The University of Iowa athletics department wanted football all along. On Wednesday, the Hawkeyes got their season.
The Big Ten announced return to play on Oct. 23-24 with an eight-game schedule in eight weeks, including a weekend of seeded-divisional matchups at the end of the season assuring each program of nine games.
Between the frustrations that have gone hand-in-hand with having football during the COVID-19 pandemic and the hurting and healing the Hawkeyes program endured with racial issues surfacing earlier this summer, Iowa wanted the 2020 season to happen. The racial strife forced head coach Kirk Ferentz to remove strength coach Chris Doyle, a member of Ferentz’s staff for 22 years, in June.
Players and coaches have spoken publicly about diversity issues and now have a chance to show it can work.
Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette might’ve set the tone with a tweet Wednesday morning. The Big Ten return specialist of the year in 2018 asked fans “Who’s ready for a return? #6for6.”
— ISM 6 (@_ihmirr_) September 16, 2020
Ferentz fielded the question during a Wednesday interview with the Big Ten Network.
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“I’d venture to say we’re probably closer than we’ve ever been,” Ferentz said. “That’s the feedback from our players and certainly one of the questions I’ve asked, what are we seeing, what are we missing? I think if anything else, it gave us a chance to re-examine some of the things we’ve done and I think our conclusion is there are a lot of things we’ve done since 1999 (Ferentz’s first year on the job) that aren’t going to change, just like there are certain things in football that never change. There are some other things that what I heard needed to be evaluated and adjusted. I think we’ve made a lot of tweaks that have been very beneficial and I think we’ve got a team that’s really together right now.
“They’re excited about the opportunity to play football and they’re excited about being together.”
Here are some things to remember for the Hawkeyes going into the 2020 season:
• Except for maybe one or two days of helmets and shells (the “not quite” shoulder pads players use in practice), the Hawkeyes haven’t played in full gear since dismantling USC in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, 2019.
Ferentz has said he’d like to have eight weeks to prepare for the season. The conference has six weeks to prepare for Oct. 23-24. Iowa halted workouts for a week in late August and resumed on Sept. 8.
When the season was postponed Aug. 11, Ferentz believed at that point if there was a season, it wouldn’t begin until January, so he sent the team home for a few weeks.
“We’re behind in training,” Ferentz said. “There’s a reason you train in June and July. I think my biggest concern right now if we’re going to play in October is making sure we know where our players are physically and making sure they’re able to go.”
With no bye week built into the newest schedule, which will be forthcoming this week, the margin for COVID-19 absences is thin. This goes hand-in-hand with the risks of playing a contact sport.
“If you get a hamstring issue, that could be four to six to eight weeks,” Ferentz said, “and that’s the season right now. That part I’m concerned about, but we have time to measure that out.”
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Iowa also is one of a few programs in the Big Ten that didn’t get a chance to have spring practice. The Hawkeyes were set to begin in late March, but COVID-19 shut everything down on March 14.
• The Big Ten endured a wave of “opt outs” since it postponed the season Aug. 11. The list includes Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (preseason pick for league defensive MVP), Purdue’s star wide receiver and return specialist Rondale Moore and Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Batemen.
If a player did opt out and sign with an agent, depending on what was exchanged, the student-athlete can try to go through the Student-Athlete Reinstatement process to gain back eligibility if he wants to play this season.
Iowa has had no public opt-outs, but that could change. If athletes want to sit out the 2020 season, they can do so without losing a year of eligibility. The Big Ten said Wednesday that this season won’t cost athletes a year of eligibility.
• Remember the slack the Big Ten made for itself when it announced its COVID-19 fall football schedule? It initially had four weeks — including two bye weeks and Thanksgiving — for slack. With eight games in eight weeks, that’s obviously gone.
Ferentz said he thought the team handled COVID-19 well in the summer, but when the season was postponed “I’m not sure guys were as vigilant,” Ferentz said, “and you add 28,000-plus students coming back to town, college kids tend to be social, tend to congregate, so I’m not sure the guys had the focus they needed. One good thing this morning, and you could see it in their eyes, we all know right now what the challenge is. Everyone has to assume a little more personal responsibility.”
COVID-19 positives likely will affect [insert your team’s name] season.
“The seriousness of the pandemic still is very real, but I’m pleased for our student-athletes, coaches, and fans that we’ve been able to create a path forward,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said in a statement. “The medical professionals at every Big Ten institution have worked tirelessly to create strong protocols that can be consistently applied to every campus. The frequency, availability, and reliability of daily testing was a game changer. This announcement has been much anticipated as it relates to football, but the path forward approved by our Presidents and Chancellors was important for all sports.”
• Barta is the chair of the College Football Playoff committee this season. It sounds as if the Big Ten will be in the race for the CFP, something that likely will please Oho State coach Ryan Day, who called out the league with a statement last week.
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