Mailbag: How Ferentz is pulling off a rare feat with No. 12 Iowa

How many of you have the TimeHop app on your phone? I’m kind of addicted to it. And I particularly love looking back at old tweets this time of year because they’re basically a time capsule into the past six college football seasons.

Just the other day, in fact, a tweet directed me to a story I wrote the night of the thrilling Florida State-Notre Dame game a year ago last weekend, which mentioned offhandedly that the ‘Noles were "one of just five* undefeated teams left." That seemed awfully low to me considering that a year later**, we still have … 14.

* — Upon fact-checking this, I found there were in fact six. I apparently forgot about Marshall . . . just like the selection committee.

** — Technically, this season started a week later, but most teams had an extra bye during the first half of 2014, so it evens out.

Some of these unbeatens will start losing soon enough, but if I’m putting money down on who goes down first, No. 3 Utah is a much safer bet than No. 12 Iowa. In fact, given their remaining schedule, there are probably 13 teams I’d take before the Hawkeyes.

Can you recall a coach with as miraculous a turnaround as Kirk Ferentz of Iowa has engineered this season? He has gone from boosters trying to find a way to buy out his contract to a national coach of the year candidate. More shockingly, he’s done it by overhauling his approach . . . in his 17th season.

— Blake M., Minnetonka, Minn.

"Miraculous" seems a bit strong — we’ll reserve that for when Purdue starts 7-0 — but it is unquestionably rare in today’s climate for A) a coach to stay at one school for 17 seasons, B) that coach to go through an extended period of mediocrity and not get fired, and C) actually turn things back around.

FOX FOUR AFTER WEEK 13

Nine times out of 10, when a coach’s program starts slipping, everyone panics and assumes there’s no getting it back on track. If not for that monstrous buyout, Ferentz would have likely lost his job by now. Meanwhile, other recent coaches in much the same position (Bobby Bowden, Mack Brown) kept hanging around and firing coordinators in a desperate attempt to recapture their edge. Ferentz, by contrast, did not make one staff change after last year’s disappointing 7-6 season.

To Iowa fans’ credit, many remained loyal to their two-time BCS coach through all those Insight and TaxSlayer Bowl seasons. Many lashed out at me for including him on a list of the five worst coaches in the country in the summer of 2013. (In another testament to Ferentz’s longevity, the other four on the list were all later fired.) But his support had definitely waned. Season-ticket sales had reportedly declined by about 25 percent from 2010 to ’14. I did not see any rosy preseason predictions about the Hawkeyes.

Fast-forward to mid-October, and Iowa is 7-0 with a remaining schedule of five foes (Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska) with a combined conference record of 2-12.

It’s not an exact parallel, but "Ferentz 3.0," as this resurgence has been dubbed, reminds me of Joe Paterno’s late-career renaissance a decade ago. Paterno suffered four losing seasons in five years, including 4-7 in 2004, only to turn around and win 11 games and a Big Ten title in ’05. I don’t believe any coach today — save perhaps for Bill Snyder — could dip that far and still stick around long enough to enjoy that payoff. Ferentz by comparison had only one truly bad season (4-8 in 2012). Just something to keep in mind later this season as we watch which fan bases try to run off their established but struggling coaches.

Stewart, I’m wondering why everyone just takes it for granted that Leonard Fournette is the best running back in college football. Dalvin Cook is averaging more yards per carry (8.7 vs. 8.0), and he is doing it against higher-ranked rushing defenses on average (54.3 vs. 77.) Additionally, Bill Connelly published an article this week detailing how Cook is WAY more explosive than Fournette (11.93 "highlight yards" per opportunity vs. 8.26). Why do people just assume Fournette’s numbers mean more? Because S-E-C, S-E-C?

— Read Pope, Atlanta

Those are all valid points. I admire Bill’s analytics work, and he’s presented an interesting approach to quantifying "highlight" plays. End of day, though, highlights are visual. They unquestionably play a big part in the Heisman race. And something as seemingly arbitrary as what time each guy plays, and on what network, plays a big part in how many of those highlights voters actually see.

