Iowa is the team to beat in the West Division

Kirk Ferentz isn’t one to get lost in hyperbole. Grand statements? Bold proclamations? They won’t come from the dean of Big Ten coaches who is entering his 16th season in Iowa City. So, don’t expect him to tout and embrace any talk of his team winning the Big Ten West this fall.

“I told our players it’s fool’s gold,” said Ferentz, who led Iowa to Big Ten titles in 2002 and 2004. “A year ago we were in the outhouse. I don’t know if we are in the penthouse now, but the meter swings back and forth. All that is important is where things are at season’s end.”

By then, I expect Iowa to be sitting on top of the West. Yes, Iowa over Wisconsin and Nebraska, the other two schools that appear to have strong cases to win the division. This looks like a vintage Hawkeyes squad capable of recapturing the glory the program enjoyed in the early- and mid-2000s. What makes this program special? What is its identity? How can it best be summed up?

“Physical,” said Minnesota running back David Cobb. “And they run that same zone run play. They run the stretch run play as good as anyone I have seen. They know their identity, they know what they want to do. That is why they are so successful.”

Optimism for Iowa begins with the play of lines on both sides of the ball. Football is about the trenches. And the Hawkeyes may have an unmatched set of offensive and defensive lines. Credit Ferentz, who is an offensive line coach by trade. He sets the tone.

“Not sure there are many better coaches,” said Purdue’s Darrell Hazell. “They keep their schemes simplistic. They are well coached. The thing Iowa has done well for years is develop players in their system.”

The headliner up front is offensive tackle Brandon Scherff, who has taken out a $1 million insurance policy and who one pundit thinks could be the first pick in the 2015 draft. And he’s a player that reminds Ferentz of ex-Hawkeye Marshal Yanda. When discussing Scherff, Ferentz breaks his stoic mold and is effusive in his praise, saying he could go down as one of the best players ever at Iowa. Yes, Ferentz said “ever.”

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

“You try to warn him about what the pitfalls are, but he is so grounded and he was raised that way,” Ferentz said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. “… It’s not like there’s a lot of massaging going on there. This guy is just as humble as they come, he’s as pure as they come.

“But all that being said, I had an interesting conversation with (Marshal) Yanda this past June, and he said he caught himself paying attention to some of the noise after the Super Bowl championship (in 2013), and he had to remind himself, ‘Hey, just block it all out and do what you do.’ So, yeah. Everybody’s human. He’s going to get a lot of attention. He should get a lot of attention. My guess is he’ll handle it well. The thing he worries about is the image he conveys to his teammates. He’s acutely aware of that. He gets that and I don’t think you’re going to see him get off the track.”

The stud up front on defense is tackle Carl Davis, a massive force on the interior who has seen his career blossom bit by bit after a slow start first due to academics and then injury. He’s a classic run-stuffer who eats blocks and creates congestion.

Those strong lines are surrounded by ample talent. The offense has a rising quarterback in Jake Rudock and a collection of good runners in Mark Weisman, Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri.

“They do the same thing over and over,” said Minnesota’s Jerry Kill. “I saw it at Southern Illinois when we visited. (Ferentz) believes in his system. His kids believe in it. He gets a back and a line that fits his system. It is like a well-oiled machined.

“With all of these spread offenses, what they do is different. They line up and run, like us. That may be the way to be because everyone else is doing all of the spread stuff. They are tough to prepare for. They are well-coached.”

And then there is the schedule—it sets up beautifully. In fact, there may be just one game in which the Hawkeyes aren’t favored: at Pitt on Sept. 20. The cross-division foes are Maryland and Indiana. And Wisconsin and Nebraska both come to Iowa City.

“I remember sitting here in 2007 and hearing the same thing (about how Iowa had a soft schedule) and we didn’t go to a bowl,” said Ferentz. “We were 6-6. We were bowl eligible but not bowl worthy. It is easy to say those things if you aren’t competing. In 2009, we ended the season ranked No. 7 in the nation and won the Orange Bowl and it was a miracle we beat UNI in our opener.”

And also know this: In 15 previous seasons under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have gone undefeated in non-conference action just three times (2003, 2006 and 2009).

There are concerns on the field, to be sure. The areas to watch: The linebacking corps, which will have three new starters with stalwarts Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens gone, and a receiving corps that needs to show an ability to stretch defenses. All eyes will be on Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith, Damond Powell, Jacob Hillyer and youngsters Derrick Willies, Andre Harris and Derrick Mitchell. Depth also is a worry along the offensive line and in the secondary at safety.

“We lost three NFL linebackers,” said Ferentz. “Leadership, those seniors will be missed. (Offensive tackle) Brett Van Sloten also brought a lot as a leader. You can’t put a price on it.

“We have depth issues at safety, depth on the offensive line, need to find a starting corner. We have a lot to work on. It will be a busy month.”

It also may be a season to remember.

“That is what we are working toward, having a special season,” said Davis. “Our coaches believe we can have a special season. We have to take the approach that everyone is out to get us and play our best game every week. We have some talent and can do it.”

About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (15 Comments)
brad on 7/30/2014 @ 10:43am EDT Said:

go hawks

JP on 7/30/2014 @ 11:18am EDT Said:

Check that. Iowa’s schedule is the team to beat. Not sure what is more pathetic, Iowa’s or Wisconsin’s.

