IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kirk Ferentz knew it would take a major turnaround to get Iowa back to where it 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, who coached at Maine from 1990-92, has taken a team pegged for mediocrity to the Big Ten final 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 was national coach of the year. Ferentz might claim the award again after a season few saw coming after Iowa went 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, it wasn’t entirely surprising that Ferentz fixed the Hawkeyes.

He did it twice before. Ferentz led a program whose talent level 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, then made a national title run the following year.

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. Iowa stuck by Ferentz, no doubt partly because paying his $13 million buyout likely wasn’t viable.

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 changes.

They included naming C.J. Beathard his quarterback. Iowa is 13-0 in games he started. Ferentz moved practices to mornings, hoping to keep his players fresh. Iowa has outscored opponents 183-116 in second halves.

Ferentz has also been much more aggressive, calling for far more fake field goals and punts.