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So Why Is Iowa A Popular Upset Pick This Week?

If you travel outside the boundaries of BHGP (a scary prospect, I understand), you might have noticed something a little odd the last few days: namely, that Iowa is a kinda sorta trendy upset pick this week.  Yes, the same Iowa team that just lost to Minnesota.  lolwut?

First there was Graham at Dr. Saturday:

GRAHAM WATSON: Iowa (+3.5) over Michigan.
Iowa is better than the team that inexplicably lost to Minnesota last week — the Hawkeyes outgained the Gophers by 75 yards, missing a pair of field goals and blowing two other opportunities inside the Minnesota 35-yard line in a one-point loss — and it will be motivated against a Michigan team in the midst of its best season since 2006. But now the schedule gets real. The Hawkeyes are at home, control their own destiny in the convoluted Big Ten race and (most importantly) are trying to keep coach Kirk Ferentz off the hot seat.

Running back Marcus Coker, who had 252 yards and two scores last week in a losing effort, could be in line for another big game against a defense that's yielded more 200 yards on the ground twice already this season. If the running game can get going, it will open up opportunities for Marvin McNutt Jr., the Hawkeyes all-time leading receptions leader, to have a big game against the Wolverines' paper-thin secondary.

And then there was CNNSI's Stewart Mandel:

No. 13 Michigan (7-1) at Iowa (5-3)
UPSET SPECIAL: Coming off a humiliating loss to Minnesota, it's clear the Hawkeyes are a far cry from their 11-2 Orange Bowl team of two years ago. The Wolverines -- who went 5-7 that year -- are notably improved, particularly on defense. But here's guessing the Hawkeyes have one last mini-upset in them. This would be very Ferentz-esque on the heels of the Minnesota loss.

And ESPN's Mark Schlabach:

Kind of like last week's upset pick of Georgia Tech over Clemson, there's seemingly little reason to pick Iowa to beat No. 13 Michigan at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. But the Hawkeyes have beaten the Wolverines in their past two meetings, scoring 68 points and gaining 750 yards in those victories. The Wolverines had nine turnovers in their past two games against Iowa. .... Iowa will have to do a better job stopping the run, after giving up 178 yards in the loss to the Gophers. The Hawkeyes are averaging 39.2 points per game at home, and tailback Marcus Coker, who had a career-high 252 rushing yards in last week's game, will find plenty of room to run against Michigan's defense in a close victory.

And even Phil Steele:


57th meeting and Iowa has never beaten UM 3 str times. Iowa is 4-8 in series but UM has dropped 2 of their L/3 trips to Iowa City incl ‘09 (28-30) when they were -4 in TO’s (-8 L2Y). LY UI led UM 35-14 early 4Q holding on for the win despite being outFD’d (-8) and outgained (-139) but did have a 4-0 TO edge. Vanilla Hawks D has traditionally struggled vs mobile QB’s (ssn’s worst pts and yd ttls vs ISU, NW and Indy TY) with Minny QB Gray running for 2 crucial 4Q 4D conversions including the gm winning TD with 2:48 left LW. The Hawks had 21-15 FD and 446-371 yd edges but missed 2 FG’s and fmbl’d at the UM14 ruining RB Coker’s huge gm (252, 7.9). UM dominated PU scoring 36 straight pts and finishing with a 535-311 yd edge. QB D-Rob (178, 55%, 11-11, 825 rush) may’ve found a RB who can share the rush load as Toussaint had 170 (8.5) vs the Boilers. Wolves are #1 B10 in rush D in conf play allowing 121 ypg (4.1). Hawks have a huge ST edge (#23-111) and are 59-12 at home since 2001.


Even the evil computers seem to like us: WhatIfSports has Iowa a 28-27 winner.

So what's the deal?  These are not Iowa partisans; these are (theoretically) objective media folks... and yet this is more optimism for a Hawkeye win than you're likely to find around here or any Iowa message board.  So what's the deal?  Here are a few potential theories.

1) We're simply too close to the situation to be objective.

We're fully strapped into the rollercoaster that is Iowa football; we're there for all the highs and all the lows and we experience them more acutely than anyone else -- particularly the losses.  So last week's Minnesota loss really stings for us.  It lingers.  It festers.  It colors our perception of the team, the season, the entire program.  It doesn't help that we can draw such clear parallels between this loss and other recent losses.  And we remember all too well what happened twelve months ago, when losses like this snowballed and created a November nightmare.

Maintream media types, on the other hand, saw the score, looked at the box score, read the recap and said "Huh.  That was a weird game.  Just one of those days for Iowa, I guess."  They see an Iowa team that's looked good on the stat sheets (in some regards: on offense, at home), that has a decent record, and that's at home against a Michigan team whose most recent roadtrip was a humbling rivalry loss to Michigan State.  They see an Iowa team that's been markedly better at home than on the road and that isn't defined by one giant stinkbomb of a game.  They see three losses and see that they're to Minnesota, Iowa State (an OT road loss to rival who just depantsed the same Texas Tech team that knocked off Oklahoma in Norman the week before) and Penn State (a surprisingly good team that's atop the non-Iowa division in the Big Ten).

2) They haven't really paid attention to this year's Iowa team.

On the other hand, maybe they just have no idea what they're talking about.  Schlabach talks about the nine turnovers that Iowa's forced against Michigan the last two years, but this year's Iowa team has only forced 11 turnovers (6 INT, 5 FR) in eight games -- and just four turnovers total in their first four league games.  That leaky run defense he mentions wasn't just a one-game aberration against Minnesota: they're 8th in the Big Ten and they've given up 150+ to every Big Ten team they've played, even though three of those teams (Indiana, Minnesota, Penn State) rank in the bottom half of the league in rushing offense.

3) They're relying on irrelevant historical trends.

Iowa's won two years in a row against Michigan.  So?  That has little effect on this year's game.  Or the notion that Iowa just manages to pull one really good game out of its ass every year and spring an upset on a higher-ranked team.  Sure, it's happened four years in a row now -- Illinois in 2007, Penn State in 2008 and 2009, Michigan State last year -- but that doesn't guarantee anything.  It doesn't guarantee that Iowa will have another such game this year, or that if they do, it will be against Michigan (Michigan State and Nebraska would also fit the bill).  Reliance on that sort of historical "trend" is the sort of decision that makes Vegas bookmakers rub their hands together with glee more often than not.

* * *

Then again, what's an upset pick but a shot in the dark or a gut feeling, really?  There are statistical reasons to think Iowa can pull off the upset tomorrow.  Historical trends and narratives ("Iowa bounces back after a tough loss!") aren't always true -- but sometimes they are.  And, frankly, sometimes as fans we really do get too caught up in the moment -- and the narratives we construct around those moments.  So not only was last week's loss the ZOMG WORST GAME EVER, but the fact it matched a number of other data points in our data set (2011 Iowa State, 2010 Minnesota, 2010 Northwestern, etc.) only furthered our "sky is falling / the coaches have lost the plot / this team is doomed" narrative.

I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, or the rest of the season.  If I did, I wouldn't be talking to you -- I'd be putting down a lot of money at a Vegas sportsbook and getting rich.  I think there are a lot of reasons why Iowa could lose tomorrow.  I think there are a few reasons why Iowa could win tomorrow.  I think there are reasons to think that Iowa might go 0-4 the rest of the way.  I think there are far fewer reasons to think that they'll go 4-0 the rest of the way.  But I don't know.  And you don't know.  And these writers don't know.  I do know that games aren't played on paper*, that results don't always go according to the most plausible script, and that chaos has a way of sneaking up and surprising teams in college football.  Embrace chaos.  Give unpredictability a big ol' hug. 

* Although maybe we do want this game to be played on paper, if the cold hard WhatIfSports numbers have us winning... Then again, according to them we should be 7-1 with our only loss to Pitt.

I'd love to know what kind of odds I could have gotten on Iowa losing to Minnesota last week and Iowa State beating Texas Tech on the road by 30.  50:1?  100:1?  200:1?  And yet both of those things wound up happening.  I hate to keep sounding like a fortune cookie, but the future remains unwritten.  The Minnesota loss happened, it sucked**, we've unleashed a lot of bile and angst about it... but it guarantees nothing for the rest of the season.  We will, inevitably, retroactively assign it some level of currently unforseeable importance: it will be either the unmistakable  harbinger of the end times (if Iowa goes 0-4 the rest of the way), or the spark that ignited an improbable November run to Indianapolis (in the rather unlikely event Iowa goes 4-0) or, most boringly, perhaps just the lowest point in a mediocre, up and down season (if Iowa ends up with 6-7 wins).  But we're historians, not soothsayers: we can only write about history after it's happened -- we're powerless to predict what will happen.

** Trust me, as someone living in the Twin Cities, I know this as well as anyone.

When the final whistle blows on this season -- whether that's on Black Friday three weeks from now, or at the end of December in some anonymous bowl game, or even in January at some rather less anonymous bowl game -- we'll try to figure out what happened.  We'll analyze what went right and we'll dissect what went wrong, we'll apportion blame (and maybe even credit, if it's due anyone).  We'll construct a narrative of the season and figure out what went wrong and when it went wrong and why it went wrong and how it impacted the rest of the season.  And we'll figure out how that narrative fits with the narratives we've constructed for past seasons and maybe we'll find that the events of this season have retroactively rewritten the narratives of some of those past seasons.  But we can't do any of that now.

And this is not meant to be a (rather long-winded) way of trying to put a lid on criticism.  Venting is fine. Lamenting plays gone wrong or bad decisions is fine.  Questioning decisions made (or not made) is fine.  But just try to remember that, for now, the big picture is still a mystery.  I've lost sight of this myself at times -- the title of my Minnesota recap was "Welcome to the Queso Bowl," after all.  The college football season is not a Rube Goldberg machine, where the triggering of one event guarantees that some other event will happen down the line.  Each game is, instead, a (mostly) discrete event from which actions unfold according to the specific conditions present at that moment and from the decisions made at that time.   As such, it surprises and baffles us, week after week.  Sometimes the surprises are miserabe ("Surprise!  You just lost a 3OT game to Iowa State!"  "Congratulations, you just to Minnesota!"), and sometimes they're not ("Surprise!  You just manhandled Michigan State!"  "Wow, you just came back from 18 points down in a quarter and a half!").

Look, I fully get why people are upset.  I understand why people are bitter and frustrated.  I have been there -- or still am there -- myself.  I'm tired of losing to Minne-goddamn-sota and Iowa State and Northwestern and struggling to beat Indiana.  I get all that.  I really, truly, honestly do.  I get why people are convinced Iowa will lose tomorrow (if you put a gun to my head, I'd pick an Iowa loss too) and why they could go 0-4 in November (hell, I laid out reasons for that in the Minnesota recap).  If you feel that way, I don't blame you.  But why not try -- for the next four games, or at least tomorrow's game -- to put all that aside and accept that college football is a chaotic, fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable sport.  Yes, it's easy to say this when you're expected to lose, but it's still true.  Set aside the bitterness, the resentment, and the "guaranteed" loss(es) that is (are) on the horizon.  You don't have to start drinking any kool-aid or become wildly optimistic (or even plain old optimistic) -- just open yourself up to possibility.  And we'll see what happens tomorrow.