Doug on 7/30/2014 @ 12:17pm EDT Said:

JP, at least Wisconsin opens the season playing LSU , probably the best OOC game besides MSU at Oregon….

Steve on 7/30/2014 @ 12:28pm EDT Said:

I would love to see the Hawkeyes in the B1G championship game. I would be overjoyed if they made it to the inaugural college football playoff! I’ll settle for victories of Wisky and Nebbie, though.

bob on 7/30/2014 @ 1:35pm EDT Said:

You people that like to make a schedule the issue must remember that conference schedules are not made by the school. Every once in awhile all the teams have a easier one. Get over it. Out of conference you may not know much about those teams but Pitt is favored over Iowa. Pitt is not a cupcake nor UNI or Iowa State

JP on 7/30/2014 @ 4:55pm EDT Said:

Doug- You are right about that being a tough one. To Bob’s point though. Wisconsin has been crushed by people for years about their poor out of conference scheduling and still only muster scheduling one tough game. While it is very tough, the others are not. Same goes for Iowa. They know they play Iowa St and UNI every year. Schdule some other teams that MIGHT be good. Other than a home and home with Arizona a few years ago their OOC consists of: Pitt, Ball State, Cent. Mich, West Mich., Maine, FIU, Syracuse and Arkansas St. Not exactly murderers row. Every school plays a couple cupcakes a year, but for most of the last 10 years???

Doug on 7/30/2014 @ 7:22pm EDT Said:

oh i agree, UW has a history of playing very weak OOC opponents, just saying playing LSU at Texas Stadium this year is about as tough as it gets JP

Eric on 7/30/2014 @ 9:32pm EDT Said:

That’s just it. Iowa WOULD LIKE to schedule better teams, but most usually demand a 2 (at their place) for 1 (at Kinnick), or they wont play. Or they want a neutral site. Most of those teams don’t see the benefit of playing Iowa since there is very little to gain in terms of recruiting exposure with so few blue chip recruits coming from the state of Iowa. Iowa had scheduled a home-and-home series with Missouri about 15 years or so ago, only for Missouri to back out of it once Iowa started winning 10+ games a year by the mid-2000s.

The Smart JP on 7/31/2014 @ 9:16am EDT Said:

1st of all, don’t claim intelligence until you have got ur facts straight. Iowa DOES NOT play UNI every yr. AND if u understood why teams schedule those teams non conference ($$$) you’d quit trying to act smart.

JP on 7/31/2014 @ 10:54am EDT Said:

UNI 3 of the last 5. Also, pretty sure I said that “every school plays a couple of cupcakes every year”. Is that what you mean by if I “understood why teams schedule those teams”. To Eric’s point, if in fact, Iowa can’t get someone to do a home and home, what’s wrong with doing what Wisconsin and Michigan have done and schedule a neutral site. Iowa probably has a better Texas following than most. As Iowa fans, you can’t complain about Ferentz making too much money for delivering mediocrity and then defend the program for scheduling like you are. I have several friends that have Iowa season tickets and they hate the fact that they pay to see their team play OOC cream puffs at home each year. Why don’t you?

Gurndogg on 7/31/2014 @ 12:10pm EDT Said:

Not that I’m trying to puff-up OSU but they did get some good teams to come play a home-n-home with them so it can happen (the smart jp) so that is not a good argument.
Yes OSU has had some soft sch. like the last 2 yrs but you have to also be realistic that when they sch. games some teams are better than when the games actually get played
like OSU-Miami (Miami was better when sch. than when played) but that should not stop you
from sch. good teams as I don’t like the FCS games that BIG teams play now I get why some do as you need wins to go bowling & I also understand that the SEC plays FCS teams.

David on 7/31/2014 @ 7:30pm EDT Said:

I am not a fan of playing cupcake OOC schedule as it’s pretty much fools gold- this has been an issue for the B1G. Iowa or Wisky will win the West as you can always count on Nebraska getting blown out against credible competition.

Ben on 8/1/2014 @ 4:31am EDT Said:

When Iowa starts the season 2-2 with losses to Iowa State and Pitt, then what?

hawkeyeui93 on 8/3/2014 @ 8:06pm EDT Said:

JP: Unfortunately, politics have Iowa tied to playing Iowa State annually and in helping the State’s third largest university remain financially viable in FBS football [by scheduling UNI regularly in the recent past]. And Iowa’s third OOC game this season is against an ACC school on the road. Iowa has no control over the quality of Pitt as an opponent due to the fact that the contract was signed in 2005. The only meatball and the schedule’s least interesting game is Ball State, which I believe is on the schedule to either replace a team that broke a previous contract and/or had to be added at the last second when Iowa needed a 12th team to play in 2014 [and when the FBS went to 12 games annually]. The only way Iowa’s schedule gets better going forward with a 9-game conference schedule and a conference rule to eliminate FBS foes [per Delany’s desire] will be to discontinue the series with Iowa State. I think Iowa is currently tied in with Iowa State through 2017 or later.

Jeremy on 8/8/2014 @ 12:26pm EDT Said:

If your from Iowa, you understand why Iowa and Iowa State play! It’s not about the bowls or any of the other crap. It’s one time a year that everyone get together and has a great time. It doesn’t matter where you go that weekend in Iowa, the game will be on. I live in MO and still go home to watch that one game. Doesn’t matter if I’m at the game or in my buddy’s basement. The game is a must watch for anyone from the state of Iowa. By the way “GO HAWKS” win or lose…………..