NORMAN – Given their success in recent years, it wasn't a banner year for Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa football team. But, then again, it's not as if too much was expected of a team picked to finish in the middle of the Legends Division. (The Hawkeyes are in the Legends, right?)
“We have lost a lot of good players over the last two years, so we knew we had work to do this year,” Ferentz said. “It has been a little bit of a season of ups and downs.”
Iowa went 3-3 in the second half of the season, ending up 7-5 and landing in the Dec. 30 Insight Bowl to face 9-3 Oklahoma.
Marvin McNutt is a big-time, playmaking receiver — a held-over star from those teams to which Ferentz made mention. At 6 foot 4 and 215 pounds, he will give Oklahoma's corners all they want in terms of a physical matchup.
McNutt caught 78 for 1,269 yards and 12 touchdowns his senior season. The only issue is getting him the ball. Quarterback James Vandenberg has completed only 59.4 percent of his passes this season. McNutt has accounted for 45 percent of Iowa's receiving yardage this season.
Getting past Michigan 24-16 on Nov. 5 was undoubtedly Iowa's signature victory this season, considering the Wolverines went on to get into the Sugar Bowl as an at-large team. Down eight, Michigan was driving late in the game, but Iowa held the Wolverines out of the end zone.
Iowa also defeated Pitt early in the year, but that win lost some luster as the Panthers struggled through the middle part of their schedule.
One thing that made the Michigan win all the more surprising is that it came on the heels of the Hawkeyes' worst loss, a 22-21 defeat at Minnesota the week before. Strangely enough, Iowa lost despite the fact that running back Marcus Coker ran for 252 yards. Each team turned the ball over once, too, so it's not as if Iowa handed the game to Minnesota. Just one of those head-scratchers.
“We had a couple of losses that, like anybody, I'm sure we'd love to have back,” Ferentz said. “You don't get that chance.”
Why they won seven games
A relatively weak Big Ten certainly helped. Getting Michigan and Pitt at home did, as well. The Hawkeyes … they're average, frankly. They're ranked 70th in the country in total offense, 68th in total defense. Not horrendous, not great. In the Big Ten, that'll get you a 7-5 record and a halfway decent bowl game.
Iowa was the beneficiary, too, of the Penn State scandal, the scar of it bumping the Lions down to the Ticket City Bowl and putting the Hawkeyes in Tempe for the second straight year.
Why they lost five games
Iowa couldn't play all its games at Kinnick Stadium, for one. The Hawkeyes won six of seven home games, only dropping the finale to Michigan State. Doing the math, though, they only won one game away from home all season — the Nov. 19 game at Purdue.
Their biggest weakness is the lack of a strength. Iowa is not ranked higher than 27th in any major NCAA category. That category? Net punting.
Why they will beat the Sooners
Bowl games are often about motivation. It's rare that both teams have an equal amount entering the postseason. The Sooners didn't have their sights set in August on a 9-3 season and the Insight Bowl; that's for sure. Iowa is probably happy to be in any bowl game.
If OU isn't interested in the game, the Hawkeyes, even as big underdogs, could sneak up on the favorites. It's not as if the Sooners have played well as big favorites at times this season, after all.
And then there are the injuries, still piling up. OU, fans learned last weekend, will also be without Jaz Reynolds at receiver and Brandon Williams at running back. Who's left these days?
Iowa's played well in bowl games under Ferentz, as well. He's a discipline and toughness freak, and that plays well in bowls. They've won three straight.
Why they will lose to the Sooners
Even if the Hawkeyes are the more inspired team, and even if OU has been depleted by injuries, there's still a rather stark talent disparity.
Oklahoma could come out firing, angry from being doubted and questioned in the wake of the Bedlam blowout. It's possible. Vegas still thought enough of OU, and the talent gap, to make the Sooners two-touchdown favorites.