IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) Kirk Ferentz knew it would take a major turnaround to get the Iowa Hawkeyes back to where they wanted to be.
Few believed the veteran coach could actually pull it off. That's why the most successful of Ferentz's 17 seasons at Iowa is arguably his most rewarding one.
Ferentz has taken a team pegged for mediocrity to the Big Ten championship game against No. 5 Michigan State (11-1, 7-1) on Saturday, with a playoff spot likely going to the winner.
''We've never ever had any doubt in Kirk Ferentz. He's an unbelievable coach. An unbelievable man to play for,'' tight end Henry Krieger Coble said. ''We're just doing a little better job carrying out the plan.''
More like a lot better. The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes are 12-0 for the first time in school history and 8-0 in the league for the first time since 2002, when Ferentz won national coach of the year honors. Ferentz might claim the award again in a few weeks after a season few saw coming after Iowa went just 34-30 from 2010-14.
''If you have success and then you dip, and then you're able to drive back up to success ... those are the things that amaze me,'' Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
Though it seemed so unlikely back in August, it wasn't entirely surprising that Ferentz fixed the Hawkeyes.
He did it twice before.
Ferentz led a program whose talent level had slipped dramatically at the end of coach Hayden Fry's tenure to three consecutive top-10 finishes from 2002-04. After a three-year dip, Iowa won nine games in 2008 and made a national title run the following year that culminated in their only BCS bowl win.
Before the 2010 season, Iowa gave Ferentz a 10-year deal, priced at roughly $40 million, with a prohibitive buyout clause that was often quoted whenever the Hawkeyes started slipping.
There was a lot of that in the years that followed with the Hawkeyes an afterthought not just in the national title conversation but the Big Ten as well. Iowa stuck by Ferentz, no doubt partly because paying his $13 million buyout likely wasn't a viable option.
Unlike most embattled coaches, Ferentz didn't fire any of his assistants - a decision he joked made him a ''maverick'' given the current coaching landscape.
Instead, Ferentz stood by his coaches and players while implementing a series of small but significant changes that have seemingly all worked out.
''I know in the world we live in right now, walking the plank is really a popular thing,'' Ferentz said. ''Sometimes it's not all what it appears to be....sometimes it's about changing a few things, making some tweaks.''
Those changes included naming C.J. Beathard his quarterback. Iowa is 13-0 in games he has started. Ferentz moved practices to the mornings, hoping to keep his players fresh. Iowa has outscored its opponents 183-116 in second halves this season.
Ferentz has also been much more aggressive offensively, called for far more fake field goals and punts than in recent memory.
''We take a tremendous amount of pride in knowing he's back up there. We knew he was getting a lot of heat after last season - and last season wasn't really his fault,'' sophomore Iowa tackle Boone Myers said.
But the one thing the Hawkeyes always stuck to was their belief in Ferentz, a trait they showed all season by rallying behind him since January.
''I didn't see any major changes, especially personality-wise. He's obviously the same guy he's always been,'' defensive lineman Parker Hesse said. ''But more than the changes we've made, the changes the coaches have made, it's been the changes in the player's attitudes.''
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