For example, I, like a lot of folks, have Fournette No. 1 and Cook No. 3 in my most recent Heisman poll, so let’s take a moment to figure out how we got there. It started with Fournette’s monster Week 3 performance against Auburn, which, while devalued now, felt like a big game at the time. Auburn was a preseason Top 10 team that had not yet lost. It was the 3:30 p.m. ET CBS game, watched by 4.3 million people. Cook, by contrast, played the night before and ran for just 54 yards against Boston College. Then, over the next two weeks, while Fournette put up 244 and 233 yards, respectively, against two bad teams, Cook was completely out of sight because of a bye and getting injured after just two carries against Wake Forest. He only started garnering serious traction with his 222-yard performance in a prime-time ABC matchup against Miami on Oct. 10.

BOWL WINNERS & LOSERS

The Heisman is a horse race, and ultimately the only ways one guy passes another is if the guy in front falters or the guy behind him does something extraordinary. Therefore, the key date for both these guys is Nov. 7, when LSU plays Alabama and Florida State visits Clemson, both most likely in prime time. If Fournette leads the Tigers to victory against ‘Bama, it’s going to be awfully hard for anyone to catch him. If he struggles and loses, and if Cook has a huge game and beats an undefeated Clemson team, he’d likely lap him right there. Ultimately those moments will matter much more than metrics.

Hey, Stewart. If Ohio State beats Michigan State, but Michigan State wins the remainder of their regular season games, and Michigan then beats Ohio State, so that all three finish 7-1 in conference, which one represents the East in the Big Ten championship game?

— John Stoicoff, Lindale, Ga.

In that scenario, where all three went 1-1 against each other (which you may recognize from the 2008 Big 12 South) — then the tiebreaker is the teams’ order in the second-to-last College Football Playoff rankings (just how the ’08 Big 12 South invoked the BCS standings). The highest-ranked team would go, unless the top two are one spot apart, in which case the head-to-head winner between those two would go.

On the one hand, Michigan would have an extra loss to Utah that the others don’t, so in the old system, you could safely assume the 10-2 Wolverines would be lower than the 11-1 Buckeyes and Spartans. That’s not as automatic with the committee, which would recognize that A) Michigan lost to a tougher non-conference foe than either of the others played and B) that the Wolverines’ conference loss was decided on a fumbled punt snap. Ohio State, having lost most recently of the three, could possibly be the odd man out, but that’s not a given either if, say, the Buckeyes beat the Spartans 49-20.

All I know is it would be enormously controversial, all the more so since the committee does not determine its rankings until Tuesday, and the game is on Saturday. How’s that going to work? (Hint: Not well.)

Mind you, the ACC’s and Pac-12’s tiebreakers both use the committee rankings in some form as well, so we’re going to have something like this at some point.

Do you see any universe where Michigan State finishes 13-0, and then gets left out of the playoff in favor of a one-loss SEC team or undefeated Memphis? I’ve got a very large futures bet made at the Bellagio on Sparty to win the national championship.

MICHIGAN STATE MIRACLE!

— Billy, Austin, Texas

Michigan State had a 0.2 percent chance of beating Michigan with 10 seconds remaining last Saturday. The chances of a 13-0 Big Ten champ missing the playoff are even lower than that.

Is Stanford vs. Utah a certainty in the Pac-12 Championship or can Cal play its way in?

— David Merenbach, Belmont, Calif.

Only a few weeks ago someone wrote in asking whether we could pencil in UCLA-Utah as the de facto Pac-12 South championship game. So while the Cardinal and Utes have been the most impressive teams in their divisions to this point, I wouldn’t encourage their fans to buy tickets for the game just yet. (And not just because tickets will be readily available outside Levi’s Stadium the day of the game.)

Cal has a huge game this week against UCLA. The Bruins are clearly vulnerable, though not necessarily in a way the Bears could exploit. Arizona, Arizona State and particularly Stanford ran the ball all over a Bruins defense that badly misses injured stars like Myles Jack. Cal’s strength is obviously through the air. If Stanford beats Washington this week to move to 5-0 in league play and Cal loses and falls to 2-2, I don’t see the Bears catching the Cardinal even if they win the Big Game. But if Cal beats the Bruins, then they solidify themselves as the clear No. 2 team in the North.

Meanwhile, though Utah remains my No. 1 team in the country, by no means have the Utes wrapped up the South. In fact, crazy as it sounds, they’re three-point underdogs this week at 3-3 USC. Part of that is clearly that the public isn’t fully buying the Utes just yet, but moreso the acknowledgment that the talented Trojans could break out at any moment. They almost did last week at Notre Dame, a game in which they rolled up 590 yards and outplayed the Irish for most of the second and third quarters before the dam broke. If Utah wins this one, too, then maybe we start talking coronation.

Stewart, please explain targeting in a sport that excites itself on hard-hitting tackles. After Michigan was not only falsely penalized, but lost one of their best players (Joe Bolden) against Michigan State, I really don’t know anymore. With each passing year it seems the "zebras" are getting worse.

— Brad C, Matagorda Bay, Texas

Boy, I really wish you’d asked an actual question in there somewhere, but I’m including this anyway because it’s a topic worthy of discussion this week.

TOP 25 CFB 'FREAKS' FOR 2015

In the past I’ve been pretty apathetic about officiating issues, but for some reason I’m fired up this year. A few weeks ago, after the Big 12 officiating trainwreck during the Kansas State-Oklahoma State game, I went on a rant on our podcast that . . . never saw the light of day because of a recording error. But essentially, I said: Why is this still happening in 2015? Why are we still relying on a 1950s-era chain gang to keep track of downs and distance? I’m guessing it would take a Silicon Valley startup about a week to devise a system that uses GPS tracking technology to inform officials the exact spot of the ball. Why are replays still put in the hands of a couple of guys in a press box who do this on the side? How has college football not used some of those billions in television fees to develop a centralized Major League Baseball-style bunker where professionals completely removed from that environment can conduct a more efficient review?

As for targeting . . . the Michigan call put me over the edge. Mind you, I’m not one of these "It’s football, just let ’em play" guys. Football is dangerous and in danger of extinction if we don’t clean it up. So I agree with the intent of the rule. But I abhor both its arbitrary enforcement and Draconian punishment. If a guy clearly, indisputably makes a malicious and dangerous hit, then perhaps ejection is warranted, but for all of those other split-decision calls that may or may not even be upheld by the guys in the booth, there needs to be something impactful but less severe. Terry McAulay, coordinator of officials for the AAC, tweeted during that Michigan game that his conference (while still the Big East) proposed modeling the punishments like basketball’s Flagrant 1/Flagrant 2 rule and will resubmit it next year. That’d be a good start. But the entire concept needs a complete rewrite.

The American looks to have some legitimately good undefeated teams at the top of its conference with Temple having beaten Penn State, Houston beating Louisville and now Memphis pushing Ole Miss around. If Temple were to beat Notre Dame in a couple of weeks and remain undefeated throughout the season to then face an undefeated Memphis or Houston in the AAC title game, would the winner of that game have a shot at the playoff?

— Kyle McDaniel, Dallas

I love this year’s American. Love the coaches, love the varying style of offenses, love the badass nonconference wins so far. Love Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. and Memphis QB Paxton Lynch. Love the fact that Temple, 10 years removed from the former Big East kicking it out for being such a mess (and fielding one of the least-competitive teams I can remember), will host a significant prime-time game against the Irish next week.

Having said all that . . . I do not like any of their teams’ chances of making the playoff.

The American is good, but it’s still closer in quality to the MAC than it is any of the Power 5, according to metrics like Jeff Sagarin’s conference rankings and Football Outsiders’ F/+ ratings. Mind you, the committee evaluates individual teams, not conferences, but those numbers don’t bode well for Temple/Memphis/Houston’s strength of schedule projections. And even if we look at individual wins on the resume, I can’t see the champion boasting more than two Top 25 wins come season’s end. Ole Miss is the only one of those non-conference conquests that could still finish in the Top 25. My guess is if Notre Dame loses to Temple, it would A) plummet and B) lose another game.

TOP 25 COLLEGE FOOTBALL UNIFORMS

Ultimately, it’d be the 2010 Boise State/TCU argument, only with two additional spots available. And as much as this really should not be a factor, it hurts Memphis and Temple in particular that they’re so out-of-nowhere. It took years of beating the big boys before people finally started taking Boise State seriously. It will be the same for other non-power programs trying to gain national respect.

Twenty years from now, which event will be a worse memory for the Michigan football program: the ending of the Michigan State game or losing to Appalachian State?

–Andrew Zucker, Sandusky, Ohio

I think the wound’s too fresh to answer that one. Do me a favor and send this email again in 20 years.