With the football season getting close, it's time to check in with MSU's upcoming opponents. In the weeks leading up to the season, we'll have a short Q&A with a blogger from each opposing school. Next up: Iowa. Ross Binder helps run the always-fun Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants. He was gracious enough to answer some questions about the upcoming season and why Iowa fans hate Jerel Worthy so much.
1. After back-to-back so-so seasons, what are the expectations for Iowa this year?
"Clowns to the left of me / Jokers to the right, here I am / Stuck in the middle with you..." And, yes, I hope you are imagining Iowa football as some poor doomed police officer at the mercy of a sociopathic Michael Madsen (and if you want to get your rocks off picturing Mark Dantonio as Madsen, hey, I won't stop you). But I digress.
Iowa fans rarely get too pie-in-the-sky when it comes to preseason expectations. It usually only happens after a memorable season and when Iowa has several key players returning. That certainly isn't the case in 2012 -- Iowa's entering play off the back of back-to-back 7-5 regular season records and has question marks pretty much everywhere except QB, C, and one of the CB spots. (It doesn't help that the last two times Iowa fans got caught up in playing the high expectations game, 2005 and 2010, the seasons themselves were bitter disappointments.) On top of the uncertainty at so many positions, there's also the itty-bitty factor of Iowa breaking in new offensive and defensive coordinators for the first time since, uh, 1999. Change is new to us. It's a little frightening.
Probably the only thing keeping expectations from completely bottoming out is the schedule -- even the Snuggle bear thinks it's a little soft, bro. Iowa plays no true non-conference road games (the only game away from Iowa City is a "neutral site game" against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field -- that will likely be filled with at least 40,000 Iowa fans), the only non-conference BCS opponent is Iowa State, and Iowa avoids Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois from the Rust Belt Division. Road trips to East Lansing and Ann Arbor are suitably imposing, and a playdate in Evanston always holds a certain amount of trepidation for us, but this is still a schedule that looks like it sets up for 6-7 wins at minimum. And if things break right and new-look players (and coordinators) surprise in good ways, who knows? Maybe Iowa pilfers a 10-win season when no one's looking. But expectations seem to be firmly in the 6-8 win range, I'd say.
2. James Vandenberg is back under center, but Marvin McNutt is gone and the running back situation is, well, typical. Who are some other names, both on offense and defense, to watch for?
The key name to know on offense is likely C.J. Fiedorowicz or, as we lovingly refer to him, the Polish Hat. He's a tight end with an irresistible, NFL-ready combination of size and speed (6-7, 265 with a 40 time in the 4.5 range) and soft hands. He had to figure out how to block, but he came on strong by the end of last season and new offensive coordinator has been lavishing praise on CJF all-spring. Keenan Davis, a rare 4* in-state skill position player, has had a mildly disappointing career so far, but hope springs eternal that he has a breakout season as a senior.
On defense, I'd like to say that there's a name to know and fear on the defensive line... but I would be lying. The defensive line is comprised pretty much entirely of freshmen, redshirt freshmen, redshirt seniors who could never crack the depth chart before, and Dom Alvis. Who is tiny. No, the names to know are Micah Hyde (you remember him, right?) and James Morris and Christian Kirksey, two linebackers who led the team in tackles last year and who are starting to look like they might be the next great Iowa linebacking duo.
3. From the Hawkeye perspective, who is your biggest conference rival? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Nebraska? Is that bigger than Iowa State?
Oof, what a question. We have hate for so many conference teams it's hard to decide which one we hate the most. So much hate, so little time... Anyway, there are reasons to tab any one of those three teams as Iowa's biggest rival. The Wisconsin series is absurdly, preposterously, outrageously even-steven historically (42-42-2) and in terms of game quality, it was hard to top in the '00s. Unfortunately, not playing them every year (thanks, divisions!) is already eroding the quality of that rivalry. Plus, I've always felt like there was a lot more mutual respect in that rivalry than in some of the other ones -- we hate losing to anyone, of course, but the Badgers are our red-and-white doppelgangers in so many ways, it's hard to really despise them.
What the Minnesota series lacks in even-stevenness (Minnesota leads the series, 61-42-2) and game quality (other than the last few years, the games have tended to be blowouts), it makes up for in hate. Allegedly, Wisconsin is Minnesota's biggest rival... but I never hear them chanting "Who hates Wisconsin?" at random sporting events, you know? Iowa doesn't reciprocate that particular form of hate, which would support the idea that we're not quite as preoccupied with them as they are with us, but there's definitely a lot of dislike there. Iowa fans took great relish in going up to the Metrodome and beating the Gophers, tearing down their goalposts, and despoiling their bathrooms. And, hell, we play for the best goddamn rivalry trophy in the sport (miss u, Floyd), which is a pretty big feather in the cap of this rivalry.
