Could 2009 Have Earned Kirk Ferentz More Leeway?

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Kirk Ferentz is on the hot seat — at least, that’s what we’re told heading into any given Iowa season, if not each time the Hawkeyes lose a game.

More accurately, Kirk Ferentz is strapped to the hot seat like James Bond in Casino Royale, and Iowa bloggers’ laments of the Hawkeye head coach are Le Chiffre and his henchman pummeling him.

Ferentz’s staggering buyout is often pointed to as the culprit behind Iowa’s retention of him after every offensively anemic defeat to Iowa State, or wild finish against a MAC foe.

As much as those $13 million work in Kirk Ferentz’s favor, Ricky Stanzi’s injury in 2009 is equally responsible for narrowing the coach’s margin for error.

Stanzi’s numbers in 2009 weren’t exactly eye-popping. With 17 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions on the year, the mere suggestion losing him was responsible for keeping Iowa out of the Rose Bowl — either for the Rose Bowl Game or the 2010 BCS Championship Game — may seem outlandish.

And yet, Iowa was undefeated and ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 and No. 6 in the Coaches Poll on Nov. 1. Stanzi’s numbers may not have been impressive, but he was efficient enough to keep the Hawkeyes offense doing just enough to balance a terrific defense.

Stanzi’s absence was glaring in the second half of the loss to Northwestern. He was injured midway through, setting the scene for backup James Vandenberg. Vandenberg went a miserable 9-for-27 for 92 yards with an interception, the Hawkeyes scored just 10 points as Northwestern loaded the box on the run game, and the undefeated season was dashed.

Vandenberg was better against Ohio State in the de facto Big Ten championship, going 20-for-33 with two touchdowns. But he was also picked three times, part of the Buckeyes’ game plan. Much like Northwestern, Ohio State went heavy in the box to force Vandenberg to put the ball in the air.

Iowa’s offensive may not have been explosive with Stanzi behind center in 2009, but his presence was enough to keep defenses honest. Consider some of the Hawkeyes’ rushing outputs before Stanzi’s injury — 191 vs. Iowa State, 133 vs. Arizona, 163 vs. Penn State, 138 vs. Michigan State and 143 vs. Indiana.

With Stanzi out, the Hawkeyes had 65 yards against Northwestern, 67 against Ohio State and with him back but limited against Minnesota, 54 yards.

It wasn’t until Stanzi was back at full strength in the Orange Bowl that the Iowa run game recovered, going for 172 yards in the win over Georgia Tech.

Considering close games went the Hawkeyes’ way with Stanzi, it’s not unreasonable to think the 7-point and overtime, 3-point losses to Northwestern and Ohio State are wins with him in the lineup. Sitting at 12-0 as Big Ten champions at season’s end

With everything else in the College Football Cosmos shaking out as they had otherwise, with Alabama, Texas, TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati all finishing undefeated, as well, Iowa almost assuredly would not have played in the BCS Championship Game. No one was leapfrogging Texas or Alabama for one of the top two spots.

And, realistically, the 2009 Hawkeyes probably wouldn’t have fared well against either Texas or Alabama. But going into the 2010 Rose Bowl Game undefeated would have actually benefited Kirk Ferentz’s resume.

Consider that Iowa’s chances of winning that Rose Bowl, which would have been the program’s first appearance in almost 20 years, pretty damn good. Oregon won an absolute mess of a Pac-10 title race that season, outlasting Arizona (which Iowa beat in a 27-17 decision not as close as the final score would indicate) and Oregon State down the stretch. While Chip Kelly was head coach, in his second year at the controls, Oregon was not yet Oregon. The Ducks’ transformation into national powerhouse wouldn’t occur until the next season.

Oregon emerged from what was a pretty awful conference that year, ripe for the Big Ten’s pickin’. The Pac-10 was undefeated against Big Ten opponents in the Rose Bowl dating back to the 1999 season, but no matter if it was Ohio State or Iowa playing Oregon on Jan. 1, 2010, the streak was coming to an end. Had it been Iowa, it would have also ended a 51-year drought without a victory in the Granddaddy Of ‘Em All.

Imagine a scenario in which the Hawkeyes are Big Ten champions, Rose Bowl champions and undefeated. Though Utah couldn’t cull enough support from AP voters the season prior to split the national championship with Florida, a 13-0 Big Ten team may very well have curried together the votes needed to

How much more leeway, then, does a title-winning Kirk Ferentz have six years later?

Fans’ patience with coaches now is such that even with a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory en tow, the leash on Kirk Ferentz would be any longer. Texas fired Mack Brown eight years removed from winning a national title, and just four after the Longhorns played in the BCS Championship Game, in the same season as our Stanzi Scenario.

Losses to Iowa State in 2012 and 2014, the defeats to Central Michigan in 2012 and Northern Illinois in 2013, and the unrealized expectations of the 2010 campaign might still be enough to strap Kirk Ferentz down to that hot seat regardless.