The Continued Decline of the Iowa Offense Could Spell Controversy

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There are several ways to measure offensive efficiency in college football. Traditionally, yards per play and points per game give a general idea of how well an offense performs during the season. However, factoring in the opponent, personnel, and the situation, metrics can become a lot more advanced and reveal advantages and strengths. For the Hawkeyes, these strengths were scarce last season. In fact, the Iowa offense has been experiencing a downward trend over the last five seasons. The continued decline of the Iowa offense through 2022 could spell controversy for the Kirk Ferentz tenure.

The Brian Ferentz Offense

Brian Ferentz took over as offensive coordinator in Iowa City in 2017. He had previously coached the Hawkeye offensive line for five years beginning in 2012. The 39-year-old coordinator played offensive line for his father at Iowa in the early 2000s before a short, two-year stint in the NFL. Brian then went on to coach under Bill Belichick in New England until 2012. He has been on the Hawkeye coaching staff ever since and has helped continue a winning tradition in Iowa City. 

In Ferentz’s first season as offensive coordinator, Iowa finished 8-5 with a bowl victory over Boston College. That season, the Hawkeyes handed Ohio State one of their worst losses in the Urban Meyer era inside Kinnick Stadium. Ferentz’s offense ran the Buckeyes out of town, dropping 55 points on the soon-to-be Big Ten Champions. In his first year at the helm, Ferentz looked to be making progress on a new look to the offense, working the ball around to all the skill positions. The Hawkeyes would finish 108th nationally in total offense that year, averaging 5.1 yards per play. 

Offense Efficiency Metrics

During that 2017 season, however, the offensive efficiency index had Iowa at 44th overall, with a 0.24 rating. This rating corresponds to a per-possession scoring advantage an offense presents against the average opponent. In other words, for every possession Iowa had against a given opponent, the scoring margin was 0.24 points in favor of the Hawkeyes. It’s not ideal, but it was in the top one-third of the country. 

In the seasons following 2017, Iowa would finish with nine, ten, six (eight-game season), and ten wins per season. Looking solely at those win totals, the casual fan is sure to be satisfied with those performances. However, the offensive efficiency numbers dropped consecutively in each of those seasons. The team’s offensive efficiency index ranking was 41st in 2018, 53rd in 2019, 64th in 2020, and 90th in 2021. Last season, their per-possession scoring margin was -0.34, and the team averaged just 4.7 yards per play, good for 121st out of 130 FBS teams. 

Another metric track expected points added on a per-play basis, called EPA for short. This metric calculates the added point value of every offensive play while taking into account the down, the yard line, and game situation of each play. Last season, Iowa was 120th nationally, with an EPA of -0.117. The negative EPA indicates that the team’s expected points added per play actually decreased per snap on offense. Oddly, this team still won 10 regular-season games and appeared in the conference championship game.

The Importance of 2022

The 2022 season will be Ferentz’s sixth year with the keys to the offensive playbook. Since then, the team’s offensive efficiency index has decreased annually. Iowa’s offensive yards per play were consistent at 5.5 from 2018-2020 but dropped to 4.7 in 2021. Patience in the world of college football is almost non-existent nowadays. Coaches all around the country are hired and fired at tremendously quick rates subject to their performance on the field year-in and year-out. At Iowa, the athletic department has shown considerably more patience than average. However, if the 2022 season continues to see a decline in efficiency in the Iowa offense, the necessary changes will be obvious. 

The topic of change gets touchy when considering the family ties within the coaching staff at the University of Iowa. Brian is Kirk’s son, and Kirk’s son-in-law, Tyler Barnes, is the director of recruiting. Iowa recruiting has been on a tear lately, landing some of the top players in the region and even in the nation. The offense, however, has not been performing at such high levels. The Hawkeyes have a long-time reputation for playing hard-nosed, traditional football. They are a team that likes to establish the run and play a conservative style of game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. However, that approach cannot be used as an excuse for an offense that was ranked 121st in total offense last year. Nor for one that has been outside of the top 80 since the younger Ferentz took over as coordinator.

The Bowden Tenure at Florida State

If the proper changes are not made, either to the offense or to the coaching staff, problems may arise. These problems could look similar to the ending of Bobby Bowden’s tenure at Florida State in the early 2000s. The legendary head coach had a remarkable career in Tallahassee, but it wound to a close somewhat controversially.

In 2001, Bowden promoted his son, Jeff Bowden, from wide receivers coach at Florida State to offensive coordinator following the departure of Mark Richt. The promotion was criticized as nepotism. The younger Bowden had coached for his brother at Salem College for three seasons and for his father at Florida State for seven as the receivers coach. His history led many to believe he was only hired because of his relationship with the head man. The Seminoles had 14 straight double-digit win seasons through 2000 before the younger Bowden took control of the offense. Following the change of coordinator, the team experienced a considerable downfall through Bowden Sr.’s final year at the helm in 2009. 

The Seminoles would average just 8.5 wins per year from 2001 through 2006. Following a shut-out loss to Wake Forest at home in 2006, the university organized a “buy-out” for the younger Bowden. The agreement resulted in a payout of over $500,000, despite his contract has already expired. The messy situation was again flagged as nepotism. It made for a controversial ending of the Hall-of-Fame Bowden’s tenure at Florida State.

The Continued Decline of the Iowa Offense Could Spell Controversy

At Iowa, Ferentz is entering his 24th season as the head coach, adding to a legendary career of his own. There are a lot of factors that go into the hiring and firing of coaches within a coaching staff, but performance is the most important metric. The Hawkeyes have been on one of the most successful three-year runs in the history of the program. They have had a 74% winning percentage since 2019. If the offense could perform at a level just within the top two-thirds of the nation, that percentage would likely be even higher.

The Hawkeye defense and special teams have gone a long way into making this football team successful of late. The decline of the Iowa offense has been the limiting factor. The 2022 season could be the younger Ferentz’s last opportunity to get things moving in the right direction. To avoid the possibility of a tarnished ending to the Ferentz tenure, the results and decisions following the 2022 season will be paramount.