Frailty. On paper, Iowa 2012 isn't a whole lot different from Iowa 2013. Sure, the coaching staff took on some moderate (and beneficial) changes and there's something to be said for bringing back your most impactful players, and by and large that's what Iowa did. At the end of the day, though, the eight-win 2013 Hawkeyes were not terribly different from the four-win 2012 Hawkeyes.
What changed is that Iowa stayed healthy in 2013, especially at its most important positions—LB, QB, and OL. And hey, for once: RB. The troika of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens put together an absolutely mammoth 2013 season, as each player topped 100 tackles and the three combined for 37.5 TFL, 11.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries, 6 picks, six forced fumbles and four fumbles recovered. More importantly, they took over games, plural, most notably Michigan and Nebraska. And on Wednesday, they damn near took over the Outback Bowl.
Similarly, the offensive line went Scherff-Boffeli-Blythe-Walsh-Van Sloten across the board for virtually the entire year (Boffeli didn't get all his starts, but he wasn't out of the starting five for long), and Iowa's rushing offense responded well—or at the very least, it never fell off a cliff like it did in the second half of 2012 when injuries took their toll. Jake Rudock was able to stay upright for most of the year (although obviously we'll have to get to him in a second) and the offense looked good.
Hell, even AIRBHG took the year off.
All of which is to say Iowa was putting its best players and units on the field for damn near the entire season, up to and including the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes came into Wednesday almost completely healthy, but for a lingering knee sprain hampering QB Jake Rudock. And it clearly hampered him in the bowl even before he aggravated it at the end of the third quarter.
And with health on the Hawkeyes' side, they still went 8-5 and got shoved around on both sides of the ball by LSU, who was missing impact players on both sides of the ball.
There's not much inherent shame in being out-athleted (new word alert) by LSU, seeing as how there's, oh... 10? 12? teams in America that can stand toe to toe with the Tigers and Iowa just so happens to be not one of them. The linebackers had themselves a damn day and were often the only ones keeping Iowa close in the game, but by and large it was easy to see who was going to win that game.
And yes, Rudock struggled, and his knee was not healthy even before it became very not healthy. And yes, nobody expects C.J. Beathard to come in cold and demolish all he sees. That's a less than ideal situation.
It's just that LSU had its own less than ideal situation at QB, with Zach Mettenberger out with a torn ACL, and its offense still did just fine. Anthony Jennings was Rudock-esque at QB—7-19, 82 yards, a pick, a few sacks, one decent scramble for a TD—but LSU didn't need him to do anything in the offense except convert a third down or two, and that's what he did.
LSU had a significant talent advantage on Wednesday, and again, that's with Iowa healthier than you can ever ask for. Injuries are too big a part of the game to ever play the "what if we were healthy" card. Nobody's 100% healthy, ever. But Iowa was close and it still got mashed to living hell by the LSU front. It still lost five games. It also still beat Michigan and Nebraska in back-to-back weeks and that was fun, but seeing the Tigers control the line of scrimmage was a cold splash of reality.
Iowa still needs to get better. It needs to recruit better. It needs to get stronger, faster and more athletic. There'll come another day, another year when the injuries pile up, as they often do, and unless you want to chalk those games up as automatic losses, Iowa needs to get better. Because as it stands right now, it took a superhuman (like Wolverine, but the comic books Wolverine, not the Brady Hoke-led Wolverines) ability to keep healthy enough to go 8-4, and that's a frail balance that's one bad plant of a foot away from blowing all to hell. And it still wasn't good enough to go toe-to-toe with a big-time program like LSU.
Shouldn't Iowa be big-time?