TAMPA, Fla. — It was, by first-hand accounts, an emotional speech.
It was delivered by Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz to his team days after a disheartening 28-9 home loss to Wisconsin on Nov.2 that left the Hawkeyes 5-3 with games remaining at Purdue, Michigan at home and at Nebraska.
“He said we had an opportunity to be a nine-win ballclub, something that had only been done 13 times in the history of Iowa football,” senior offensive tackle Brett Van Sloten said. “That’s something that stuck with me, and stuck with a lot of guys.”
So here we are, a noon kickoff Wednesday against No. 14 LSU in the Outback Bowl that will be televised on ESPN. Sixty minutes on the Raymond James Stadium turf away from victory No. 9.
The bad taste of an 4-8 record in 2012 had been washed down the drain, even if Ferentz doesn’t improve to 4-1 against the mighty Southeastern Conference today.
In fact, it almost feels like an icing-on-the cake game after the Hawkeyes climbed step after step up the bowl prestige ladder with each win down the stretch.
“That might be the outside perspective, that we accomplished more than we probably should have,” senior free safety Tanner Miller said. “But that’s not how we think of it internally. It’s not, ‘Oh, if we win this game it’s a bonus.’ We’re in this to win it.”
Linebacker Christian Kirksey, a senior, has heard emotional speeches from Ferentz before. But this one resonated with him.
“That was a moment for us to realize we had to pick it up, and keep striving to play better football,” Kirksey said. “Now we can be a part of the history of Iowa football.”
The speech, Ferentz recalled Tuesday, was a message to the team that “there was that they realize there was a lot of football left, and we could shape our destiny a little bit.”
If Iowa wins Wednesday, it’ll become the sixth nine-win team in Ferentz’s 15 years. That would match what Hayden Fry, the man who brought Ferentz to Iowa City as an offensive line coach in 1981, did in 20.
After that Ferentz speech, Iowa beat Purdue to become bowl eligible, 38-14. They rallied from a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat Michigan, 24-21. And then polished off the regular season with a 38-17 thumping of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Iowa is a touchdown underdog to an LSU team trying to reach 10 victories for a school-record fourth straight season. But underdog seems to play right into Ferentz’s motivational bag of tricks. Iowa was an underdog to No. 15 Florida in the 2004 Outback Bowl and won … and an underdog to No. 11 LSU when it won the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Only once, a touchdown loss to No. 16 Florida in the 2006 Outback Bowl, has a Ferentz-vs.-SEC game followed conventional wisdom.
Iowa didn’t follow the script this season, either. Picked to finish near the bottom of the Legends Division, the Hawkeyes tied for second at 5-3. You’d have to look long and hard to find a Hawkeye fan predicting an eight-win season in the months after the throbbing hangover of 2012.
But opportunity is alive. The Hawkeyes are one win away from a possible spot in the Top 25 at the end of the season. Who would have predicted that when camp started in August?
A spot in the final poll would earn Ferentz a $125,000 bonus. More importantly, it would be the sixth time one of his teams finished the season in the Top 25. And it would follow a path strikingly similar to 2008.
Coming off a bowl-free 6-6 season in 2007, Iowa responded by going 9-4 the next season after a 31-10 drubbing of South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes found themselves ranked for the first time all season, at No. 20, when the final Associated poll came out.
Now a bowl-free season has been followed by another trip to the Outback Bowl. A win can earn a spot in the Top 25 for the first time this season. It would also ratchet up expectations for 2014.
Momentum from 2008 carried the team to an 11-2 record and a victory in the Orange Bowl a season later.
The Hawkeyes will likely be considered a legitimate division contender in 2014 when the league expands to 14 teams. Iowa will be in the West Division with Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska. There is no Ohio State, no Michigan State, no Michigan on the schedule.
But there are significant holes to fill before that becomes a reality. Eight starters return on offense, but just six on defense. Placekicker Mike Meyer will also have to be replaced.
This is the 11th different Iowa team to win eight games in a season. Making the jump to become one of 14 to win at least nine will take the Hawkeyes’ most complete effort of the season. And maybe one more emotional speech from Ferentz.
Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year and covers Hawkeye football for the Register. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football