Hawkeyes Amaze During 'Transition' Year

If this is what a 'rebuilding year' is going to be like in the Kirk Ferentz era, then you may want to reserve your season tickets through the year 2010. The Hawkeyes moved up to #11 in the 2nd BCS poll of 2003 with Illinois up next on their schedule. HN.com's Jon Miller takes a look at how impressive this accomplishment really is in light of the adversity the 2003 Hawkeyes have faced on the injury front, a more demanding schedule and the heavy toll that graduation took on the two-deeps.

I, along with many others, have been referring to the 2003 Iowa Hawkeye football season as a rebuilding season, or a transition season.

Whatever the adjective, there were a lot of key players to replace on the offensive side of the ball after last year's 11-2 Orange Bowl team ran roughshod over its Big Ten foes.

Last year's offense was the most productive in school history, it had the best offensive line in school history, arguably the best tight end in school history and Brad Banks turned in one of the best statistical seasons ever by an Iowa quarterback and won the Maxwell Award and finished runner up in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

That litany is not new to you.

Prior to this season, several magazines had the Hawkeyes near the bottom of the Big Ten when their predictions went to print. Phil Steele, who I feel puts out the best pre-season publication whether it be basketball or football, picked Iowa to finish 8th in the Big Ten. Athlon picked Iowa 7th as did CNN/SI.

I guess you could point out that those predictions are not wrong, as Iowa sits at 2-2 midway through the conference race.

But the Hawkeyes have Illinois on deck and that should be one of the easier games of the year for Iowa and a win would move them to 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the league.

If this is going to be the new ‘norm' for transition years, Iowa's football program might be knocking on the door of the nation's elite.

Case in point, and again repeating that there is a lot of football left to play this season:

The second set of BCS rankings were released late Monday and they had Iowa ranked 11th in the only poll that matters from here on out.

Iowa was ranked 13th and 14th by the AP and Coaches Polls, and their average computer poll ranking was 10.67. The BCS system grades Iowa's schedule as the 10th most difficult in the nation to this point, which is third best among the top 15 teams in the BCS and the only school that is ranked ahead of Iowa with a higher SOS ranking is Ohio State. Iowa is also the highest rated two-loss team.

Keep in mind that the 2003 ‘transition' season is 66% complete with Illinois in the batters box.

Illinois should be thankful for Indiana, otherwise there might be a debate as to who is the worst team in the Big Ten. But then again, those two teams will settle that once and for all on November 8th. (Check your local listings for availability in your area.)

Iowa has already made two appearances in the Top 10 of both the AP and Coaches poll this year and they have a great chance at being ranked 7th-9th in next week's BCS poll with a win over the hapless and Beutjer-less Illini, as two teams that are ranked ahead of them in the BCS play one another and three other teams ranked just ahead of them have very difficult games on their hands.

Too bad all transition years were not like this.

Hayden Fry had a seven year run from 1981 to 1987 where his teams never won fewer than eight games. That was a great stretch with some solid transition years in the mix.

But there were also some very difficult transition years, especially once he lost Bill Snyder, Kirk Ferentz, Barry Alvarez and others from his staff in the late 1980's.

Given that Iowa is once again knocking on a Top 10 BCS ranking, you would expect the message boards and talk radio shows in and around Iowa to be overflowing with praise, adulation and unbridled enthusiasm over this season to date, but there is more squabbling and criticism that one might expect.

Maybe this illustration might put some perspective on things a bit more.

Remember back to last season and the remarkable year that was 2002 with all of the star players that Iowa offense had at its disposal.

When the second BCS poll of the year was released on October 28th, 2002, those Iowa Hawkeyes were rated 10th, just one slot ahead of where this year's Iowa team is rated.

I will wait a few seconds to let that sink in, because it is pretty amazing when you think of the 12 Hawkeyes that were in the two-deep roster this spring or fall who have missed at least two games due to injury. Seven of those players will have missed at least half of the season and several are done for the year due to injury.

Combine that with the losses of Eric Steinbach, Bruce Nelson, Ben Sobieski, Andy Lightfoot, Brad Banks and CJ Jones to graduation and Dallas Clark to an early entry in the NFL, and you are talking about extreme turnover.

Yet, the 2003 Hawkeyes are a win against Illinois away from their second straight season where they made an appearance in the Top 10 of the BCS standings.

That is pretty remarkable, especially when you look at some teams that were in the Top 15 of the Week Two BCS poll from one year ago that are nowhere to be seen this year:

  • Notre Dame was #3, and they have to win out the rest of their game to become bowl eligible. They returned 13 starters from last year.
  • Texas was #7 and they are not in the Top 15, yet they returned 16 starters and were a popular pick to win the National Title this year.
  • NC State was #9 and they were picked to finish 2nd in a consensus of the pre-season magazine polls.
  • Colorado was 12th and they lost to Baylor this season.
  • Kansas State was 15th and they lost to Marshall at home.

Even though Iowa has a chance to continue its climb this week as they will be heavy favorites against Illinois, they still have some tough sledding ahead of them, starting November 8th at Purdue. Then the Gophers come calling into Kinnick Stadium in the annual battle for Floyd of Rosedale before the Hawkeyes end the season with the always-difficult trip to Madison to play the inconsistent Badgers.

What I am trying to say that in a span of two or three weeks, Iowa might not be in the Top 15 of the BCS rankings.

But no one outside of the Hawkeye Nation felt this year's Iowa team would fly this high at any point of the season, much less eight games into the schedule.

And last year's #10 BCS ranking at this point came with Iowa having the third-lowest rated strength of schedule of any team in the Top 15.

It would appear that Kirk Ferentz and his coaching staff have this program on very solid footing and in a position that when they are faced with a transition year, they still have a few bullets in the chamber.

One final interesting stat that came to bear on the herky e-list today:

Over the span of their last 35 regular season games, the Hawkeyes have not suffered a loss by more than 10 points. They are 25-10 over that span, and seven of those losses were by six or fewer points.

That is consistency, especially when you consider that the Illinois football program is not yet two full years removed from their 7-1 Big Ten Championship and Sugar Bowl appearance.

Ferentz was the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2002, but this year's work is more impressive in my mind to this point.

Ferentz is being asked the ‘NFL Question' a lot these days, and his answer always seems to contain something along the lines of ‘I am happy at Iowa. I have a great job, I work with great people and there are some things that we plan to do still.'.

If he can keep his teams playing as consistently as they have over the course of the last three years, he might take Iowa to loftier heights still.

Jon Miller is the creator and publisher of Hawkeyenation.com. Miller can also be heard talking Hawkeye sports weekly on WHO 1040AM each Wednesday night from 6-7PM as well as on WMT 600AM every Saturday following the Iowa Football game broadcast


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