IOWA CITY — A very hard truth is staring Iowa Hawkeye fans right in the beak.
Their football program is stuck in a bad place, and no easy fix is evident. Friday's 13-7 loss to Nebraska — the fifth at Kinnick Stadium this season — drilled that home.
The setback was U of I's sixth straight overall, the worst streak since coach Kirk Ferentz's first season 14 years ago. The 4-8 record is the worst in 13 seasons. And the style of play is neither fan- nor recruit-friendly.
This isn't snark or bomb-throwing. What Iowa is doing isn't close to championship-level football. You know it, I know it and everyone around the sport knows it.
More alarming now is that it isn't even winning football.
Iowa is 19-19 over the past three seasons (10-14 in the Big Ten). Of the 19 overall wins, three were against Division I-AA teams. Of the remaining 16, just seven were against foes who posted winning records.
Next year, the Hawkeyes will replace a two-year starting quarterback with one of three backups who has never taken a major-college snap.
The schedule grows more difficult, too.
Lowly Indiana and sanction-saddled Penn State go away. Coming on are Ohio State, a possible 2013 preseason national title pick, and Wisconsin, which has pointed to 2013 for a Big Ten title run.
Now for the ultimate sticking point:
Ferentz can't afford to leave. No one else in football is going to pay the 57-year-old his current annual salary of $3.8 million.
And Iowa can't afford to buy him out. Ferentz's contract calls for a $250,000-a-month payoff into 2020 if fired. The current tab would be between $20 million and $21 million.
Hawkeye fans have plenty of time to consider their plight, with no bowl trip for just the second time in 12 seasons.
Barring some angry booster winning an eight-figure Powerball jackpot and signing the check over to the athletic department, Ferentz isn't going anywhere — even though his salary is No. 6 nationally while his team is No. 69 in the Sagarin rankings, one spot behind I-AA Sam Houston State.
Ferentz told me he's not concerned about the progress or direction of Iowa football.
“Nobody is happy where we're at today,'' he said. “But big picture-wise, no.''
He said he still considers the latter half of the 2006 season, when Iowa lost six of seven games, “the low point'' of his tenure, adding “maybe I'll feel differently at the end of this week.''
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With no change at the top coming, what about re-racking the coaching staff?
“I'm comfortable with everything right now,'' Ferentz said. “That being said, I need to take some time and look at everything, starting with my performance. We have good coaches, good people.''
Hawkeye fans would argue the “good coaches'' comment in regard to offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who was out of football when hired last winter.
Davis had a long run as Mack Brown's right-hand man at Texas. The old joke in the Big 12 was the only thing that could hold the ultra-talented Longhorn offense under 21 points was Davis' play-calling.
With far less difference-maker talent than at Texas, the Iowa offense under Davis and Ferentz looks like something stolen from a 1982 NFL Films retrospective. Off-tackle runs, short passes and conservative decisions abound.
Fifth-year senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who threw 25 touchdown passes and seven interceptions last season, finished this season with seven TDs and eight pickoffs.
More specifically, with 8:47 left Friday and down six points, the Hawkeyes took over at their own 42-yard line with the wind. Three straight off-tackle runs left a fourth-and-3 and started a round of boos. The chorus continued when Ferentz chose to punt, a signal of zero offensive confidence.
General game-management woes also occur far too often.
The biggest head-slapper Friday: After a timeout with 15 seconds left in the first half — after letting about 10 seconds tick away because of confusion — Iowa broke the huddle with 12 players, drawing a 5-yard penalty.
That extra distance didn't help place-kicker Mike Meyer, whose 42-yard field-goal attempt into a 30-mph wind drifted wide left.
Coaches in all sports sell either hope or results. Ferentz has neither right now, which is why some offensive assistant changes seem like a must.
Supporters need a reason to believe the mold will be scraped from a playbook that has Iowa ranked 107th nationally in scoring offense and 113th in total offense out of 124 teams.
Again, lots of time for reflection is available. Maybe, for inspiration, it should be done while listening to the song no college football program wants to hear:
“I'll Be Home for Christmas.''
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>> Video: Nebraska-Iowa postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
>> Video: NU's Bo Pelini after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Rex Burkhead after the Iowa game:
>> Video: NU's Alonzo Whaley after the Iowa game: