DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made nearly $1 million a win last season and yet kept his job -- likely for years to come, too.
The Hawkeyes have been left to hope that Ferentz can prove he's worth all the money they owe him.
Iowa is about to enter its 15th season under Ferentz -- who is signed through 2020 with a prohibitive buyout at roughly $3 million a year -- with nonexistent national expectations. The Hawkeyes collapsed last season, losing their last six games and leaving many fans to grumble that the school couldn't afford to fire Ferentz even if it wanted to.
Ferentz, however, has the support of the administration and athletic director Gary Barta thanks to a largely successful tenure in Iowa City. He's also made a number of coaching changes in hopes of reversing a disturbing three-year slide capped by last season's 4-8 finish.
Iowa opens the season on Aug. 31 when it hosts defending MAC champion Northern Illinois.
"We've got a guy in Kirk Ferentz who has proven himself as a leader and a head coach, not only in college football but right here at Iowa. He's done it before. He's a great leader. He's proven that at Iowa before," Barta said last week when asked about the criticism of Ferentz's contract. "While 4-8 was -- we were all scratching our heads, we were all upset -- I'm ready to go. Let's go."
Ferentz has twice dragged the Hawkeyes out of mediocrity and into national prominence. It's also easy to forget that Ferentz, predecessor Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and Bo Schembechler are the only ones to be named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times.
But Ferentz has never faced such doubt and scrutiny.
Here are five story lines to watch as Iowa tries to climb its way back into relevance in the Big Ten.
1. QB TIMES 3: Sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock held the slightest of edges over junior college transfer Cody Sokol and freshman C.J. Beathard for the starting job, but none of them have taken an FBS snap yet. Rudock, who was listed as the backup to James Vandenberg in 2012, has the edge in experience. But Sokol could offer the Hawkeyes the explosiveness and improvisational skill their quarterbacks have lacked for years, and the coaching staff has been intrigued with Beathard's progress. "Coach (Ferentz) has been really honest from that start. He said `when someone emerges, they emerge and we're going to take him and go with him,"' Rudock said.
2. CALLING ALL RECEIVERS: It won't matter who wins the starting quarterback job if the Hawkeyes can't find anyone to catch their passes. Iowa enters the season painfully thin at wide receiver, with senior Kevonte Martin-Manley as the only established option. The Hawkeyes are hoping senior Jordan Cotton can finally emerge as a threat and that sophomores Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer will be ready for extended playing time. Iowa can mask some of their issues with their depth at tight end and by getting creative with explosive back Damon Bullock. Junior college transfer Damond Powell could also provide a major boost, but for now Iowa has a ton of uncertainty at wideout.
3. ASSEMBLY LINE: Iowa has a lot of potential playmakers along its defensive line -- and just as many question marks. The Hawkeyes are solid at right end with senior Dominic Alvis, and junior nose tackle Carl Davis should finally be ready to emerge as a playmaker. Behind those two is a collection of promising but inexperienced players, and it could take weeks for the Hawkeyes to settle on a steady rotation. This unit has the potential be much stronger than it's been the past few seasons, though. "The good news is we have some candidates, and with all the up-tempo stuff it probably doesn't hurt to have that. When you have more inexperienced players they'll probably play a little bit more effectively if we can keep them fresh," Ferentz said.
4. BACKED UP: For once, Iowa should have enough depth to compensate for any injuries at running back. Converted fullback Mark Weisman is healthy and primed for 20 carries a game, and Bullock gives the Hawkeyes some much-needed versatility as a pass catcher and a traditional tailback. Jordan Canzeri might be the fastest back on the team, and he showed during spring ball that he's fully recovered from the knee injury that kept him out in 2012.
5. STARTING STRONG: After finishing with six straight losses in 2012, a strong start is imperative for the Hawkeyes. The good news is that each of their first six games appears winnable, and Iowa gets an extra week to prepare for a daunting trip to Ohio State in the middle of October. The Hawkeyes will also get their say in the division race with Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan set to visit Kinnick Stadium in the second half of the season.