Every season has its defining moments. In good seasons, those are generally positive: Brad Banks' pass to Dallas Clark against Purdue in 2002, Tate to Holloway in 2004, Daniel Murray's kick against Penn State in 2008, Adrian Clayborn's blocked punt against Penn State in 2009, etc. In bad seasons, they tend toward blundering incompetence: The Central Michigan onside kick last year comes to mind. In important years, they can be mixed: Which is the biggest in 2010, Wisconsin's fake punt or the Sash-Hyde interception return against Michigan State? Can we remember the fourth-quarter comeback against Pitt in 2011 without also remembering the implosion against Minnesota?
2013 was absolutely a positive season for the Iowa football program. The Hawkeyes went from a dreadful, moribund 4-8 mark in 2012 to an 8-4 regular season record and a New Year's Day bowl appearance. Iowa has built a core of young talent that should put the program on solid footing for the next two years, and bigger things are likely for 2014 and beyond. Despite the loss of a prominent assistant, the staff looks largely intact and far more comfortable in Kirk Ferentz's system than they were a year ago. The new staff members for this year -- linebackers coach Jim Reid, running backs/special teams coach Chris White, receivers coach Bobby Kennedy, and grad assistant/tight ends coach D.J. Hernandez -- breathed some much-needed life into the program and were key to the considerable improvement in their position groups. There wasn't even an AIRBHG incident this year: No season-ending injuries, no arrests, no academic indigestion.
But when we look back on 2013, what will we remember? Iowa lost four regular season games to teams that were, in the light of the end of the season, clearly and unequivocally better: Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Northern Illinois. Two of those teams played in BCS games, Wisconsin went to arguably the best non-BCS bowl, and NIU was one MAC Championship loss from crashing the BCS itself. On the other hand, the eight teams that Iowa defeated finished worse than the hawkeyes. The win over Iowa State, then far from certain, looks disturbingly close in retrospect. November wins over Michigan and Nebraska, while fun, were against historically prestigious programs beset by injuries and mediocrity in 2013. This season was the first year that Iowa failed to either defeat a ranked opponent or spring an upset as a two-score underdog since 2006. It was also the first season devoid of a soul-crushing upset loss since at least 2003. Iowa beat the teams it was supposed to beat and lost to those it was supposed to lose to. It was so very undramatic of them.
The question marks before this season -- quarterback, wide receiver, defensive line, secondary, the defense in general -- broke Iowa's way. Jake Rudock proved more capable of running the offense -- and running in general -- than last year's lack of playing time had indicated. The expected targets, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz, were supplemented by players like Tevaun Smith and Jake Duzey. Iowa's offense adapted to its personnel, featuring three tight end formations and shifting tempos regularly. Defensively, players like Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis had long-awaited breakthroughs, allowing Iowa's trio of senior linebackers to shine. True freshman Desmond King had become the team's top cornerback by December, and Iowa's shift to the "amoeba" look in passing situations and variety of coverages showed a willingness to adapt that had been lacking for quite some time. The result was typically Iowa: A dominant defense built for plugging the run, zone coverage and outstanding linebacker play, and a run-heavy road grader of an offense doing just enough to get by. This was not a resurrection. It was a return to form.
This is the point in any season where we usually look for narrative and theme, but 2013 has confounded. There is no narrative beyond a team steadily improving to the finish. There is no theme beyond Iowa becoming unusually effective at taking care of its business, devouring lesser opponents and giving superior ones as much as they could handle before eventually succumbing to disparate talent or experience. It was, in one word, pleasantly uneventful.