and 2004 (10-2), when the common threads were a crazy-good defense — with Chad Greenway, Abdul Hodge, Matt Roth, Jonathan Babineaux, Sean Considine, all future NFL draft picks, at the core — and a strong kicking game, a gang of grinders.
Ferentz’s teams tend to reflect the personality of their upperclassmen, for better or for worse. When the chemistry works, the results have been magical, such as last fall’s 12-0 start, when the 2015 seniors “did a great job of modeling the right type of behavior,” the coach noted, “the types of things you have to do when you want to have a winning team.”
The 2016 Hawkeyes have enough seniors at the right spots — quarterback C.J. Beathard, wideout Matt VandeBerg, tight end George Kittle, tackle Cole Croston, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, and corners Desmond King and Greg Mabin — to think the tune won’t change all that much, regardless of the lyrics.
Although good vibes can be an awfully fickle mistress, especially when close contests start to go pear-shaped. Ferentz has had five previous teams ranked among the Associated Press preseason Top 25 (2004, ’05, ’06, ’09 and ’10). Only two wound up ranked in the service’s final poll. Three of those teams lost five contests or more, including that 2010 crew. The five squads all wound up bowling but averaged only 8.4 victories among them.
Of the four Ferentz squads prior to 2015 that reached double digits in wins (2002, ’03, ’04 and ’09), the next season, Iowa followed those campaigns up with an average of 8.75 victories — a dip of 1.75 wins from the season before.
So history pegs Iowa for 10-ish in the plus column this fall, give or take. Probably. The only thing promised in the Big Ten West is that nothing — not a bloody thing — is promised at all.
“And last year is a really good illustration of that,” Ferentz said. “I think if you look at it, all but one game, there weren’t many games where we were in the last four minutes where anybody on our sideline felt very comfortable. All those games went down to the wire. They’re extremely competitive. And again, that’s just I think the nature of college football. It certainly is for us at Iowa. And for us to be successful, we’ve got to be able to come out on the right side of those things. And again, it usually gets down to little detail things.”
Little things do matter. Because as proud as Hawkeyes faithful are of their football history, there are parts of it they’d sure as hell rather not repeat.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler