2008, Iowa vs. Northwestern: Northwestern wins, 22-17
2010, Iowa at Northwestern: Northwestern wins, 21-17
2010, Iowa at Minnesota: Minnesota wins, 27-24
2011, Iowa at Minnesota: Minnesota 22-21
Four games, four painful Iowa losses. Four games that, had the result gone the opposite direction, might have changed the perception of Iowa football around here (and other corners of the interwebs) both then and now. Four games that Iowa could have won -- and, realistically, should have won. Iowa was unquestionably the better team in the two Minnesota losses, and while Iowa and Northwestern were similar in terms of records in 2008 and 2010, I will believe until my dying breath that those Iowa teams were better than those Northwestern teams (just not, sadly, on the days of those particular games -- or, even more specifically, in those particular fourth quarters). But indulge me in a little bit of Whaf If theorizing here. (And for the purposes of this exercise, I'm going to assume that all other games remain the same; obviously, there's a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that if Iowa wins these games then they go ahead and lose other ones, but for now I'm going to leave the butterfly effect to bad Ashton Kutcher movies.)
2008: Iowa beats Northwestern and goes 9-3 in the regular season. In the real 2008, Iowa went 5-3 and headed to the Outback while Michigan State went 6-2 and went to the Capital One Bowl. Iowa drilled South Carolina in the Smelley Cocks game, while Michigan State lost a close-ish game (24-12) to Georgia in Matthew Stafford's swan song. If Iowa finishes 6-2 instead of 5-3, I don't think it's exactly unreasonable to think that the Capital One Bowl snatches them over Iowa, head-to-head result (a Sparty win) be damned. Could that Iowa team have beaten that Georgia team? I think it's definitely possible: Iowa at the end of 2008 was probably playing as well as at any other point in Ferentz's tenure here, save maybe October-November 2002. Win that game and Iowa's sitting at 10-3 with a win over a top-12 team (and probably hovering around 10-15 themselves).
2010: Iowa beats Northwestern and Minnesota and again goes 9-3 in the regular season. That still isn't good enough to break into the three-way tussle at the top of the standings between Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin and those teams still dutifully go to the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Capital One Bowl. Would a 9-3 Iowa team have jumped a 7-5 Michigan to the Gator and a 7-5 Penn State to the Outback Bowl? I think so, which brings us a third Outback Bowl tilt with Florida in seven years and a chance to avenge the slight of the 2006 Outback Bowl. Between Iowa's general excellence in bowl games under Ferentz and the fact that Florida was a hot mess last year, projecting an Iowa win doesn't seem outlandish. That makes Iowa's 2010 mark 10-3 and brings us to 31-8 in the 08-10 span.
2011: Iowa beats Minnesota and finishes 8-4 in the regular season. Considering we still don't know which bowl we're going to wind up at in the real season, it's really impossible to guess what bowl we might land in for this hypothetical. Not to mention who we might play. Still, a win here erases the single-most gutting loss of the 2011 campaign (the efforts against Penn State, Michigan State, and Nebraska were feeble for too much of the game, but at least those were quality teams; Iowa State was unquestionably a winnable game, but they're certainly nowhere near the tire fire that Minnesota is and/or was for much of this season) and puts Iowa back in line with one of the most common projections for their 2010 final record (8-4).
All of which makes me wonder: how do wins in those games change the perception of Iowa football right now? The animus and frustration that's been (understandably) bubbling over this year is not merely because Iowa went 7-5 and lost to Minnesota and Iowa State or even because they looked particularly bad in some of the losses; it's been building over a string of missed opportunities and underachieving seasons. But is there so much angst if Iowa had gone 31-8 over 2008 to 2010 and put together three 10-win seasons? Does an 8-4 2011 (with only one arguably "bad" loss) feel less disastrous after that run? There's no denying that these four hypothetical wins don't magically change or fix everything. Iowa still doesn't win any more Big Ten titles or go to any additional BCS games. Their overall bowl record stays the same (and, really, even the overall quality of their bowl opposition stays about the same; whatever benefit they gain from playing Georgia instead of South Carolina after the 2008 season is probably washed out by playing Florida instead of Missouri last year). There are still a handful of other painful losses in the mix and 2010 would remain one of the great "missed opportunity" seasons in Iowa history (anything shy of a Big Ten title and/or Rose Bowl appearance was a failure for that season; this hypothetical just diminishes the extent of the disappointment). And yet... 31-8 would feel better, wouldn't it? Three 10-win seasons would feel better, right? Erasing two inexplicable losses (Minnesota x2) would feel better, yeah?
Of course, the cold, hard reality is that we didn't win those games and we can't magically turn those Ls into Ws by snapping our fingers or thinking about it really hard. The point is that, from at least one perspective, Iowa football wasn't that far away from being at a point where we could all be happier with the situation.* (Or at least have more wins to celebrate.) And while you could swap the losses I picked for other losses in each of those years (some other games might even have been more winnable, like 2010 Wisconsin perhaps), I picked those teams for a reason: Iowa's struggles against teams like Minnesota and Northwestern (as well as other teams like that) is why Iowa finds itself with the disappointing records it's had over the last few years. Granted, avoiding the almost-inevitable annual non-conference loss would also help matters**, but Iowa's poor record against the bottom-half of the Big Ten is the bigger problem.
* And I want to be careful to note here that "happier with the situation" does NOT mean that this hypothetical could or should be the upper end of Iowa football's ambition. I want to see Iowa win a national title in my lifetime. I want to see Iowa win more Big Ten titles in my lifetime. I want to see Iowa make it back to the Rose Bowl in my lifetime. None of those dreams would be fulfilled in this hypothetical. This hypothetical is merely about how relatively easy it would have been to make a bad situation far more palatable. It's not meant to suggest that everything would be perfectly hunky-dory if this was how things had played out.
** That's the other secret to Wisconsin's striking success in the W-L column over the last five years. They've played a whopping three non-conference games against BCS foes over that span, all in Madison. By comparison, Iowa has played 10 non-conference games against BCS foes in that span, half at home and half on the road.
Over the last five years, Iowa's done alright against the top-half of the Big Ten (defined as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan), especially in comparison to those teams.
No one aside from Ohio State has been dominant against these teams, so Iowa's .500-ish record is pretty respectable. The problem is what happens when we look at the performance of those teams against the bottom half of the Big Ten (defined as Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana).
Brutal. Iowa has one loss apiece to Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue in that span, but those five combined losses to Minnesota and Northwestern are the real killer.
Of course, you can make a rational argument that, over the last five years, Michigan doesn't deserve to be in the top half of the league and Northwestern doesn't deserve to be in the bottom half of the league. They actually have pretty similar overall records over that span (Northwestern: 36-27, Michigan: 34-28). Even if we put them on an island and remove them from these results, though, it doesn't dramatically change things.
Record against top-half of the Big Ten, 2007-2011 (minus Michigan):
Outside of Ohio State, everyone's sitting around .500 (or worse, in Wisconsin's case).
Record against bottom-half of the Big Ten, 2007-2011 (minus Northwestern):
Even when we take out the three losses to Northwestern, Iowa still doesn't measure up favorably to the other top teams in the league here. Outside of Ohio State, who's had some bizarre misfortune against Purdue in West Lafayette of late, no one here has more than a single loss against the Big Ten's flotsam class -- except Iowa. That is the single biggest reason why Wisconsin and Penn State have been able to average nine wins a seasn over this span and why they have only one season apiece of fewer than nine wins. That's the difference between 7-win seasons and general frustration and 9-10 win seasons and general satisfaction. In 2002-2004, Iowa went 9-1 against Northwestern, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana. Until Iowa can again figure out how to do that again and beat the bottom half of the Big Ten on a regular basis, 7-8 win seasons will remain the norm.