IOWA CITY, Ia. — While Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was being asked if his football players still had confidence, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was fielding a question about guarding against overconfidence.
If you were looking to measure the gulf between the two Big Ten Conference football programs, which will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, all you had to do was listen in on their news conferences Tuesday.
Harbaugh’s third-ranked Wolverines are 9-0 and coming off a 59-3 shellacking of Maryland. Michigan has the nation’s best defense and its No. 3 scoring offense. The result has been six victories by 30 points or more.
That’s the definition of a juggernaut. And coaching such a team sure seems like fun, especially for a free spirit like Harbaugh.
When a questioner on Harbaugh’s teleconference Tuesday began with the phrase “players aren’t stupid …,” the coach was happy to interject: “No, they’re not. I agree.”
The question eventually was about whether Harbaugh took steps to prevent his team from worrying about its place in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Jeez. I don’t know that we address it either way,” Harbaugh said. “We’re focused on the game on hand, win the game.”
Ferentz, whose Hawkeyes are 5-4 and suffered their worst defeat of the season Saturday, 41-14 at Penn State, got no such questions Tuesday.
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Instead, he was probed about the psyche of his team, whether he’d made a change in who calls the offensive plays, and why he has been historically reluctant to make wholesale changes in personnel in midseason. As usual, Ferentz kept his cool, answering those questions as follows:
“It's easy to say, 'Hey, we've got to bounce back' and all that, but that takes time, too; it doesn't just happen. Unless you have guys that aren't invested, then they go out and get in their car and go on to the next thing,” he said of the mood of his players. “When you have that, you're in trouble. That's when the problems really begin. I haven't witnessed that, and quite frankly I don't want to be around people like that that aren't invested in this thing.
“Our mechanics are still the same, and we meet collectively daily,” he said of his staff, including offensive coordinator Greg Davis. “Sunday we go back and review, talk about the what-ifs, those types of things, and then Sunday afternoon we flip it over and start moving forward on the next opponent. So we're still going the same way.
“As you might imagine, we try to get the guys out there on the field that we think, based on our evaluation, give us the best chance to win, and that's true at every position, offense, defense and special teams. We've spent a lot of time watching our guys, studying practice film,” he said of allocating playing time. “As a staff that's one of our goals is to try to get the best people out there for the given circumstances that we're in.”
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On Saturday, those circumstances mean facing one of college football’s most impressive teams.
Michigan is one of only five unbeaten FBS teams and just ran up 660 yards of offense against Maryland; Iowa surrendered 599 yards against Penn State. This has the feel of a mismatch, but Harbaugh gave Ferentz a vote of confidence even if he didn’t mention him by name.
Asked if this was a typical Ferentz-coached Hawkeye team — one that relies on a strong rushing attack and a punishing defense — Harbaugh replied:
“And more, much more than that. I think coach does an incredible job, as good as anybody in coaching. I would say their excellence is more diverse than what you described. And we’re going through it right now, trying to find out where we can be successful, and it’s not easy.”
The Hawkeyes sent eight players out to talk to reporters Tuesday, all of them aware of the plummeting opinion of their team nationally and even with a segment of the local fan base.
Junior linebacker Ben Niemann was asked, point-blank, if an Iowa victory was possible. He seemed to anticipate the line of questioning.
“We all believe that we can. We realize that pretty much nobody outside of this building is giving us a chance, but it’s about the people inside this building that matter,” Niemann said.
“Everybody’s still on board. That’s a big thing is just sticking together as a team. When times like this come, you have two options. You can either split up, go opposite directions, or you can come together and just stay tight and still try to finish this thing strong.”
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You can bet nobody in Ann Arbor was being asked to defend his team like that. But Ferentz, Niemann and the rest of the Hawkeyes were on point with their message Tuesday.
What that means for Saturday is anybody’s guess. Iowa is a three-touchdown underdog at home for the first time in 17 years. The game is being billed as a “blackout.”
That means that fans are asked to wear black clothing, not that the game won’t be televised. The entire nation will get a chance to see it on ABC. That’s great exposure for the Hawkeyes, depending on what exactly is being exposed.