Hawkeyes mailbag: 2019 Iowa can accomplish something Kirk Ferentz's first 20 teams didn't

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Ask someone to pick one word to describe Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa football program over 21 seasons, and chances are the word that comes back is "consistency."

The Hawkeyes have been bowl-eligible in 18 of the last 19 seasons. With Saturday’s 23-19 victory against then-No. 7 Minnesota, they clinched their 16th winning season since 2001. They’ve finished with seven wins four times; eight wins four times; nine wins twice; 10 wins twice; 11 wins twice; 12 wins once. They’ve finished in the national top 10 five times.

Yet this Iowa team can accomplish something Ferentz's previous 20 have not: Go wire-to-wire in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Kirk Ferentz is tied with Joe Paterno at No. 5 all-time in the Big Ten with 95 conference wins. With his 96th Big Ten win, he'll match Hayden Fry at No. 4.

That crazy fact was broached during Wednesday’s Hawk Central Facebook Live broadcast and speaks to what can still be uniquely accomplished by this team — even though a Big Ten Championship Game berth is off the table.

If Iowa (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten Conference) can beat Illinois in Saturday’s home finale (11 a.m., BTN) and Nebraska on Black Friday (1:30 p.m., BTN), it’ll probably enter bowl season at around No. 15 in the rankings (it’s currently No. 17 by the College Football Playoff committee; No. 19 by the AP; No. 20 by the coaches). And barring an embarrassing postseason loss, a 9-4 Iowa isn't falling out of the top 25.

The most recent Hawkeye team to be ranked in every AP poll, from preseason to finish line, was 1991. (Hayden Fry’s 13th Hawkeye team went 10-1-1; it started at No. 18 and finished No. 10.)

Hard to believe, I know. But ...

Ferentz's 2002 juggernaut didn’t get its first AP ranking until Sept. 29. It got as high as No. 3 and wound up No. 8.

The 2003 team that finished 10-3 and had three close losses (on par with what the 2019 Hawkeyes could achieve) began the season unranked before finishing No. 8.

The 2009 team that started 9-0 and finished No. 7 briefly slipped out of the poll after voters were unimpressed with a 17-16 season-opening escape against Northern Iowa.

The 2010 team with massive expectations opened No. 9 but fell out after its regular season ended with a stunning loss at Minnesota.

The 2015 team that started 12-0 didn’t crack the top 25 until after beating Wisconsin in early October.

With three one-score losses to top-13 CFP teams, this Hawkeye team’s AP ranking by week has been remarkably steady: 20 in the preseason with a high of 14 (after the 4-0 start) and a low of 23 (twice, after the losses to Penn State and Wisconsin).

What does this mean? That answer is in the eye of the beholder.

To me, it would speak positively to a team that met top-25 expectations, stuck together through tough losses and maybe — just maybe, with a nice bowl win — finished as Ferentz’s sixth top-10 team.

Some other stuff that bubbled up Wednesday ...

TOPIC: With Brandon Smith's return, is Tyrone Tracy Jr.'s role affected?

Tracy's terrific three-game run (13 catches, 290 yards) during Smith's absence offered the proof that was needed to keep the speedy freshman on the field. This week, I don't think we'll see a big change. I'd be surprised if Smith, coming off ankle surgery, plays more than 15 snaps. That'll still leave a starter's workload for Tracy.

Going forward, I think Iowa's best combination of Smith (at the "X"), Ihmir Smth-Marsette (at the "Z") and Tracy at the slot would provide the most stress for opposing defenses. Perhaps we'll need to wait until Smith is 100%, though, to see that with regularity.

Iowa junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa gets to Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan to cause Morgan to fumble the ball in the third quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

TOPIC: What are the chances A.J. Epenesa returns for his senior season?

Assuming the junior defensive end gets a first-round NFL Draft grade from the College Advisory Committee (as everyone would expect he would) in December, then I'll put them at less than 1%. A similar percentage could be associated with offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, who I've seen as high as No. 3 overall for the 2020 draft. In other words, Saturday will likely mark their Kinnick Stadium finales.

That's not inside knowledge; that's just reality. Leaving early got tight end T.J. Hockenson (No. 8 overall) a four-year rookie contract worth nearly $20 million; Noah Fant (No. 20 overall) fetched more than $12.5 million. Epenesa and Wirfs will be NFL Scouting Combine stars, too. Walking away from the windfall and security of being a first-round pick would be a shocker.

That said, I would be surprised if either player followed Fant's choice of skipping Iowa's bowl game. 

TOPIC: Why is Iowa such a heavy favorite against Illinois?

The spread has grown to 15½ points, from an opening 12.

Illinois’ metrics suggest it has gotten a lot of luck during a breakthrough 6-4 season and four-game winning streak. The Illini have been outgained by every opponent except Akron, Connecticut and Rutgers. And the thing they do best (force turnovers at a nation’s-best clip) is something that Iowa is pretty good about avoiding. Iowa has committed two turnovers in its last four games.

And don't forget, the Hawkeyes pulverized Illinois, 63-0, a year ago. This matchup has been a one-sided mismatch in recent history.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.