Iowa could be among of the most under understood states in the Union.
Not because it seeks to confuse outsiders with it's cultural complexity like, say, Texas, California or Florida does. Nor is it because it's diminutively disregarded, like a Rhode Island or a Delaware. No, Iowa is under understood because it's more or less an anonymous state. First off, most people don't have a clue where Iowa is on a map. And those that are geographically conscious enough to correctly identify Iowa as the state situated between Minnesota and Missouri probably couldn't supply a single additional insight about the place, although they might be able to filibuster a Jeopardy tryout with inane Minnesota and Missouri trivia.
Years ago when I was at a Florida nightclub on a Spring Break baseball trip I asked a pretty girl wearing a Georgia Bulldogs t-shirt to dance. On the dance floor she asked me where I was from. What ensued was this exchange, which every Iowan is all too familiar:
[dance music blaring in background]
Girl: Where do you go to school?
Me: The University of Iowa.
Girl: I can't hear you. The University of what?
Girl: Oh! Well down here we pronounce that "Ohio."
The University of Iowa football program suffers too from this national anonymity.
I'm convinced the causal college football fan could not tell you much if anything about the Hawkeyes. They may get a single fact straight ("Kurt Warner, right?") and then follow it up with a massive string of confused specifics if not wholesale misidentifications--mistaking Iowa outright for any number of other teams is commonplace on the internet. For example, I've read comments by folks who thought Iowa was Ohio State, Iowa State, Illinois or even Nebraska. (On OTE the other day a couple of posters tried to make a joke about Iowa identity by essentially ridiculing a reputation that is more accurately attributable to Nebraska and Nebraskans.)
As Jim Delany guards the Big Ten's place in the national debate and negotiation for college football's postseason future it's hard to imagine an outcome whereby old fashioned rankings will become--ever--totally discarded. We all know that a full-scale, FCS-type playoff is completely off the table, which means prejudice and personal opinion will continue to soil the sport. Even the most progressive proposal to date--a four-team playoff model--will most assuredly include a rankings provision. (Reading Nick Saban's discussion of this topic in which he utilizes the term self-absorbed people, for me, was one of the most nauseating things I put myself through this year. Well, that, and making and then eating kimchee. Which, for those on a meat and potatoes diet, is a Korean culinary hazing of fermented shrimp and cabbage.) National, and thus mediated perception therefore will continue to be incredibly influential currency in determining the participants in a college football national championship. For as long as perception remains a critical feature of determining college football's post-season participants, then understanding Iowa's place in the ever-changing landscape will also remain essential to
rabid real fans of the Hawkeyes.
Living outside Iowa as I do (NJ, USA) provides me with a quasi-sovereign college football milieu. (Insert Rutgers joke here.) Before the latest iteration of my cable company, finding Big Ten games was...challenging. Thank God for the Big Ten Network! But, if I were a Kansas State fan (which I am, sort of) I'd be completely screwed. Well, not completely, I could pay to see many of their games on a pay-per basis on TV or streaming, although not all games. When I'm occasionally able to talk college football with a college football fan in my daily life I learn their allegiance is, like mine, most often to a team far away. For the most part so-called college football fans in my neck of the woods usually fall into one of the following categories: semi-conscious alums that feign interest in college football when their team is winning wildly; super casual college football fans who use it as a cocktail snack to prep their palate for Sunday football; or, actually passionate but displaced fans (the very smallest percentage are this). My indiscriminate football fan friends only think about college football in the week(s) leading up to the NFL draft and are as likely to watch CFL or Arena football as college football. So it goes without saying that finding people outside of Iowa or the Big Ten footprint that know much, if anything, about Iowa football is folly.
So, thinking nationally, who (or what) exactly is Iowa football?
As we all know, the Hawkeyes are undergoing -- by Iowa standards -- significant upheaval. The coaching staff has been radically altered and with the new Big Ten alignment, scheduling has likewise undergone a massive transformation. As the team transitions into a new, state-of-the-art football practice facility with a team in very much in transition I would like to think I am seeing brighter days ahead. But, still, I am pondering that question: What exactly does the casual public see when they look at Iowa football? I ask because I know it's still important.
One way I like to answer this question is by finding a team to serve, more or less, as Iowa's doppelganger. By looking at another team whose image is very close to the Hawkeyes and with whom I have no emotional investment in, I am able to see things that I might not otherwise see. After minutes, if not tens of minutes, of research to find the perfect subject I've determined the team that suits this exercise best to be the Clemson Tigers.
It wasn't easy finding Iowa's long lost twin and, actually, if one is to go this route they need to be fairly scholarly about it. Which is to say, time should not be wasted on trying to find an identical twin because in statistical comparison you always look big, big picture, so finding a perfect match is unnecessary. (I considered West Virginia briefly as well.) So I looked instead for Iowa's separated-at-birth fraternal twin who was raised by different parents but shares considerable DNA. (N.B.: Identical twins share the same genetic information while fraternal twins share around half). The Clemson Tigers, when employing this kind of criteria, fit nicely enough. I've never followed them by reading box scores or recaps, what I know about their program I know casually at best. For example, I could not tell you the name of their stadium, I'm not sure I could tell you where in S.C. the campus is located, and I cannot name more than a small handful of players in the NFL (if that) who played there. They are to me what Iowa is to many casual football fans.
My first impressions of the Clemson Tigers football program and their performance over the past decade is one of ridiculously talented teams, blandly coached, and lacking any sort of resiliency in important games. Indeed, I learned that in the last three NFL drafts we've seen 15 Tigers drafted, so there definitely appears to be an abundance of talent there. But, upon closer inspection and to my surprise Clemson also wins, and consistently so. The Tigers have won 95 games in the last 12 seasons, or about 8 games a season. Outside of 2004, they've been to a bowl game in every other season over the last 12 years, to include the Orange Bowl last year (BCS); and, they've finished the season ranked inside the A.P. Top 25 six times since 2000. When stacking these accomplishments up against those of the Iowa Hawkeyes in that same time frame, it would be reasonable to conclude that Clemson, when focusing on their football program's success, is the Iowa of the South.
Since 2000, Iowa has won the same exact number of games as Clemson and has played in one fewer bowl game, but in one more BCS bowl. Iowa has finished the season ranked inside the A.P. Top 25 five times to Clemson's six. And, in the past three NFL drafts Iowa has seen 16 players drafted, just one more than the Tigers. Yet, the impression around the country of Iowa--as I am often led to believe by the sports media that shapes college football perception--is that Iowa players are anything but ridiculously talented, the team is skillfully coached (and in the NFL tradition), and the Hawkeyes are a team that wins with grit, determination and super discipline.
So there likely is a national perception difference between Iowa and Clemson, because as an Iowa fan I look at Clemson and think, "We're very different (read: better) than that program." But are we really that different when we are contextualized among all the teams in college football?
I do believe both teams are more successful than the average college football fan or even A.P. voter realizes. But both teams clearly lack a national appeal which allows for anonymity. For example, from a ratings perspective, ESPN likely views both teams in the same light, which is a considerable notch below about 20 to 25 teams (in the Big Ten, Iowa's national appeal is probably in a tie for sixth with Michigan State - well behind Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, and probably Wisconsin. Hell, even on the Big Ten network I see way too many replays of those five teams' games and rarely a replay of an old Iowa game). I am convinced that both Iowa and Clemson have a very serious commitment to football though, one that is greater than a number of teams that are much more celebrated by the media. For example, I think Iowa's commitment and investment in football outweighs some obvious darlings like USC, Oregon, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. Iowa has long spent more money than all those schools on it's coach, it's facilities, supporting personnel, etc. It's debatable and I am sure some will be surprised by that sentence, but in terms of raw dollars it's a fact.
When I look at the two programs and try to understand what might fuel perceptual differences between the Tigers and the Hawkeyes, two things stand out. Clemson has fired a head coach in the past 12 years and they've lost most of their bowl games, to include all their most prestigious bowl games. Changing coaches and losing the last game of the season (especially when prominently televised) will leave a sour taste in the public's mouth. Clemson does not win championships very often either, but neither does Iowa. Last year was the first championship won by the Tigers since 1991. Iowa won back-to-back championships in the Ferentz glory years of 2002 and 2004, but then you have to go back to 1990. And it's worth noting, Clemson is a program that has a National Championship post Sputnik whereas Iowa has not finished the season ranked higher than 7th in the A.P. in that time span. But on the whole I think the two programs probably suffer from the same perceptual challenges, which complicate if not undermine their ability to elevate their national status, despite their enormous investments to improve and excel.
Iowa and Clemson have pretty nice, if not correlated records of accomplishment. Missouri, a team the SEC just gobbled up like found money for reasons I still don't fully understand, for example, would trade histories with both programs in a NASCAR minute. But despite being accomplished programs neither is nationally relevant or even capable of being so, in a way that ensures their significance in a college football landscape that continues to be seduced by perceived rather than earned value.