Last year, Bob Stoops wore a Hawkeye sweater and watched from the crowd at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, as the Iowa Hawkeyes surprised the 14th-ranked Missouri Tigers 27-24 in the 2010 Insight Bowl. Stoops, an Iowa alum and the Oklahoma Sooners football coach since 1999, didn’t raise any eyebrows then as his Sooners prepared to take on Connecticut in the Fiesta Bowl down the road in Phoenix. If Stoops pulls a similar stunt at this year’s Insight Bowl game on December 29th, the gesture might not go over so well with fans of the Cream and Crimson.
That’s because the 2011 edition of the Insight Bowl will pit 7-5 Iowa against 9-3 Oklahoma in a game chock full of juicy story lines and a widely perceived talent gap between the two programs. Iowa returns to the same bowl game in consecutive years after a thoroughly mediocre season, beating the BCS-bound Michigan Wolverines but also losing to Minnesota and Iowa State. Iowa ended up in Tempe not because of their record, but as a result of factors including fan support, the opportunity for an intriguing matchup to sell tickets, and the precipitous drop of Penn State down the bowl pecking order because of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. After witnessing a second straight ho-hum regular season of 7-5, Hawkeye fans were understandably sour on their team’s prospective bowl; facing off against former Hawk Bob Stoops has changed that enthusiasm in a big way, and the desire to beat Big Game Bob, who couldn’t wait to accept the Oklahoma job once then-Iowa AD Bob Bowlsby said he would be interviewing other candidates, is strong among Hawk fans still stung by what happened in 1999. Expect followers of the black-and-gold to make the trip in droves, which probably would not have been the case if the bowl gods sent them to face the Texas A&M Aggies in Houston.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma began the season as the number one ranked team in the country and they bore realistic national championship aspirations. Although they still have loads of talent on both sides of the ball, including a potential 2012 Heisman candidate in quarterback Landry Jones, Oklahoma went into a bit of a free-fall after losing top wide receiver Ryan Broyles for the season in a game against Texas A&M. The Sooners lost their final two games, including a brutal 44-10 evisceration at the hands of their little-brother rival, Oklahoma State, while Jones threw five picks and zero touchdown passes in the final three games. It would be an understatement to say that Oklahoma did not expect to be playing in this game against a sub-par Iowa squad.
Obviously, the primary focal point leading up to this game will be the saga of Bob Stoops. Stoops was a safety for Iowa from 1979-82, which means he not only played a large role on Iowa’s 1981-82 Rose Bowl team but also recorded a tackle in the Hawkeyes’ 21-6 loss to the Sooners in 1979, the last time both squads met. Bob’s brothers, including former Arizona Wildcats head coach Mike, played at Iowa as well and Stoops’ father is even buried in Bob’s ’82 Rose Bowl uniform. After rising up through the coaching ranks, first at Iowa and eventually as Steve Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida, the head coaching position at Iowa opened up once Hayden Fry retired following the 1998 season.
Stoops was considered the leading candidate and was undeniably the fan favorite; nobody seemed to know who Kirk Ferentz was at the time, and fans assuredly were not clamoring for him. Needless to say, Bowlsby waited too long to commit to Stoops and settled on Ferentz, a move that had fans flipping through old programs to find the old offensive line coach’s name. Many diehards were upset with the hire, especially when Stoops won a national championship with Oklahoma in 2000 while Kirk put the finishing touches on a 3-9 season. Of course, both men would settle into their respective schools and accomplish great things, but there is a still a contingent (large or small, depending on where you go) who insist that Stoops was the right man to hire and the Hawkeyes made a grave mistake not pursuing him with more vigor. It will be somewhat strange to see the Hawkeyes support Ferentz on the field with the subconscious realization that they secretly would take Stoops in a heartbeat even today, more than a decade after the fateful hire.
Another interesting story will be the underdog angle. Early lines are showing Oklahoma as a 14-point favorite, and if you listened to ESPN’s pundits speak you wouldn’t know the Sooners even had an opponent in this one, let alone a team worthy of being on the field alongside one with this much talent. First, it would be unwise to doubt the Hawkeyes against apparently faster, more athletic teams; Iowa has overcome similar labels to down Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Missouri in bowl games over the years under Ferentz. Second, Oklahoma may have serious motivational issues entering this bowl game, which is considered fairly bland for a blue blooded program of OU’s stature. The team had a clear eye on the national title game just over a month ago. How fired up will the Sooners, who seemed to give up in their last contest of the season against their in-state rival, be for a game that will be perceived as rather demeaning for them? Nobody will pick Iowa because of Oklahoma’s perceived talent advantage at all positions, and if Oklahoma comes to play they still have enough weapons (Kenny Stills is a more than capable number one wide receiver without Broyles) to make things difficult for Iowa’s defense, which has been soft and privy to backbreaking drives all season. Fortunately for Iowa, although the Big 12 conference contains some of the top offensive units in the country, they also have some of the worst defenses. Opportunities should be ripe for Marcus Coker to batter OU’s defensive line and James Vandenberg to follow with dangerous play-action bombs to Marvin McNutt. It’s the only game plan Ken O’Keefe knows, after all.
And although Kirk won’t disclose emotion to the media, it’s a safe bet to assume he wants to beat the living snot out of Stoops. Whether that’s due to message board fan sentiment still expressing a desire for Stoops instead of Ferentz or the fact that the two men worked alongside each other as youngsters on the Iowa coaching staff, I’m sure Kirk is letting his players, family, and best pal O’Keefe know all about his insatiable desire to beat Stoops in a bowl. It would be a pure and perfect validation that Iowa made the right hire, always hanging over each man’s tenure despite the disparity in BCS games and championships. A Ferentz snort and smirk would most definitely be in order. Thankfully, former Hawkeye running back Brandon Wegher’s spring 2011 semester at Oklahoma was short lived, because his unfortunate story trajectory would not be a happy diversion from the Stoops mania.
Stay tuned for more updates and previews concerning the game throughout the coming weeks. Iowa was very fortunate to draw such a fantastic matchup against a national powerhouse opponent after such a disappointing season, and it would be a worthy showcase if they could pull off the win, as they have proven more than capable of in the past. In Kirk’s bowl announcement press conference, the Captain stated that Mikail McCall, who was suspended for undisclosed reasons (perhaps a Facebook post complaining about lack of playing time) after the Purdue game, is still suspended and is not currently with the team. Also, Ferentz irritatedly denied any interest in the Penn State head coaching vacancy (Ferentz grew up in Pennsylvannia watching PSU) as if he were finally tired of the perpetual speculation about his future. Iowa fans are both inherently self-conscious their coach is going to leave for greener pastures and surprisingly over ambitious in their estimation of their program’s stature at the same time. I doubt either Stoops or Ferentz would ever schedule each other in the non-conference future due to competitive reasons and their Hawkeye roots, so soak up this game as much as possible, Hawkeye fans, and cite the previous nine years of evidence when expert bloggers predict Oklahoma will run Iowa off the field. With a 6-3 record in bowl games, Kirk Ferentz will have the Hawkeyes ready to play, while Stoops will need to summon some magic to motivate his team in this one.