And then there's Nebraska. Oh, Nebraska. Obviously, Iowa has less history with Big Red than the other teams (42 games historically, just five since 1980) and hasn't actually beaten Nebraska since 1981... but none of that matters, honestly. Iowa fans hate Nebraska. They despite Nebraska. They loathe Nebraska. A lot of that is pent-up frustration -- not just at losing to them, but also at so rarely getting a chance to play them. Imagine having a neighbor right next door who crows and crows about their own greatness (sometimes deservedly so, I admit), but that you can never get a chance to confront and shut up. It was particularly galling when Iowa had very good teams (early-mid '80s, early '90s, early '00s) and didn't get a chance to see how they stacked up to their noisy neighbor. Now that's all changed, of course -- we'll never have to deal with Nebraska fans crowing without getting a chance to shut them up ourselves. That's incredibly exciting.
So, at the moment, I'd have to punt on this question -- it's too hard to single out one particular team right now. But ask me again in five years and I'll be dumbfounded if Nebraska isn't the hands down, no-brainer answer to this question. And, yeah, it will be bigger than Iowa State, even if that rivalry will always occupy a weird, special spot in our sporting lives.
4. What's the feeling around Kirk Ferentz right now? He has the huge contract and has done a great job in Iowa City for the most part. But with the Big Ten seemingly shifting in terms of powers and Iowa struggling the last two years, is there a concern that he might not be worth the money? Or is this just the cycle that Iowa seems to always go through?
There's grumbling and, obviously, Iowa fans wish they'd won more games in recent years -- who doesn't, right? -- but I still don't get the sense that there's a burgeoning movement to give him the heave-ho. The money is a convenient talking point, but one that I've never felt is as relevant as some observers make it out to be. Would Iowa fans really be any less pissed off at going 7-5 (and losing to Iowa State and Minnesota) if Ferentz was making $200,000 a year instead of almost $4,000,000? I don't think so -- a loss is a loss is a loss. The money just gives them an extra thing to gripe about.
Ferentz still has a lot of capital at Iowa, partially for the great success he's engineered in the past (four 10-win seasons, two Big Ten championships, two BCS bowl trips, etc.), partially for the fact that he seems so fundamentally good natured (he's been a pillar of the community for over a decade now and represents the university well), and partially because Iowa fans are pretty prudent, cautious lot. Iowa fans with long memories remember the dark days of the '60s and '70s remember just how dark it got for Iowa football and Ferentz, for all his flaws, has never let things get close to that bad. If 6-6 is the floor for his teams, well... it could be a lot worse. Iowa fans are also typically slow to call for a coach's head -- Todd Lickliter spent three years driving away fans and players from the Iowa basketball program, playing some of the most unwatchable basketball in memory, and acting like a corpse in public... and there was still a vocal crowd of people who disagreed with firing him in 2010 and who felt he didn't get enough of a chance to succeed at Iowa. (For the record, I am not one of those people.)
On a more optimistic note, while the turnover in the coaching ranks is frightening in some regards (again, it's something we've never dealt with since Ferentz arrived in 1999), it's also cause for optimism and hope in other regards. Iowa football has, in many ways, gotten increasingly stagnant and predictable over the last decade -- adding new blood to the ranks gives us justifiable reason to hope that they might be a little less predictable and a little more dynamic going forward -- and that that can lead the way to more wins.
5. Why do Iowa fans hate Jerel Worthy so much? Was it simply they thought he was faking injuries last year? It sure seemed to develop into a big thing on message boards.
Oh, you want something a bit more substantial than that? Okay. Yes, the biggest reason behind the scorn for Worthy is the kinda sorta suspicious-looking injuries he kept sustaining during the Iowa-Michigan State game. It looked like gamesmanship, it smelled like gamesmanship, it quacked like gamesmanship... maybe it was gamesmanship? Or maybe not. Either way, Iowa fans latched onto the idea and have summarily refused to let it go. After all, it's way easier to blame a loss on an injury-faking ninny who curtailed Iowa's "momentum" than it is to just admit that Iowa got flat-out whupped by a better team. Hooray for coping mechanisms!
Thanks again to Ross for taking the time to answer some questions. We'll check back in with him during game week. Until then, make sure you check out Black Heart Gold Pants for all your Iowa info.