The consensus opinion from the message boards and the numerous fans I spoke with after the game and at the San Antonio Airport on Sunday points to a feeling of optimism for the future, thanks to the effort they saw put forth on Saturday.
Iowa was among the biggest, if not the biggest, of the bowl underdogs this year. The opening line in Las Vegas was Texas by 10.5. Yet the Hawkeyes battled the defending national champions down to the final second, were in the lead at the start of the second, third and fourth quarters of the game, played the Longhorns to a statistical dead heat and were a missed field goal away from beating a team that still had national championship aspirations with two regular season games to play.
Some people have forgotten about that; Texas was 9-1 prior to their game at Kansas State and very much in the hunt for the national championship on November 11th. A first quarter injury to quarterback Colt McCoy dashed those hopes, as the Longhorns would fall to the Wildcats with backup Jevan Snead under center. Two weeks later in the season finale, a still hurting McCoy could not lead Texas past arch-rival Texas A&M.
Texas has similar talent to that of Ohio State and Michigan. They are loaded with blue chip recruits that were among the best in the nation when they pledged to the Longhorns.
Yet Iowa, coming off one of its most disappointing seasons in the last decade, was a judgement call by an official away from leading the Longhorns 21-3 in the third quarter. NOTE: I have no problem with the call the official made, saying that Scott Chandler was lined up on the line of scrimmage. The replay shows that the official was well within his right to make that call.
Even after those points were taken off the board, and with Texas seizing the momentum for the next 15 minutes of the game, Iowa battled back to lead 21-20 to start the fourth quarter.
With less than four minutes remaining, Iowa had the ball at the Texas 48 yard line, trailing by just two points.
The reverse-pass call by Iowa on first down at the Texas 48 will be one that is debated for many years to come, and one that Kirk Ferentz took all responsibility for. As you know, Texas sniffed out the play and dropped Dominique Douglas for a 9-yard loss, and Iowa had to punt the ball. It got the ball back inside its own 10 yard line with just :02 left to play.
As Rob Howe reported on Saturday night, the post game interview session was somewhat upbeat. Sure, the players were hurting as they wanted to win the game and knew they had let one slip through their grasp. This was more painful for the seniors.
But many of the seniors I spoke with felt that they accomplished the last mission that Kirk Ferentz and the coaching staff charged them with; getting the Iowa Hawkeyes back to playing Iowa Hawkeye football, something that we did not see in 2006 save for a game or two.
In his post game interview, Kirk Ferentz even made overtures to that having been accomplished.
"The guys really responded and their attitude has been great. We started the Monday after thanksgiving. It starts with our seniors and they did a great job. I can't remember us having a bad day of practice or where the team wasn't fully invested in what we are doing." Ferentz said. "No one feels great today, but I think it's clear that we have improved in the past five weeks and that was paramount. We talked about that, looking forward and do what we can do. We knew we would have a tough task today. I couldn't be any more proud of the way our players played and coaches coached. If we keep our focus where it needs to be, I am real confident that we will be back playing where we need to on a consistent basis."
There were more quotes from Ferentz along those lines, eerily similar to his comments following the 2001 Alamo Bowl where he proclaimed that ‘The Hawks are back.' Only this time, his words didn't come through a smile and the joy of victory, so they were more measured and subdued. But I couldn't help but think back to being in that same room five years earlier. Would there have been more time, I was going to ask him about that very thing.
Ferentz said back in November that the 2006 season felt more like 1999 than any other year of his tenure. He said then that the team needed to get back to where it was at the end of the 2001 season. He said on Saturday that he believed that is where the program now resides.
So what of next year?
Iowa will have some holes to fill on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Saying goodbye on the offensive line are Mike Jones, Mike Elgin and Marshal Yanda. In my opinion, Yanda is one of the four best offensive lineman to play at Iowa under Ferentz, and the other three players were selected in either the first round or early second round of the NFL draft.
This offseason will be the time for Dan Doering, Andy Kuempal, Kyle Calloway and other young offensive linemen to step in and take that next step. Dace Richardson is your likely starter at left tackle, Rafael Eubanks is your starting center and Seth Olsen will start at either guard or tackle. Alex Kanellis may move over to offensive guard from the defensive line.
