Big Ten

What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes

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What a turnaround it's been for 'New Kirk' and the Hawkeyes

You don’t have to travel back too far in time to when Kirk Ferentz was infuriating Hawkeye fans.

In April, the results of a Public Policy Polling poll found that only 46 percent of Iowa fans approved of the job Ferentz was doing.

Now, the guy is probably going to win the Iowa Caucus.

It’s been one heck of a turnaround in Iowa City. Ferentz’s team went just 7-6 a season ago, capping a three-year stretch at 19-19 with an embarrassing loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It had fans and observers calling for his job, begging the university to pay his massive buyout on what seemed like a never-ending lifetime contract.

Then came the January decisions. Ferentz announced at a peculiar winter press conference that he’d be doing things differently moving forward. Most noticeably was a change at quarterback, with Ferentz switching gears with C.J. Beathard replacing Jake Rudock as the starter.

And the rest, as they say, is program history.

[MORE BIG TEN: With Big Ten title game win, Spartans could reach peak of the mountain]

The Hawkeyes are undefeated at 12-0, the winningest season ever at Iowa. They’ll face the Michigan State Spartans in Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game, where a win would mean the ninth conference title in program history and a trip to the College Football Playoff to compete for a national championship.

Not a bad job by the guy they’re calling “New Kirk.”

Give the man some credit. He’s in Year 17 at the helm of this program, and changing the game plan is not the easiest thing to do for someone as entrenched as him. But Ferentz vowed to be different back in January, and different has led to the best season of Iowa football there’s ever been.

And in a time of quick-trigger coaching decisions that end with assistants getting tossed for a lack of wins — you’re seeing it right now across the country — Ferentz was different without firing a single one of his assistants.

“Sometimes it's not all about what it appears to be. It's a little deeper than that,” Ferentz said. “I think anytime you experience adversity, and if you're going to be involved in intercollegiate athletics, pro athletics, high school athletics, you're going to have that; you examine it and make the best decision. Sometimes it's just about changing a few things, making some tweaks, and then sometimes there are a lot of other circumstances involved. So you just try to size it up and do what you feel is best for you.”

Whatever different behind-the-scenes fixes Ferentz & Co. implemented, they’ve produced one heck of a better football team.

Iowa’s getting knocked for a schedule that’s not terribly strong, but that doesn't mean the Hawkeyes don’t deserve the current No. 4 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Iowa has one of the country’s top defenses, ranking 15th in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing just 18.7 points per game.

Iowa does an awesome job stopping the run, allowing just 110 yards on the ground per game (sixth in the country) and boast the nation’s interceptions leader in Desmond King, this week named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.

[MORE BIG TEN: Hawkeyes' Kirk Ferentz named Big Ten Coach of the Year]

Beathard has been terrific, not necessarily lighting up the stat sheet but throwing for 2,354 yards and 14 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He’s gone over 200 yards passing in eight of the Hawkeyes’ 12 wins and had four multi-touchdown games.

Beathard’s been complemented by a terrific rushing attack that seems to flourish no matter who’s toting the ball. Jordan Canzeri has had five 100-yard games, including a 256-yard day against Illinois and a four-touchdown afternoon against North Texas. LeShun Daniels has had a pair of 100-yard games, including a 195-yard, three-touchdown performance against Minnesota. Akrum Wadley has twice gone over 100 yards, including a mammoth 204-yard, four-touchdown outing against Northwestern.

What does “New Kirk” think the biggest on-field difference has been?

“We're doing a better job on the takeaways, and it's not like you have a drill for that. To me it's a reflection of just like everything else, we're doing little things a little bit better right now,” Ferentz said. “Could be positioning, better technique when you're tackling, breaking on the ball, anticipation, which might be film study. There's just a lot of things that go into it. When you are doing things right and really honed in, I think you've got a better chance for the takeaways, and then conversely, ball security is everybody's issue. I mean, if an offensive lineman cuts a guy loose and he knocks the crap out of a back or a quarterback, there goes the ball. Same thing on special teams. So it's not just the guy with the ball, it's a real team-shared responsibility. I think these guys have just really done a good job of tuning into the things that we're really trying to emphasize, and that's one of the biggest things we emphasize is playing clean.”

He’s right. Iowa’s plus-14 turnover margin is tied for the Big Ten lead.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Hawkeyes gear right here]

Ferentz supposedly made some noise by saying in an interview with ESPN that the Hawkeyes are playing with house money right now. And it’s true that all expectations have been exceeded. Iowa isn’t some underdog program like a team from the MAC or the Mountain West rising up for its 15 minutes fame before receding to the back of college football’s collective memory. But it’s also shocking to see the Hawkeyes sitting at 12-0 with a chance at the Playoff just because of how far they’ve come in so little time.

A new quarterback, a “New Kirk” and a slew of new program records and history-making moments have made this a surprising season to remember in Iowa.

And it can still get even better.

“In a lot of people's eyes we weren't supposed to be here right now,” Ferentz said. “I say that (house money comment) tongue in cheek because it's important to us. It's not like we're out there just winging it. We're treating this just like any other game. We're trying to put a really good plan in place. The staff has done a great job of that all season long. Our players are doing a great job of absorbing it right now.

“We're probably the team that's not supposed to be there, so what the heck, let's go cut it loose, see what happens.”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?