Brown: Iowa's bowl under national radar, but big in program's scope

Rick Brown
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta have evaluated a disappointing 7-5 season but see the TaxSlayer Bowl as a fresh start. “That’s the attitude I’ve seen our team take already,” said Ferentz. “We’ve only had two workouts, but so far (they’ve) been good.”

IOWA CITY, Ia. -- It's not a sexy bowl game, this Jan. 2 meeting between Iowa and Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

It will be televised nationally by ESPN, yet it will fly under the radar of a sports nation eagerly anticipating the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game.

But Iowa's trip to Jacksonville, Fla., and the practices leading up to kickoff, are important for the Hawkeye program. It will be a chance to match last season's eight victories, yes. And it will be a good way to send out seniors such as Brandon Scherff, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Mark Weisman, Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat.

More importantly, the eighth bowl trip to Florida under coach Kirk Ferentz will provide an opportunity for the program to take a positive step into 2015. A chance to wash away some of the bad taste of an underachieving 2014 season. And a chance to develop some young players through the bowl prep practices.

"If you lose a bowl game, it doesn't ruin the next season," Ferentz said Sunday during a news conference at Iowa's brand new football facility. "But any time you win a bowl game, it gives you a little bit of an extra charge into the next season."

And this program could use a jolt after the victories didn't occur as often as expected in 2014. Iowa takes a 7-5 record into its meeting with Tennessee (6-6). Last week, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta went public to tell everyone what was pretty obvious — the season didn't meet his expectations.

Barta acknowledged fan unrest, and a possible dip in ticket sales. He also gave Ferentz a strong vote of confidence, saying he was convinced the foundation of the program was strong and he was the coach to meet expectations in 2015.

Ferentz said Sunday he appreciated Barta's backing, adding that the support he's felt at Iowa is something he feels fortunate about.

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A season ago, Iowa went into its Outback Bowl meeting with LSU coming off victories over Michigan and Nebraska. This season, losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska in the final two outings have left a completely different vibe.

"It's a whole different mindset," Ferentz acknowledged.

Ferentz fielded more questions about his future Sunday than he did Tennessee, which isn't surprising since he doesn't know much about the Volunteers yet.

"As a coach, I've never felt comfortable," Ferentz said when asked if he felt was on the hot seat. "That's a word I choose not to use. Because what we do is competitive. I don't know how you can get comfortable. It would, to me, suggest that you feel like you might have arrived. You never arrive at anything in life, if you're trying to improve.

"The hot-seat stuff, I got over that when I was in the NFL. Every day is a hot seat when you're in the NFL. And I was an assistant. It wasn't like I was on the front line."

Ferentz is on the front line now. He's been at Iowa 25 seasons, 16 as a head coach. He is wise to his environment. He's still beloved by many in the Iowa fan base, those old enough to remember 19 straight non-winning seasons before Hayden Fry arrived.

But there seems to be some erosion in that loyalty, especially after this season, which didn't turn out as expected. Ferentz knows that. And he acknowledged it on Sunday.

"The reality of what we do is if you don't win enough, at some point you'll be asked to leave," Ferentz said. "I get that. I got it a long time ago. I don't worry too much about that. We're worried about trying to get better. That's what we're focused on."

After finishing up recruiting this week, Ferentz and his staff will dig deep into a Tennessee team that is rich in young talent coming of two strong classes brought in by coach Butch Jones.

The practices are a chance to win an eighth game while developing young players who will be the future of Iowa football. Ferentz remembers guys like Allen Reisner and Mike Daniels breaking out in bowl practices, and showing coaches they had what it took. Trinca-Pasat is another.

"You've got to get the most out of each practice," Trinca-Pasat said. "Just keep working hard, and eventually it will pay off. It's a grind. Everyone has got to go through it. And then they'll start seeing the results. You're never going to get any better without practice."

Good can come from any bowl game. Even if it's not a sexy one.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.