On defense, the entire starting line returns and hopefully they will be more healthy in 2007 than they were this year. Ettore Ewen and Vernon Jackson suffered injuries during the bowl prep that will likely end their careers. Once considered a position of strength for 2007 and 2008, the defensive line is getting too thin. There are hopes that Adrian Clayborn can step in and contribute next year; he will have to.
Iowa loses Ed Miles and key reserve Zach Gabelman at linebacker, but Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal return. Bryon Gattas and Pat Angerer will have the experience of playing on special teams this year and getting their feet wet on defense, but those four are it as far as any experience goes.
Iowa will have experience at corner with Adam Shada and Charles Godfrey entering their seniors years, and Bradley Fletcher saw significant action this season when Shada went down to injury as well as in nickel situations. Iowa will replace both safeties, and Macus Wilson appears to be the heir apparent at free while Shonn Greene's recent move to defense lines him up as the likely candidate at strong.
Any way you slice it, Iowa's defense is going to be thin next year when it comes to the experienced reserves and injuries could be devastating.
Wide receiver is a position where Iowa returns everyone, and Andy Brodell's 300-plus yards receiving over his last two games and a penchant for the big play was nice to see. Dominique Douglas was one of the best freshmen receivers in the nation this year and should only get better. Anthony Bowman saw action in the slot as the #3 receiver in the Alamo Bowl, while first game starter Herb Grigsby, thought to be the go to player this year at the position, didn't take an offensive snap in the bowl game. Trey Stross will be in the mix, as will a handful of very talented freshmen. Tony Moeaki will be the featured tight end for Iowa, and Brandon Myers should also be a solid player.
Albert Young and Damian Sims return at running back for Iowa, giving the Hawkeyes a very good one-two punch. Fullback Tom Busch, who is one of the best blockers in the nation at his position, also returns.
Jake Christensen ended the season as the team's #2 quarterback and was under center for Iowa's last win of the season, against Northern Illinois. He was 19 of 30 in that game for 253 yards and two touchdown passes. I see him has the heir apparent to Drew Tate. Arvell Nelson was the offensive scout team MVP this past fall, and Rick Stanzi will also have his nose in the mix competing for the position.
Punter Andy Fenstermaker graduates, so former US Army All American Ryan Donahue will have the job to lose. Place kicker Kyle Schlicher also graduates, and Austin Signor hit his two field goal attempts this year in the season opening game against Montana.
As you can see, Iowa has a lot of questions to answer during the course of the next eight months before it travels to Chicago to face Northern Illinois in the 2007 season opener.
Michigan and Ohio State drop from Iowa's schedule, which is a good thing as the Wolverines will challenge for the national title once again. Ohio State will lose a lot on offense, but they will have a Top 15 team once again.
Iowa gets Syracuse at home and travels to Ames to take a on a Cyclone team that will be in year one of the Gene Chizik era. Iowa State loses nearly every offensive starter save QB Bret Meyer and WR Todd Blythe. The defense returns the majority of its players, as long as they do not lose some of them to transfers.
Iowa opens Big Ten play at Wisconsin, who will be coming off a 12-1 season. The Badgers return a ton of players form that team. Indiana comes into Kinnick Stadium in week two of Big Ten play, and QB Kellen Lewis and WR James Hardy will be weapons that Iowa will have to deal with. Iowa travels to Penn State in week three, and the Nittany Lions will be a preseason Top 15 team. Illinois will visit Iowa City in week four of the 2007 Big Ten season, and Ron Zook's Illini are putting together an excellent recruiting class after playing close to 20 freshmen this past season. They will be a dangerous foe and not one to take lightly.
After that, it's a road trip at Purdue, followed by a home game against Michigan State, at Northwestern, home against Minnesota before ending the regular season at home against Western Michigan.
I believe there is reason to be optimistic about 2007, but there is a lot of work to do between now and then. I also believe that Iowa will be less conservative when it comes to redshirting its freshmen. If the young players show flashes that they can contribute at least by the season's midpoint, they may burn quite a few shirts in 2007.
If the coaches carry the same focus they did in the weeks leading up to the Alamo Bowl, and if the players continue to buy into what the coaches are preaching, 2007 should be a much better year than was 2006.